Court revises ban on ‘fractivist’
BY STACI WILSON
Gas opponent Vera Scroggins and her legal team were in Susquehanna County Court on Monday asking the judge to throw out the preliminary injunction that barred her from entering onto one drilling company’s leased lands.
After a revised order was handed down Thursday, the preliminary injunction remains in place but with modifications that seem to have generally satisfied both the fractivist and the driller.
President Judge Kenneth Seamans determined that a preliminary injunction was necessary in the case brought by Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation against the anti-gas activist.
The more detailed and specific order keeps Scroggins’ from going onto property owned by Cabot or its subsidiary GasSearch Drilling Services Corporation and also prohibits Scroggins from entering onto Cabot’s access roads, well pads, and sets a 100-foot buffer from any well pad.
Scroggins claimed the initial preliminary injunction kept her from visiting the homes of her friends, the local hospital, a grocery store and the county recycling facility – all of which are located on land leased by Cabot, the largest natural gas leaseholder in Susquehanna County.
Cabot attorneys told the court on Monday their intent in seeking the injunction was to keep Scroggins’ from coming onto, and bringing tour groups, to active sites in various stages of well development.
According to a court document filed by the company on Monday, after Scroggins raised concerns regarding the scope of the initial preliminary 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 Monday, adding that Scroggins’ “extreme position was a means to generate publicity.”
Cabot filed for the preliminary injunction against Scroggins last year following what the company alleges were repeated trespasses by her onto their access roads, well pads and completed sites.
At a press conference following the March 24 hearing, Scroggins told reporters that she has led hundreds of “citizen tours” to drill sites in Susquehanna County.
At the October hearing, Barrette told the court that Scroggins had brought a tour bus of people with the bus driving onto the well pad while “flaring” of the gas well was taking place.
Cabot spokesman George Stark said, “Cabot is satisfied by the court’s decision to maintain an injunction against Ms. Scroggins.”
Scroggins’ attorney, Scott Michelman of Public Citizen, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., said the revised preliminary injunction was substantial and “is a major victory for Vera Scroggins,” with his client “obtaining about 90 percent” of what they sought.
He added, “(Scroggins) beat back Cabot’s suggestion to impose buffer zone of 150 and even 500 feet.”
“Today’s revision is a victory for the rights of advocates like Ms. Scroggins and shows that big gas companies like Cabot can’t punish advocates for their speech,” Michelman said.
But, the attorney said, there are still some restrictions on Scroggins’ movement as it relates to the gas driller’s active operations and some points in the conditions of the injunction that he feels are overly broad.
In addition to Michelman, Scroggins is also represented by Gerald Kinchy, of Sayre, and Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
In a three-page opinion handed down with the order, the court said the preliminary injunction keeping Scroggins from Cabot land and active operational sites is necessary: “Greater injury would result from refusing an injunction than granting it.”
Stark said, “Cabot has maintained a safety-first policy and will ensure it abides by the Judge’s ruling which prohibits Ms. Scroggins from trespassing on our active worksites.”
The judge also noted in the opinion that Scroggins, “would still have plenty of geographical space in which to protest.”
“The wrongful conduct of unpermitted entry by Defendant Scroggins is manifest – well documented,” the court opinion reads. “As such, we find that Cabot is likely to prevail on the merits of this case.”
In the opinion, the judge also noted that the amended injunction will provide for the safety of Cabot and GDS workers, as well as for Scroggins’ safety; and landowners with leases with Cabot will “better have their private property rights maintained.”
Cabot agreed. Stark said, “The court’s ruling not only protects Cabot and its employees, contractors and others but it keeps landowners from being exposed to liability that could arise from Scroggins’ actions.”
In addition to Cabot and GDS owned properties, the revised preliminary injunction order also prohibits Scroggins from entering onto well pads in Susquehanna County where Cabot or GDS “are conducting surface operations whatsoever” or are maintaining a gas well that is in production.
According to the order, Cabot must mark the well pad locations with “No Trespassing” signage at the access roads’ entrances to the sites, and signs that restrict access to authorized personnel only.
In court, Michelman argued that in some cases, a buffer could keep his client from traveling on public roads.
Judge Seamans addressed that exact point: “Defendant Vera Scroggins is not by virtue of this provision prohibited from traveling upon public roads but shall not stop or remain present upon the highway and/or rights-of-way adjacent thereto within one hundred feet (100’) on each side of the entry to the access road… except for bona fide emergencies.”
Cabot attorney Amy Barrette argued in October that Scroggins’ had parked her vehicle on and near access roads, blocking truck traffic entering and exiting well sites.
The court also noted that certain statutory prohibitions exist as to parking or leaving unattended vehicles on private property, and that vehicles obstructing traffic may be removed.
The order also prohibits Scroggins from coming into physical contact with equipment, vehicle or structures owned by Cabot or GDS.