‘Fractivist’ looks to toss out court order
BY STACI WILSON
Natural gas opponent Vera Scroggins returned to court Monday, looking to throw out a preliminary injunction that bars her from entering onto lands owned or leased by a Houston-based natural gas drilling company.
Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation sought the injunction order in October 2013, alleging that Scroggins’ repeatedly came onto the company’s active drill sites and completed pads, sometimes bringing other people with her, including bus loads of people on one of Scroggins’ “citizen tours.”
But the scope of the court order was called into question by Scroggins and her attorneys, Gerald Kinchy, of Sayre, and Scott Michelman, of Public Citizen, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group. Both appeared with the Silver Lake Twp. resident in court on Monday. Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, was not present on Monday.
Cabot filed a brief with the court opposing the motion by Scroggins’ legal team to throw out the preliminary injunction.
The injunction, Scroggins has said in several interviews with various media outlets, keeps her from visiting the homes of her friends, the local hospital, a grocery store and the county recycling facility.
In court, Michelman argued that the temporary injunction order limits Scroggins’ first amendment documentary and protest activities. “We believe no injunction is just,” he said. “If Your Honor disagrees…”
“I do,” replied Susquehanna County President Judge Kenneth Seamans.
Michelman then offered an alternative proposal – one that would prohibit Scroggins from entering onto properties where natural gas activities were taking place, but took issue with Cabot’s proposed 150-foot buffer zone, stating the distance was “arbitrary.”
But Michelman’s proposed alternative offered in court was similar to one Cabot offered to Scroggins in January.
According to the court document filed by Cabot, in seeking the injunction the company’s focus was to curtail Scroggins’ alleged repeated trespasses onto natural gas sites and access roads.
A statement in the brief contends: “When Ms. Scroggins raised her concerns regarding the breadth of the injunction, Cabot’s counsel engaged in extensive discussion with (Scroggins’) counsel for months about way to reword the Orders to protect Cabot’s property rights while still allowing Ms. Scroggins to visit friends’ homes and businesses located on Cabot-leased properties where there are no ongoing operations.”
Scroggins refused the offers made earlier this year to limit the scope of the injunction. Cabot attorney Amy Barrette told the court that Scroggins’ “extreme position was a means to generate publicity.”
Michelman asked the court to consider narrowing the injunction to include Cabot-owned lands, and asked for the company to provide a list of those properties.
Judge Seamans said, “She has access to those records, just like everybody else.”
He also said a revised order could set limit access to sites where there were active operations taking place. Michelman said that it is easy to see where well pad areas begin and end, but he asked that a listing of those sites also be provided to his client.
“You just said (the pads) are well defined,” the judge countered.
Michelman admitted that parking a vehicle on the company’s access road was a legitimate concern, and offered “no parking” be in place within a “small distance to the access road” but argued with the set back proposed by Cabot.
Judge Seamans said the tractor trailers turning onto those roads often need to make wide turns. “Currently, employees have to tell her to get out of the way. Why is it up to them to tell her to move?” the judge asked.
Cabot attorney Amy Barrette told the court she was “pleased to hear that (Scroggins) admits it’s appropriate to keep off properties where operations are taking place.”
The judge asked the company attorney why Cabot was seeking the 150-foot buffer zone.
Barrette said that if a vehicle was parked on or near an access road, some of the large trucks would have to swing into the oncoming lane in order to turn onto the company road.
She told the court that if parked in that area, Scroggins would not only be endangering herself but others traveling that road.
“This is not about keeping her from speaking about anti-fracking,” Barrette said, noting that there were probably several people in the courtroom that also shared Scroggins’ view.
In her argument to the court, Barrette said that in a deposition, Scroggins said she “endangered herself on a regular basis” and that she was “willing to put herself in harm’s way.”
Barrette also told the court that at most, there are only 10 properties in Susquehanna County with active operations taking place and those were the sites Cabot was looking to have Scroggins kept from during construction, drilling, hydraulic fracturing and flaring activities.
She said, “(Scroggins) has made it clear that nothing will stop her from seeing what she wants to see.”
Barrette said that in the five months the preliminary injunction has been in place, “not one landowner with operations on their property has come forward” to say they have been harmed by Scroggins’ inability to visit them.
Barrette said that if Scroggins was invited by a homeowner to a property with active operations, Cabot would request a 500-foot set-back from the operations.
She said the 500-foot distance was based on the distance a well pad was required to be from a structure.
“But give her an inch, she’ll take many miles,” Barrette told the court.
Barrette also offered a modification to the order for facilities after a well has been put into production. She told the court that under deposition Scroggins had admitted to climbing on equipment, despite “Do Not Climb” signage, because she wanted to smell what was coming out of the tanks.
The judge offered no ruling on the motions presented in court on Monday. A new or revised order has not yet been issued in the case.
In a press conference held after the hearing, Michelman said he felt the judge was inclined to limit the scope of the injunction and said Scroggins had always been willing to settle with Cabot with an agreement that would both protect the company and her individual rights.
Scroggins told the cameras that she has been documenting natural gas drilling activities in Susquehanna County for five years, and believes Cabot is now trying to “silence” her.
“To go through this trouble, what are you hiding?” she questioned.
She said she has given hundreds of citizen tours, has never blocked any access roads and maintains natural gas drilling poses a danger to the community.
“I’m willing to show the world what’s going on here,” she said and spoke of notices of violations issued to the company by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
Michelman said that the counter proposal by Cabot in January to curtail the limits in the injunction were still too broad but admitted that Scroggins did not have the right to trespass onto private property.
Barrette confronted Michelman in the courthouse hallway and accused him of making misleading statements during the press conference.
Not all who turned out Monday supported Scroggins, some held signs that read: “Vera, get off our land.”
Kelly Harding, of Franklin Twp., told reporters that Scroggins activities go “way beyond protest.” Harding’s property is leased, she said, but not with Cabot, and there is no gas activity taking place on her land. She said Scroggins has confronted her using obscenities and screaming.
Harding and Scroggins became involved in a heated discussion in November at a residence in Franklin Forks as WPX was blocked by activists and the homeowner from removing a temporary water system from the residence.
“There’s nothing justifying her claims,” Harding said. “I felt the bully-ness.”
Harding said she felt not allowing people within a certain distance of a well site was “just common sense.”
She also believes Scroggins should “ask a landowner for permission to be on their property – which she hasn’t. She gives no care to the landowners’ considerations.”
But Harding said the injunction should not prevent Scroggins from going to any local establishment. “It’s silly that they think that’s what this is all about.”