Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Legislature won't rescind; protesters heckle Fagan

Odessa File: Legislature won't rescind; protesters heckle Fagan


LPG storage protesters march up Watkins Glen's Franklin Street from Seneca Harbor Park to the Schuyler County Courthouse.

Legislature won't rescind; protesters heckle Fagan

WATKINS GLEN, July 15 -- The Schuyler County Legislature Monday night turned back an effort to rescind its June 9th vote favoring the Crestwood LPG gas storage plan, and in the process triggered an angry response by protesters waiting outside the County Building. The crowd had gathered there after a rally of more than 300 people at Seneca Harbor Park and a march up Franklin Street.

The vote was 5-3, with Michael Lausell -- who introduced the rescindment measure -- Barb Halpin and Van Harp voting in favor. Chairman Dennis Fagan and Legislators Tom Gifford, Stewart Field, Phil Barnes and Jim Howell voted against it.

After the meeting, as the legislators were leaving, the crowd outside peppered Fagan with shouts of "Shame on You! Shame on You!" and "Fagan Must Go! Fagan Must Go!" as he made his way from the building to the parking lot and his car. According to witness accounts, he was first accosted by one angry man who was soon joined by a swarm of protesters -- one of whom grabbed Fagan's shirt sleeve. A couple of men with cooler heads interceded, and a deputy escorted the Chairman clear of the crowd. When he reached his car, a small group of protesters were still hurling epithets, and he turned to engage one man in a brief debate before saying, "I can sleep at night." He then entered his car and drove away.

Legislator Harp (pictured at right) -- who had voted in favor of the June resolution but this time voted for it to be rescinded -- also encountered some resistance. Witnesses said he was surrounded by three or four people in the lot, and that one shoved him before he shoved back and then broke clear. One observer, noting Harp's career as an FBI agent, said the protester's shove "wasn't very smart."

Legislator Gifford was accosted by one woman, but intercession by a local minister freed him to go to his car without further incident.

Where last month's meeting had attracted about 250 people, nearly 200 of whom were admitted to an alternate meeting site -- the second-floor courtroom in the County Building -- the meeting this time was held in the small, first-floor legislative chambers, which holds about 40 spectators at the maximum.

In those tight quarters, legislators heard a number of arguments in favor of rescinding the June resolution. Those comments, Lausell said later, prompted his proposal to rescind. After he made a motion along those lines, there was silence for several seconds before Harp seconded the motion. Harp later said he did so because he was impressed by the "excellent points this evening, articulated well," and because he thinks the county's emergency preparedness plan "needs to be vetted. I think we should hold on a little bit longer."

The Crestwood plan calls for the storage of Liquefied Petroleum Gas in salt caverns north of Watkins Glen, on the west side of Seneca Lake.

Halpin, who had opposed the June resolution, spoke in favor of rescinding it, and voted accordingly. But Howell (pictured at right), who opposed the June resolution, voted against rescinding it -- explaining later that he was "tired of the personal attacks from the Gas Free Seneca camp" against Fagan and other legislators."It's time to move forward," he said. "I hope the personal attacks will end, and that this will bring the community back together."

Several in the audience said it was obvious by the outpouring of support at the June meeting and at Monday's rally -- which featured speeches and songs in support of the natural beauty of the region and the perceived dangers of industrialization -- that the legislators were not heeding their constituents. Legislator Gifford said his constituents supported the June move, prompting one wag in the audience to ask which constituents he was referring to, considering he only received a couple of dozen votes in the last election, which he lost to Howell. Gifford remains on the Legislature this year in the final year of a term that predated the ongoing, phased-in redistricting process.

Speakers in support of rescinding included Gas Free Seneca co-founder Joseph Campbell, retired Methodist pastor Gary Judson -- who read part of a five-page list of demands prepared by the Concerned Citizens of Schuyler County (its entirety can be read by clicking here) -- and former Cayuga Medical Center CEO Rob Mackenzie (pictured below), who read a lengthy statement regarding his experiences in developing safety procedures. Those led Cayuga Medical Center to be ranked in 2010 by Consumer Reports, he said, as "the safest hospital -- large or small -- in New York State."

"In the case of LPG storage," he said, "it's no secret that significant safety concerns continue to be raised by many county residents and some outside experts. I am no expert in liquid propane, but I am an expert in the design and management of safety practices. I submit that your duty as legislators, in watching over the life and health of God's creatures in this county, is the same as that of the leaders ... at NASA, at Cayuga Medical Center and at Schuyler Hospital.

