Anti-fracking activist barred from 312.5 square miles of Pennsylvania

Jan 29, 2014 by

 

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Vera Scroggins, an outspoken opponent of fracking, is legally barred from the new county hospital. Also off-limits, unless Scroggins wants to risk fines and arrest, are the Chinese restaurant where she takes her grandchildren, the supermarkets and drug stores where she shops, the animal shelter where she adopted her Yorkshire terrier, the bowling alley, the recycling center, the golf club, and the lake shore.

In total, 312.5 square miles are no-go areas for Scroggins under a sweeping court order granted by a local judge that bars her from any properties owned or leased by one of the biggest drillers in the Pennsylvania natural gas rush, Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation.

“They might as well have put an ankle bracelet on me with a GPS on it and be able to track me wherever I go,” Scroggins said. “I feel like I am some kind of a prisoner, that my rights have been curtailed, have been restricted.”

The ban represents one of the most extreme measures taken by the oil and gas industry to date against protesters like Scroggins, who has operated peacefully and within the law, including taking Yoko Ono to frack sites in her bid to elevate public concerns about fracking.

It was always going to be an unequal fight when Scroggins, now 63, made it her self-appointed mission five years ago to stop fracking in this, the richest part of the Marcellus Shale.

Just how unequal became clear on Oct. 21 when the case of Cabot v. Scroggins came before a local judge, Kenneth Seamans, in the Montrose courthouse.

Cabot turned up with four lawyers and nine witnesses, employees of the company and the firm it hired to provide security. Scroggins represented herself. She told the court she had been unable to find a lawyer as the hearing had been called on 72 hours’ notice.

By the time the hearing was over, the judge had granted Cabot a temporary injunction barring Scroggins from all property owned or leased by the company.

“It is hereby ordered that Ms Scroggins is restrained, enjoined, and prohibited from entering upon property owned and/or leased by Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation including but not limited to well sites, well pads, and access roads,” the injunction reads.

The effect of that ban is far broader than the dry legal language would suggest.

In court filings, Cabot said it holds leases on 200,000 acres of land, equivalent to 312.5 square miles. That amounts to nearly 40 percent of the largely rural county in northeastern Pennsylvania where Scroggins lives and where Cabot does most of its drilling.

The temporary injunction does not require Cabot to identify or map the lands where it holds drilling leases, putting Scroggins in the bizarre position of having to figure out for herself which areas were off-limits.

Cabot later offered to limit the scope of its exclusion order in court filings seeking to make the injunction permanent. The next hearing on that injunction is scheduled for March 24.

Scroggins, who now has a lawyer, is fighting to overturn the injunction.

Until then, each trip Scroggins makes outside her home requires a calculation about whether her route will take her on lands or roads leased to Cabot, or a visit to the courthouse to pore over property records.

“We need a map. We need to know where I can and can not go,” she said. “Can I stop here, or can I not stop here? Is it OK to be here if I go to a business or if I go to a home? I have had to ask and check out every person I go to: ‘Are you leased to Cabot?’”

Many of those businesses are, it turns out. Susquehanna County is one of the most active areas in Pennsylvania’s natural gas rush. Eight of the top 10 most productive gas wells are in the county, according to an industry newsletter. All eight belong to Cabot.

Environmental groups say the court — and Cabot — went too far.

“It seems to be an extraordinarily heavy-handed reaction by industry and one which was extremely out of proportion to what she has been doing,” said Kate Sinding, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Campaigners claim other overreactions by industry and police against fracking opponents — such as the arrest last December of two protesters in Oklahoma for “terrorism hoax” after they unfurled a banner and dropped glitter on the floor of an office tower owned by Devon Energy.

But Scroggins’ lawyer, George Kinchy, says this was the first time to his knowledge that a company has used the full weight of the law against a single activist.

He also said Cabot was lucky Scroggins was not represented by a lawyer at the hearing.

The company was not pressed to demonstrate the gas leases gave it the right to make such absolute decisions about access. “They have no proof that they had the right to exclude her. They didn’t present evidence of leases that gave them the right to treat the property as their own,” he said.

A compressor station in Montrose and Dimock, Penn.
William Avery Hudson
A compressor station in Montrose and Dimock, Penn.

