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3 of the Seneca 12 protesters plead guilty, choose jail

Steingraber, 2 others get 15 days each

READING CENTER, April 18 -- Three of the "Seneca 12" protesters arrested last month for trespassing on Inergy property pleaded guilty and refused to pay their fines Wednesday night in Town of Reading Court. As a result, each was sentenced to 15 days in jail and taken into custody.

Noted environmental activist Sandra Steingraber, who that afternoon had given a fiery speech at a Seneca Harbor Park rally (pictured at right), read a similar but subdued version of the same speech in court before being sentenced by Town Justice Raymond H. Berry. Steingraber became emotional about halfway through her lengthy court statement, prompting tears among some of the onlookers -- mostly supporters who filled the courtroom to its 49-person capacity.

Also pleading guilty were Melissa Chipman of Hector and Michael Dineen, an Ovid farmer. All three were given time with family members in the town clerk's office down the hall from the courtroom before being led away in handcuffs to a Schuyler County Sheriff's Department van and from there to the Sheriff's Office. The two women were to be transferred to another jail later that evening -- probably in Yates or Chemung County, spectators speculated.

The march from the town hall to the van was through a crowd of about 100 well-wishers, most of them applauding the prisoners and many crying out: "Thank you, Sandra."

Steingraber, 53, of Trumansburg, is a biologist, poet, author, speaker and activist who is a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Ithaca College. She is also a woman who has been fighting recurring bouts of bladder cancer since she was 20. As pointed out in a recent article about her in Rolling Stone magazine -- which called her "The Toxic Avenger" -- she early-on suspected her cancer was caused by carcinogens released by industry into the environment. Her path has led her to write three books -- Having Faith, Living Downstream, and Raising Elijah -- that combine studies of environmental health with applicable accounts from her personal life.

On this day, at Wednesday's lakefront rally, she was the fiery orator her admirers have come to expect, and contrite lawbreaker -- admitting that she had never deliberately broken the law before, never deliberately embraced civil disobedience, but was ready to take her medicine. "It's not part of my DNA," she said of her role with 11 other people in the temporary body blockade of the Inergy property on March 18. "But here we are. If I end up in jail, don't send me letters; send letters to the editor and to the governor."

Besides, she said, trying to joke about it, jail conditions won't really be new to her. Since she has spent so much time fighting cancer with stints in hospitals, "I'm used to terrible food, being confined in small places" and having people in authority doing invasive things to her body.

She, Dineen and Chipman and the rest of the Seneca 12 -- and indeed the 100 or so protesters at the rally who later attended the court session -- are opposed to Inergy's plan to store liquefied petroleum gas in caverns deep in the ground just west of Seneca Lake. Inergy says such caverns have been used for decades; the protesters say full disclosure of problems in those caverns have been kept under wraps. By extension, the group opposes hydrofracking in New York State for much the same reason -- a belief that it will contaminate the state's land and waters.

Dineen also spoke at the rally, explaining that he became an activist "to protect my granddaughter and to protect my farm." He said there has been "complicity" between industry in the state and regulatory agencies, and that something needs to be done. "This is civil unrest," he said, "and I'm the face of it, and you're the face of it."

Chipman, 55, who has a massage therapy business and is, according to one acquaintance, "very soft spoken," was nonetheless outspoken during the rally, telling spectators it is wrong for corporations to harm the planet and the people living on it. "I've come to civil disobedience as a last resort," she said. "I'd rather eat bread and water now than have no bread -- and toxic water -- later."

Most of those at the rally traveled up to Reading Center after their lakeside gathering to provide support for the three defendants. Since fewer than 50 people are allowed in the courtroom, a like number were stationed outside the room, in a lobby area. Although the courtroom doors were closed, a buzzing of voices -- often loud -- could be heard during the court proceeding.

Chipman was the first one to stand in front of Justice Berry, who explained her various rights -- of counsel, of a free phone call to anyone she might need to contact, of adjournment -- and then asked for her plea.

"Guilty," she said.

The judge fined her $250 plus a mandatory state surcharge of $125, and asked if she planned to pay it that night.

"No," she said. "I'm not paying it."

