Vera Scroggins, a retired nurse’s aide living in the sacrifice zone of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. She wanted nothing more than to enjoy her home, her garden and her grandchildren. Then the natural gas industry came to her peaceful community.
What Vera saw made her put down her gardening tools and pick up a video camera. That action has the frackers shaking in their boots.
Armed with a video camera, Vera began documenting the natural gas industry activities in northeast Pennsylvania. Her short YouTube videos show what the industry doesn’t want you to see. She had led visitors, government officials, and journalists on tours of the gas fields, to rigs and well pads, pipelines, compressor stations, and roads damaged by the heavy volume of truck traffic necessary to build and support the wells. She introduces the visitors to those affected by fracking, to the people of northeast Pennsylvania who have seen their air and water polluted, their health impacted.
The big fracker in Susquehanna County is Cabot Oil & Gas.
Third Monday in October
Two years ago, on Friday, October 18, 2013 Vera received notice that she was to appear in court 4 days later on Monday October 21, 2013, to face trespassing charges brought by Cabot Oil & Gas (COG).
With this short notice, she was unable to secure an attorney. Standing alone in the courtroom of Judge Kenneth W. Seamans she requested a continuance.
Judge Kenneth W. Seamans, whose own land is leased for fracking, did not recuse himself from the case.
Seamans told her he wouldn’t grant a continuance because she didn’t give the court 24 hours notice. Seamans went on to explain to grant a continuance would inconvenience three of the COG lawyers who had come from Pittsburgh, and she might have to pay their fees if the hearing was delayed.
In 4 hours of testimony, COG lawyers brought employees, security personnel, and subcontractors to testify they saw Vera trespassing. Seamans granted COG a preliminary injunction which forbids Vera from going on any property COG has a mineral lease, even if the owner of the surface rights grants her permission. That restriction may violate the rights of the owner who retains surface rights.
Vera Needs a Map
COG holds leases on 200,000 acres of land, equivalent to 312.5 sq miles in Susquehanna County. To comply with the injunction, Vera needed to consult maps and make calculations before leaving her home. Vera spent hours at the court house going over property records to determine where she could and couldn’t go.
The temporary injunction did not require COG to identify or map the lands where it holds drilling leases. Without a map, Vera would need to negotiate something akin to a mine field or risk being arrested and/or fined.
She would have to figure out what routes she could take, where she could stop and even which businesses she could visit.
Many of those businesses have leased to COG. NO-GO zones include the county hospital, supermarkets the Chinese restaurant where she takes her grandchildren, drug stores where she shops, the animal shelter where she adopted her Yorkshire terrier, bowling alley, recycling center, golf club, and lake shore. She was even barred from visiting friends because their property abuts COG leased land.
“We need a map. We need to know where I can and cannot go,” Vera said. “Can I stop here, or can I not stop here? Is it OK to be here if I go to a business or if I go to a home? I have had to ask and check out every person I go to: ‘are you leased to Cabot’?
Vera was able to obtain legal representation. COG offered to limit the scope of its exclusion order in court filings seeking to make the injunction permanent.
The next hearing on the injunction was on March 24, 2014. The 315.5 square mile NO-Go Zone was reduced to a buffer area. Vera would be required to stay 100’ from any COG operations including access roads.
COG wanted a permanent injunction and presented a settlement agreement following negotiations between attorneys for Vera and COG. Vera did not sign the settlement agreement.
COG maintains the settlement agreement is valid without Vera’s signature.
Judge Seamans agrees with COG.
Back to Court
It was her fourth appearance in front of Judge Kenneth W. Seamans, whose own land is leased for fracking, and has not recused himself from the case. He officially retired in December, but says he is following up on cases he began.
This time COG brought a contempt charge against Vera. COG claimed Vera both parked and walked on a COG access road which violated the 100’ NO-GO buffer.
Vera was hosting two French journalists and a fellow Susquehanna County resident for a tour on January 16, 2015. She parked in the private driveway of a friend, some 700’ away from the access road controlled by COG. She chatted with her friend in his driveway as the journalists walked on the public road up to the gate of the Cabot fracking operation, took some photos, and returned to meet Vera in the friend’s driveway.
Vera and two witnesses stated this under oath, and they introduced photos in evidence.
COG produced an out-of-state (NYS) gas worker, Jordan Huffman as a witness. Huffman stated Vera did as COG claimed. He had no photos to document the claim; instead he showed a photo of Vera standing on the neighbor’s property 700’ away from COG’s operations and access road.
Seamans once again sided with COG. He indicated he’d impose some fines on Scroggins, “somewhere between $300 and $1,000, maybe per day . . .”
Seamans also ordered Vera’s ACLU attorneys to hand over their email correspondence with her. He said he’d then review these private emails between Vera and her counsel and see what he thought about allowing any of it into testimony. He’ll schedule another hearing for this before passing his next judgment.
“If there’s a fine and she doesn’t pay it, she’s going to jail.” Seamans said. “And I’m going on vacation.”
If Vera pays the fine it would go to COG to cover part of COG’s legal expenses.
Vera remains under a temporary injunction.
Support for Vera
Vera pleads for us, now we plead for her. Vera Scroggins, a mother, a grandmother, an ordinary citizen but most of all woman with a camera, who has taken it upon herself to show the world what drilling and fracking is doing to the land and the people of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania.
It is important to remember that when one goes to jail, one goes alone!
If Vera goes to jail, we want her to know that we support her and honor her for her brave actions.
The Mothers Project has set up a special fund to help. All contributions will go directly to Vera to help with her ongoing legal fees.
In making your tax deductible donation please designate that your contribution is for Vera Scroggins.
Checks may also be sent to: TMP at 2578 Broadway, #108, NY, NY 10025. Please mark all donations “for Vera”
©2015 by Dory Hippauf