Cabot refused several requests to respond, beyond a brief email statement from spokesperson, George Stark. “Cabot has a policy of not commenting specifically on litigation to which it is a party,” the statement reads. “That being said, Cabot supports an individual’s right to free speech and regrets having to seek relief from the court in order to prevent Ms Scroggins from repeatedly trespassing on company property, where she could potentially jeopardize the safety of herself and others.”

However, the company arranged for Tom Shepstone, a consultant who blogs at Natural Gas Now, to speak on its behalf. Shepstone said the injunction was overdue.

“I’m proud of Cabot and what they’ve done because they’re saying we’re not going to take this any longer,” he said.

Cabot in court filings does not accuse Scroggins of violence or of causing harm to property, and she has never been arrested or charged with trespass. She has not chained herself to machinery, or staged sit-ins.

But Shepstone argued Scroggins had upset too many people to be tolerated. “I believe she is a public menace because what she does is she essentially trespasses not so much on property — though she does do that — but she trespasses on the soul of the community,” he said. “She does not allow the people of this community any peace.”

In the five years since fracking came to northeastern Pennsylvania, Scroggins has been relentless in trying to exposing the risks associated with the industry.

Scroggins and her then husband moved to this very rural area of Pennsylvania from Long Island, N.Y., more than 20 years ago, when their children were small. After various careers, Scroggins, now a grandmother, considers herself a full-time activist.

She has visited frack sites — posting up to 500 videos on YouTube. She has called in health and environmental regulators at perceived violations, and she has organized bus tours of frack sites for anyone who is interested — from Yoko Ono and Susan Sarandon to visiting Canadian elected officials.

None of that activity by Scroggins or other activists was illegal, or presented a public danger, according to Jason Legg, the district attorney for Susquehana County.

“I don’t recall any major protests or people trespassing on any property,” he said.

Even by Cabot’s own admission, in court testimony last October, Scroggins seems to have been more nuisance than danger. Her biggest and most repeated offense, according to court testimony, appears to have been parking her car on access roads — and at times even on the narrow public county roads — at angles that required the big water tankers to swerve around her.

Scroggins, who does not appear adverse to confrontation, was also insistent on talking to personnel on site. But in every instance cited by Cabot witnesses, she left the area within five or 10 minutes — sometimes after they threatened to call police.

By 2011, those repeat visits to gas sites made Scroggins public enemy No. 1, so far as Cabot was concerned.

Cabot’s security contractor, Northeast Diversified Services, told the court it had posted photographs of Scroggins in their guards’ campers, and had been following the activist since 2011.

“Yes, we follow you, yes, from site to site,” the company’s Vice President Thomas Tolan told the court.

Scroggins wasn’t winning friends in the community either. There are landowners in Susquehana County who have made money off leasing their land to Cabot and other gas companies for fracking. “The consensus is basically that it has been a lifeline to an area that was struggling,” Legg said.

In a small town like Montrose, population 1,600, Scroggins’ forceful brand of activism appears to have been too much for some — though she has a strong core of supporters.

In a recent visit to the courthouse to check on Cabot leases, she was scolded by a court official just for striking up a conversation with the person beside her at the counter.

A few minutes later, Thomas Meagher, the county solicitor, said Scroggins brought her legal problems down on herself by failing to following the “unwritten rules” of civilized discourse.

Scroggins rejects the idea that “nice” has anything to do with it. “I am doing this as nicely as I feel is warranted. I have other concerned citizen friends who play passive and they don’t get anything done more than I do. They are just in the background,” she said. “They are playing passive and nobody even hears about them. Those who want to play that womanly role, they can play it. I don’t have to.”

As for Cabot and her critics in the community, “They can just get used to it,” Scroggins said.

This story first appeared on The Guardian as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Suzanne Goldenberg is the U.S. environment correspondent of the Guardian.

6 Comments

  1. Hugh Kimball

    I was in a small group given a tour of the area by Ms. Scroggins a few years ago. Having met her and knowing the kind of person she is, I believe she is NOT a threat to anyone. OK, if she is not supposed to trespass on land owned by Cabot, she is violating the law and I can see the logic of an injuction to keep her off their land and perhaps even away from operating facilities. But the restrictions imposed by Seamans are not reasonable nor fair. How is she to know every piece of land leased by Cabot? And, if those who have leased allow her on THEIR land or to visit them in their homes, what right can a leasholder have to prevent that? I would hope this decision is appealed to a higher court and that relief is granted and that “Judge” Seamons is harshly criticized for his unjust decision.

