Local Activists Put a Cork in Dangerous Gas Storage Proposal in New York’s Wine Country

After a wave of public opposition, New York State regulators have denied a proposal for a gas storage facility in the Finger Lakes region.

A protest against the proposed gas storage facility in Watkins Glen, NY, on July 14th, 2014.
A protest against the proposed gas storage facility in Watkins Glen, NY, on July 14, 2014. (Courtesy of Yvonne Taylor)

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“Do you still have that bottle of champagne? Well, get ready to put it on ice!”

After almost a decade of fighting a dangerous proposal to fill two underground salt caverns with explosive liquid petroleum gas (propane and butane) in upstate New York, Joseph Campbell and Yvonne Taylor knew it was time to celebrate when they first heard those words from Earthjustice attorney Deborah Goldberg earlier this month.

Goldberg went on to explain that the state Department of Environmental Conservation had denied a permit for the gas storage project. The agency cited concerns about cavern stability and risks to community character and the agriculture-based, tourism economy of the Finger Lakes region.

Campbell and Taylor were overjoyed — and stunned. After all, when they first took on this battle against a multi-billion dollar company in 2010, they were told they couldn’t stop plans to build a dirty energy behemoth in their backyard. But Campbell and Taylor went for it anyway, spending almost every day, including most holidays, weekends and birthdays, organizing their neighbors against the proposal. 

The surprise victory is just the latest bright spot in a series of efforts led by activists in the region to keep dirty fossil fuel projects out of New York State. Finger Lakes advocates were at the core of the campaign for local fracking bans, which set the stage for the state’s historic decision to ban fracking in 2014. The permit denial is also a huge win for the coalition of residents, local elected officials, and business owners who have long fought to protect the iconic Finger Lakes region.

Each year, millions of tourists flock to the Finger Lakes to enjoy the region’s bounty of vineyards, wineries and bed and breakfasts, among other things.

It’s a world-class tourist destination. But it’s also home for people like Campbell and Taylor — partners in life and in protest. They both grew up near Seneca Lake, one of the 11 lakes left behind by glaciers that traveled through the region millions of years ago. Today, they live together in their “dream home” on property near the lake that’s been in Taylor’s family for generations.  

“Seneca Lake is in my blood and bones. I drink it. I have swam, water skied, kayaked, motor boated and sailed on this lake my entire life,” says Taylor. “When I’m home, I’m always looking out the window at this gorgeous lake. It’s been the only constant I have ever had.”

In 2008, that stability was shattered after the two learned an out-of-state gas storage company planned to store millions of gallons of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) — also called “propane” — in abandoned salt caverns under the shores of Seneca Lake. They started organizing opposition to the proposal. Soon after, Gas Free Seneca was born.

“After a lot of soul searching, we decided we weren’t gonna let this slip,” says Campbell, adding that the first public forum they held on the issue packed the auditorium with more than 800 people.

But Taylor and Campbell knew that a “bunch of rag-tag environmental activists” weren’t going to stop this project alone. They needed to get local business owners on their side. At first, that wasn’t easy.

“But once they realized this gas proposal was a threat to their livelihood, they started getting involved,” says Campbell. 

The couple also knew that they couldn’t win without a top-notch legal team. They contacted Earthjustice with a list of concerns about the proposal that ran about as deep as the lake itself.

For starters, the unlined salt caverns along Seneca Lake were never engineered for storage once their salt was mined, yet the gas company proposed storing up to 40 million barrels of explosive propane in a manner that has caused injuries and deaths, large fires, evacuations and major property loss in other places. A 2004 analysis found that between 1974 and 2004, there were ten catastrophic accidents involving underground storage sites for gas, all of them occurring in salt caverns.

Even if no major accidents occurred, the company’s proposal to build an industrialized storage facility in a rural area threatened to permanently alter the region’s bucolic character. That may sound like an innocuous side effect — until you ask yourself whether anyone wants to sip a pricey glass of Finger Lakes bubbly within view of LPG pumps and other ugly equipment. Finger Lakes’ tourism industry currently brings 60,000 jobs to the region. Crestwood’s offer for permanent jobs? Three to five.

In May 2013, Earthjustice sent a letter to New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) on behalf of Gas Free Seneca, demanding that state officials scrutinize the combined environmental and community impacts of the LPG project and the then-proposed expansion of a gas storage facility. At the same time, Earthjustice worked alongside Gas Free Seneca to ensure that the issue received the national attention that it deserved. After all, projects like these threaten to lock the U.S. into continued extraction and use of dirty fossil fuels and discourage the growth of renewable energy.

“From the very beginning, we knew they weren’t your average environmental attorneys,” says Taylor. “Not only did they give tremendous legal advice, Deborah [Goldberg] and Moneen [Nasmith] gave us guidance on messaging that was critical in convincing the public and eventually state leaders to speak out against the proposal.”  

“They were a force to be reckoned with,” she adds.

In the end, more than 450 Seneca Lake property owners, 500 local and regional businesses on the Gas Free Seneca and Finger Lakes Wine Business coalitions, hundreds of local wineries and vineyard owners, and 32 municipalities representing 1.2 million New Yorkers opposed the proposal.

Now, with the state regulators’ decision to deny the permit, the project cannot go forward.

“Undaunted by an out-of-state energy company, the people of the Finger Lakes stood up to protect everything they hold dear,” says Goldberg. “Today, they won.”

But local fracktivists like Taylor and Campbell aren’t stopping yet. Building on this latest victory, as well as another victory in 2016 to stop a coal and gas plant repowering proposal, fracktivists like Taylor and Campbell are now pivoting toward fighting a waste-to-energy trash incinerator in the region. These local fights and victories are critical in maintaining momentum for clean energy and against fossil fuels at a time when the Trump administration is doubling down on dirty energy. (Earthjustice attorneys are active on the health, climate, and environmental justice aspects of the incinerator project.)

“Talk about a bad idea for the climate,” says Taylor of the incinerator proposal, adding that it would emit a million tons of carbon dioxide per year. “It’s not gas industry infrastructure, but it’s equally as damaging to the environment and to our way of life in the Finger Lakes.”

So stay tuned. With their track record, that could very well be their next victory.

Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.

Established in 2008, Earthjustice’s Northeast Office, located in New York City, is at the forefront of issues at the intersection of energy, environmental health, and social justice.