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 We Are Seneca Lake activists at a demonstration on July 7, 2015 (Courtesy of: We Are Seneca Lake)

 Meet the New York State community that’s standing up to Big Energy

Let’s amend the famous line from Joni Mitchell’s “Yellow Taxi” to fit this moment in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. There, Big Energy seems determined to turn paradise, if not into a parking lot, then into a massive storage area for fracked natural gas. But there’s one way in which that song doesn’t quite match reality. Mitchell famously wrote, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” As part of a growing global struggle between Big Energy and a movement focused on creating a fossil-fuel-free future, however, the residents of the Finger Lakes seem to know just what they’ve got and they’re determined not to let it go. As a result, a local struggle against a corporation determined to bring in those fracked fuels catches a changing mood not just in the United States but across the world when it comes to protecting the planet, one place at a time, if necessary.

It’s difficult to imagine a more picturesque landscape, a more tranquil locale, a more bucolic garden spot than the Finger Lakes region. Each year, it draws tens of thousands of tourists to gaze at the waterfalls in Watkins Glen, to kayak and canoe in its deep waters, to dine in its farm-to-table restaurants and enjoy the homespun hospitality of its bed and breakfasts. Lush vineyards rustle on tree-studded hillsides. Wine Enthusiast magazine gave it top honors last year, calling it “one of the most vibrant and promising wine regions of the world.” There are fruit and vegetable farms and sugar maples, too. In 2013, the state’s maple-syrup production ranked second only to Vermont’s.

The eleven Finger Lakes are among the wonders of the natural world. At 38 miles in length, Seneca Lake is the second longest of them, its 4.2 trillion gallons of water provide drinking water for 100,000 people. Its shallows are home to warm-water fish like smallmouth bass and yellow perch. Its deep waters play host to lake trout and Atlantic salmon and have created a unique microclimate in the surrounding region, neither too cold in winter nor too warm in summer, allowing agriculture to flourish.

Perhaps inspired by the ecological marvel that is their home, many of the Finger Lakes vineyards and vegetable farms rely on sustainable production methods. At the same time, wineries, hundreds of businesses, and individual families have begun converting from the use of fossil fuels to alternative energies. Tompkins County, adjacent to Seneca Lake, has even developed a solar-energy program that has inspired similar efforts in counties across the state. A regional wind farm is scheduled to start operating in 2016. Clean and green seems to be the ethos of the region, but all that could change fast—and soon.

The Battle of Seneca Lake

There’s a battle brewing between the burgeoning clean-energy future embraced by this region and the dirty-energy sources on which this planet has been running since the Industrial Revolution. Over the last six years, Crestwood Midstream Partners, a Texas-based corporation, has been pushing to build a gas-storage and transportation hub for the entire northeastern United States at Seneca Lake. The company’s statements boast about setting up shop “atop the Marcellus Shale play,” a hydraulic-fracturing, or fracking, hotspot. It plans to connect pipelines that will transmit two kinds of fracked gas—methane and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG)—probably from areas of the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. These will be stockpiled in long-abandoned salt caverns, the remnants of a 19th-century salt-mining industry that capitalized on the remains of a 300 million-year-old ocean that once was here.

Against the project, a motley coalition of farmers and vintners, doctors and lawyers, clean energy companies and reluctant do-it-yourself activists are focused on protecting this ecological marvel. Their goal: to guide the region toward a fossil-fuel-free future, despite the deep pockets and corporate savvy of an out-of-state energy firm.

Crestwood is already storing 1.5 billion cubic feet of methane at the lake and has just won approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to add another half-billion cubic feet. In addition, Crestwood is intent on storing millions of barrels of two highly volatile liquefied petroleum gases, propane and butane, in the caverns. While FERC has jurisdiction over the methane part of the plan, New York State’s Department of Conservation governs the LPG part and its decision is pending. Although scientists warned about likely serious incidents of gas seepage or structural collapse in the salt caverns, FERC approved the methane-storage part of the plan in May.

Crestwood’s plan would mean the full-scale industrialization of the lake’s shores near Watkins Glen, including a 14-acre open pit for holding brine (water supersaturated with salt) removed from the caverns upon the injection of the gas; a 60-foot flare stack (a gas combustion device); a six-track rail site capable of loading and unloading 24 rail cars every 12 hours, each bearing 30,000 gallons of LPG; and a truck depot where four to five semi-trailers would be unloaded every hour. 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.

The plan is riddled with accidents waiting to happen. Brine seepage, for example, could at some point make the lake water non-potable. (From 1964 to 1984, when propane was stored in two of the caverns, the lake’s salinity shot up.) That’s only the first of many potential problems, including tanker truck and train accidents, explosions, the emission of toxic and carcinogenic organic compounds from compressor stations and other parts of the industrial complex, air pollution, and impacts on local bird species and animal life due to deforestation and pollution.

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