"As every one of those organizations -- and now GM -- has learned, it's not a question of balancing safety issues against economics, politics, car sales, or the country's need for fossil fuel or nuclear power. Somehow those other priorities just don't seem to matter after a disaster. Our highest duty is to listen to, support, and validate those who raise safety concerns, even if that costs time or money. Then, if -- God forbid -- a crash or explosion ever does occur and that liability suit is brought, sound safety practice is our best defense, individually and collectively

"I'm not suggesting a Cuomo-style moratorium for years and years. But last month I came here to respectfully request that you approve Mr. Lausell's timely resolution to work on safety before the horse is out of the barn. It's still not too late to do that. Please rescind Mr. Fagan's premature resolution until the ethical and safety concerns which have been legitimately raised can be calmly aired and equitably resolved to everyone's reasonable satisfaction."

He added later -- after Lausell (pictured at right) had mentioned, as an example of unexpected disasters, the Ithaca tragedy involving a tractor trailer carrying a load of cars that crashed into a restaurant, killing an employee inside -- that "there are failures that will happen" in the storage of LPG, "and of a magnitude potentially significantly greater" than the Ithaca accident.

But the legislative majority didn't seem to agree with his conclusion. After the vote, Hector resident Marie Fitzsimmons asked the legislators: "What would it take to convince you" of the rightness of the protesters' arguments?. She was told by Legislator Barnes: "You're talking to the wrong group. We have no say in the process. You need to go to Albany. The paperwork is on the governor's desk." (It is the contention of Fagan and others that the Department of Environmental Conservation has already given its blessing to the cavern plan, and that Governor Andrew Cuomo is holding an announcement until after the November elections for political purposes. Gas Free Seneca's Campbell has disputed that, saying DEC officials have informed him the process is still ongoing and that no determination has been made.)

Before the session ended, a woman aligned with the protesters invited Fagan and other legislators to meet with and speak to the group waiting outside. "They're a kind and friendly group," she said.


Other notes:

-- After the Legislature session and the heckling and shoving that followed, a speaker addressing the remaining protesters said that Barnes, running for re-election this fall, is unopposed, and that someone should enter the race against him. Several people in the crowd shouted out that he does have an opponent: former Legislature Chair Angeline Franzese (pictured at right) -- who was on hand and managed to turn the event into a stump speech. She was met with warmth and encouragement.

--The rally at Seneca Harbor Park featured an adult-led singing group of school children called New York Children Against Fracking. Part of their lyrics:

Don't store your gas in the old salt mine,
Crack our land on the old fault line,
Methane in our water and our local wine
Has such a bitter taste,
God what an awful waste.

Seneca Lake it is clear and clean,
The skies are blue and the hills are green,
Prettiest place that you've ever seen,
And we wanna keep it that way,
That's what the children say.

--Rally speeches included one by biologist, author and veteran protester Sandra Steingraber, who tested the audience by asking: "What would you do for this lake? We're the ones who have to make that decision inside our own hearts." And area resident Kate LaMoreaux (pictured at right) said the June resolution was "a serious mistake in leadership." She called on legislators "to truly represent your people."

--Michael Warren Thomas, a Rochester radio personality, told the rally audience -- and later the Legislature -- that Seneca Lake is attracting world-class winemakers like Paul Hobbs, who is developing a vineyard in the Burdett area, thus enhancing the region's reputation. "There are 60 million people within a day's drive of here," he said, adding: "Investors are coming ... but not if we industrialize Watkins Glen. It will take just one accident" related to the LPG storage to curb the growing momentum in the winery and tourism industry.

--Emcee at the rally was Margie Rodgers, one of the Seneca 12 arrested in a protest outside the Crestwood facility off Rt. 14 north of Watkins Glen in March of 2013.

Photos in text:

From top: Legislature Chair Dennis Fagan (white beard) engages a protester in debate before leaving; Legislators Van Harp and Jim Howell; retired Cayuga Medical Center CEO Rob Mackenzie; Legislator Michael Lausell addresses crowd after the meeting; Legislature candidate Angeline Franzese; and rally speaker Kate LaMoreaux.

Rally speaker, biologist and author Sandra Steingraber.

Paula Fitzsimmons prepares a sign at the rally.

Left: One of many signs at the rally. Right: Legislator Phil Barnes.

Members of the Hazlitt family at the rally. Tina Hazlitt, at the microphone, said the Legislature had "overlooked the fact that our economy is based on tourism and agriculture," and that the LPG storage plan risks "hundreds if not thousands of jobs" and "everything (the Hazlitts) have worked for since 1852. Save our lake."

May you, and all beings
be happy and free from suffering :)
-- ancient Buddhist Prayer (Metta)

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