"You know what the alternative is," the judge responded.

"I do," she said. She then read a statement that was a carbon copy of her brief speech at the rally, right down to the "toxic water" line.

"Have a seat," the judge said when she was done. After he tended to some paperwork, he called her back to the bench a couple of minutes later, and sentenced her to 15 days of incarceration "in a facility to be determined by the Schuyler County Sheriff's Department. And you owe the court the $125 state surcharge."

Chipman was puzzled at that, and asked if paying that was something new for someone headed to jail.

"Absolutely not," the judge said. "It's been on the books for years."

Dineen, 64, then was called forward, and listened to the same instructions Judge Berry had provided to Chipman. Dineen wasted no time in pleading guilty, saying "I choose not to pay the fine at all, sir."

"You know the alternative? the judge asked.

"Fifteen days in jail?" Dineen answered.

"Correct," said the judge, who then allowed a statement from Dineen that was much the same as the speech he had presented at the rally.

"I'm not taking this step lightly," Dineen read to the court, explaining that he believes Inergy's storage plans "have the potenital for catastrophe. I believe I'm trying to protect the community."

Then it was Steingraber's turn, and some confusion ensued when she told Justice Berry that she had counsel present, a man named Joe Heath. But she said she wished to handle her own defense. The judge said that since she had counsel, he would line up a meeting for her with the District Attorney.

"Can't I be sentenced tonight?" she asked.

The judge shook his head no, but Heath approached the bench and explained that Steingraber was handling the matter pro se -- on her own behalf. The judge at that point accepted her guilty plea, and fined her $250 and the $125 state surcharge.

"Will you be paying that this evening?" he asked, probably knowing the answer.

"I respectfully decline to pay," said Steingraber.

She too drew a 15-day jail sentence, and she too presented a statement -- but not briefly as those before had done. This was a long statement that dwelt on the meanings of trespass -- in the sense in which she and her fellow protesters had trespassed, and in the sense that industry assaults the environment in a "toxic trespass" that endangers the land, air and water. And that "toxic trespass" comes at a time, she said, "when we should be moving away from the use of fossil fuel." Her voice started wavering midway through, and she paused briefly to gather herself. Several people in the room could be seen wiping their eyes.

She rallied near the end, telling the judge she had taken the trespassing action "to bring attention" to the dangers she sees and "as an act of protecting our waters."

She was, she concluded, "willing to go to jail."

Almost as an afterthought, two other protesters who had appeared in court last month and delayed payment of their fines now presented the $375 apiece to the court. They were Dennis Fox, 20, of Middle Island, and Kathleen C. Alvey, 22, of Ithaca. Each paid with money raised by protest supporters.

Then, with court adjourned, the three jailbound members of the Seneca 12 exited the courtroom to the cheers of supporters in the lobby beyond, and walked down a hallway to the clerk's office and a farewell meeting with spouses or, in Steingraber's case, with her spouse and a son.

Then, handcuffs applied, the three prisoners were led by deputies out the front door of the town hall to the applauding group on the walkway and in the parking area -- and Steingraber, before being directed into the police van, raised her manacled hands above her head, fists clenched, and smiled.

Photos in text:

From top: Sandra Steingraber speaking at the afternoon rally; Michael Dineen at the rally; Melissa Chipman at the rally; Crow Marley of Hector, one of the Seneca 12, performed songs at the rally, with such lyrics as "People of the fields, hold on to your rivers, hold on to your creeks"; a handcuffed Steingraber, with Dineen behind her, leaves the town hall en route to the Sheriff's Department van; Chipman heads for the van.

Next up: The final three members of the Seneca 12 arrestees -- James Borra of Hector, Marjorie Rodgers of Elmira and Richard "Spike" Jones of Belfast -- are due in Town of Reading Court on May 1 along with a fourth, Nathanael "Mahats" Miller, a law student who had his case adjourned April 3 after securing the services of Attorney Lance Salisbury of Ithaca. Five others have paid their fines: Fox and Alvey Wednesday night, Jack Ossont of Himrod, Katarina Andersson of Ithaca, and Darmaye "Crow" Marley of Hector.

 

 

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