  2. Margie Rodgers

    This proves that Cabot and the gas industry are BULLIES! Shame on the judge who has imposed this ridiculous penalty. They have strong-armed a woman who opposes them and has done NOTHING illegal by using big-gun lawyers (4!!) and by keeping her away from their operations, the grocery store, drug store, etc. You know what this proves? That Vera and all of us activist are doing is exposing their dirty little secrets and they are frightened. So, Vera may not be able to go on their property, but I say let’s keep exposing them. Their bullying is exactly why I don’t want the gas industry anywhere near me. What thugs!

  3. Diana Wright

    “None of that activity by Scroggins or other activists was illegal, or presented a public danger, according to Jason Legg, the district attorney for Susquehana County. “I don’t recall any major protests or people trespassing on any property,” he said. Even by Cabot’s own admission, in court testimony last October, Scroggins seems to have been more nuisance than danger.” What do you suppose Cabot is so afraid of that they have resorted to this level of bullying? This will only bring more attention to the issue and motivate more activists to get involved. “But Shepstone argued Scroggins had upset too many people to be tolerated. “I believe she is a public menace because what she does is she essentially trespasses not so much on property — though she does do that — but she trespasses on the soul of the community,” he said. “She does not allow the people of this community any peace.” This is so outrageous, the soul of the community? What have the gas and oil companies been doing for decades? Have they not ripped apart the soul of communities by poisoning their water, polluting their air, making them sick, forcing them into expensive litigation and then inflicting gag orders on them for accepting agreements to get clean drinking water from them? If the same rules of justice were imposed on Cabot that were imposed on Ms Scroggins, they wouldn’t be allowed in this Country!!! Good for you Vera. You get ’em girl!!!

  4. Joanne Corey

    No one should be subject to legal restraint for breaking “unwritten rules” or exercising free speech, even if some people or a business feels wounded in their “soul.” It’s also ridicuclous that Cabot has taken total rights to the land they leased. Cabot should not be able to say who can go to a business, public building, or home, just becuase they have leased the mineral rights. I’m glad an attorney has come to Vera’s aid, but am sorry that the injunction has to be in place for six months before it comes before the court again.

  5. Becky

    Finding out about this made me very upset. It is a blatant violation of the Constitution and Bill of Rights to kick a woman who broke no laws out of a county. Offending the “soul” of the town? What kind of legal basis does that have? What has Pennsylvania become…North Korea? Iran? I think she should fight this all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. Companies can’t own whole towns and take away basic Constitutional rights. Any police officer in that area should refuse to enforce that ruling because it is unconstitutional much like many police are refusing to enforce the SAFE Act for the same reason. We are fast becoming a dictatorship. It seems this fracking company regards her as a great threat because the truth may come out. Perhaps she will get her slot on 60 minutes soon. I hope so.

  6. Lij Lij Briggy

    Well, a gas company comes into court with 4 lawyers in a community where big landowners are leasing land , against a grandmother who’s lived in this community for 20 years, with no lawyer because she needed one in 72 hours. I wish I could get a court case that fast when I was having legal problems. That’s the first indication of who’s side is on Cabot Oil. This “judge” shouldn’t be on the bench. Anyone check and see if this “judge” has connections in any way to Cabot?What about the trespassing of all the chemicals , methane gas flaring, waste water and trucks on the roads and under neighbor’s houses? Of course that kind of trespassing along with noise and dust pollution bothering people, isn’t a menace? This is clearly a judge and county that is pro fracking , going after one person. I hope more and more people now stand up to this “judge” and get rid of him , then stand up to this nasty oil and gas company. Why are they strong arming one person? Because they want to set an example. The law is their law. It disgusts me how these so called “people” treat a woman who is only trying to stop a filthy and dangerous activity to continue. You want to talk about terrorism, I believe this gas company are the terrorists, ruining land, water, air and roads for their profits and muscling anyone who gets in their way.

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