Seneca Lake Defenders Find Inspiration in Pope Francis

Defenders of Seneca Lake are arrested as they read Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical (Photo from We Are Seneca Lake)

Originally published on EdenKeeper

In just two months, Pope Francis’s encyclical, “Praised Be: On Care for Our Common Home,” has inspired a lot of good for the environment. Large religious groups divested their holdings from fossil fuel companies. Rabbis came together to promote wind power. Organizations as large as the Girl Scouts, and as small as individual congregations, have made positive changes inspired by the pope’s words.

But something surprising happened this morning as 19 activists read verses from the encyclical in Seneca Lake, New York. They were arrested.

The activists are part of the We Are Seneca Lake group that is working to shut down a massive storage site for fracked natural gas at Seneca Lake and prevent it from expanding. They are local farmers and vintners, doctors and lawyers, people of faith, and people of action. They have pledged to protect the lake and prevent the destruction and poisoning of water, air, and food systems. And they are not afraid of the consequences of upholding that pledge.

A Beautiful Site for Fracked Gas Storage

Seneca Lake is the second longest of the eleven Finger Lakes in Upstate New York. Its provides potable water for approximately 100,000 people in the surrounding area, as well as plays host to lake trout and Atlantic Salmon. Its shores have seen the coming and going of Iroquois tribes, military training grounds, salt mines, and countless tourists who visit to enjoy the beautiful lake, the delicious food, and the local wine.

Now Seneca Lake is becoming ground zero of the battle between our planet’s old way of life and a newer, greener, more sustainable world.

Although environmental groups persuaded Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ban hydro-fracking in New York late last year, fracked gas is still present in the state as part of the nationwide distribution system. Crestwood Midstream Partners, a Texas-based corporation, currently stores the gas in emptied-out salt caverns at Seneca Lake. The corporation is seeking New York’s approval to store 88 million gallons of propane as well.

If New York approves Cretwood’s plan, a 14-acre open-pit for holding brine, a 60-foot flare stack, a six-track rail site, and a truck depot would be built along the lake’s shores near Watkins Glen. According to an article in The Nation, “as many as 32 rail cars at a time would cross a 75-year-old trestle that spans one of the country’s natural wonders, the Watkins Glen gorge, its shale sides forming steep columns down which waterfalls cascade.”

While industrializing the site is bad enough, Crestwood’s plan could put Seneca Lake drinking water in jeopardy, emit toxic and carcinogenic organic compounds, and jeopardize the fish, bird, and animal populations. This isn’t just an environmental problem. It is a problem for everyone who lives and does business around Seneca Lake.

The Battle at the Lake Inspired by Pope Francis

Activists with the We Are Seneca Lake campaign have pledged to stop Crestwood and wear their arrests — if not as a badge of honor — as a token of their commitment to defend Seneca Lake. Since the campaign began ten months ago, 359 of these “defenders” have been arrested for civil disobedience. The demonstrations have different themes, and a total of 71 have been arrested as part of the encyclical-themed blockades at the Crestwood facility that have occurred on July 7, July 20, August 4, August 13, and August 18.

“In the Episcopal church, we often end our service with the words, ‘Send us into the world to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve,’” said Reverend Lesley Adams, the retired chaplain of Hobart and William Smith Colleges and current resident of Schuyler County. “My work today is to resist Crestwood. I just don’t feel I can sit idly by while Crestwood fills unstable, unlined salt caverns under Seneca Lake with highly pressurized flammable material. If there are fiery explosions killing people or huge increases of salinity killing fish and plants, and I have not worked to prevent it, how will I be able to live with my conscience?”

Robyn Wishna was arrested during the demonstration on August 4th as Reverend John D. Elder read the Pope’s encyclical. The 13 defenders who formed the blockade that day were all arrested.

“I am here because I got a 192-page email from the Pope a few weeks ago — and he was pretty pissed off about the state of the environment,” she explained. “He also wanted to know who was the ignoramus who ever thought of storing gas in old salt caverns under Seneca Lake. Pope Francis thinks this is insane and I am here because I agree. I never thought I would share sentiments with any Pope but Francis is right on. Clean water is a human right that I am willing to defend.”

What Does the Future Hold for Seneca Lake

The We Are Seneca Lake campaign is only getting stronger. Media attention is growing as the numbers arrested during peaceful demonstrations continue to increase. This is not something Crestwood and New York State should ignore. Peaceful demonstrations have defeated entrenched economic and political systems such as apartheid and segregation in the South. And Cuomo has already acknowledged New York’s opposition to fracking.

Tomorrow night, August 19, as those arrested appear and are arraigned at the Reading Court, We Are Seneca Lake is hosting a press conference to show their support for the brave defenders of Seneca Lake. Filmmaker and fellow New Yorker Josh Fox, who directed the Oscar-nominated film Gasland, will join them. He was arrested on May 13, 2015. If you’re in the area, join them. If you’re not, follow their cause on Facebook and be sure to spread the word.

You may not live near Seneca Lake, but, according to Pope Francis, what happens there does affect our common home.

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