A judge has signed off on an order which bars an anti-fracking activist from setting foot on more than 300 square miles–or nearly 40 percent–of Susquehanna county. It’s all the land owned or leased by the area’s biggest driller, Cabot Oil and Gas.
Although Cabot asked for the court order, a spokesman for the company says it didn’t mean for it to be so broad.
If you Google the name Vera Scroggins, you’ll get a lot of results, especially a lot of videos. She’s a well-known anti-fracking activist who films many of her encounters.
She gives a lot of unofficial tours around Susquehanna County, showing visitors what gas drilling sites look like in one of the most productive parts of the Marcellus Shale.
“I bring buses, mini-buses, full buses, caravans of cars, single cars of individuals, and a lot of elected officials from New York,” she says.
Scroggins doesn’t fit the stereotype of a 63-year-old retired grandmother. Her activism against the gas industry has made her polarizing figure, even among some environmental advocates.
In another video posted by an oil and gas industry-funded blog, Scroggins berates Irish filmmaker, Phelim McAleer who made the pro-gas documentary FrackNation.
“Maybe I have to chase you,” she says to him. “I’m gonna chase you the f**k out of here. Out of my country.”
Scroggins admits she has overreacted on some occasions, including the encounter with McAleer.
Her high-profile has also made her a target for several conservative blogs, which have suggested she’s a pedophile.
“Twelve years ago on a Yahoo discussion group, we were discussing primitive societies–their sexual practices and how they teach their children and adolescents. We were talking about cultural differences,” says Scroggins. “Based on my interest in it, they conclude that I must be a pedophile.”
“The order is way too broad”
Scroggins knows she frequently irritates Susquehanna County’s biggest driller, Cabot Oil & Gas.
But she says she was still surprised last fall when Cabot took her to court and got a preliminary injunction, which prohibits her from being on any land the company owns or has leased.
The key word here is “leased.” The court order goes beyond simply banning Scroggins from active work sites. It bars her from more than 300 square miles of the county, including places the company hasn’t developed yet.
“It looks like maybe Cabot didn’t even realize how expansive it is,” she says. “But their attorneys put this together, and the judge signed it. What was he thinking?”
Scroggins says the leased land includes many businesses: everything from restaurants, to grocery stores, and the new Endless Mountain health campus.
“This whole thing,10.7 acres,” she says, pointing to the hospital. “I looked it up. It’s leased to Cabot.”
John Dernbach is the co-director of Widener University’s Environmental Law Center.
He says he’s never heard of a case like this and points out that much of what Scroggins does is free speech, protected under the First Amendment.
“If Cabot doesn’t have the legal right to exclude her from the surface, based on whatever lease arrangements they have, then the order is way too broad,” says Dernbach. “It’s one thing to keep her off work sites and places where drilling is actively going on, it’s quite another to keep her off everything else.”
Scroggins says Cabot has so far refused to give her a map or a list of places it owns or has leased, which means she has to search through property records at the county courthouse.
She “has repeatedly trespassed”
Company spokesman George Stark says Cabot didn’t intend for the court order to be so broad. He declined to comment and instead emailed a statement:
Cabot supports an individual’s right to express his or her opinion … Ms. Scroggins has repeatedly trespassed on company operational sites and access roads where she could potentially jeopardize the safety of herself and others. Public facilities such as schools, grocery stores, recycling centers or hospitals are obviously not operational areas.
In its complaint against her, Cabot alleges Scroggins has trespassed on its properties nearly a dozen times. The company says it has repeatedly called the state police.
However Scroggins has never been convicted of trespassing and she doesn’t feel she should be singled out.
“I feel like a prisoner. I feel like they might as well put some kind of a bracelet on my ankle to keep track of me.”
Scroggins says she was summoned to court so quickly last fall, she didn’t have time to find a lawyer. A local attorney, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the Public Citizen Litigation Group in Washington, D.C have since stepped in to represent her.
“We do hope Cabot will come around and say [the injunction] should be narrower.” says attorney Scott Michelman of Public Citizen. “But it sounds disingenuous for them to say, ‘We didn’t mean it.’”
In January Cabot amended its complaint against Scroggins. The company is now seeking a permanent injunction which would prohibit her from active work sites and access roads, keep her at least 150 feet away from access roads, and bar her from bringing other people to those sites.
But Michelman says the much broader preliminary injunction–signed over four months ago– is still in effect. So far, the company has not sought to revise it.
“They haven’t moved to modify the injunction already in place,” he says. “They don’t seem to be in any hurry.”
Meanwhile some landowners, like Jerry Gere, who have leases with the company argue it shouldn’t dictate who is allowed to come and go from their property.
“Vera gets in their face. She’s aggressive. I can understand where she could definitely annoy people,” he says. “But on the other hand, it seems like we have this little old lady in tennis shoes, and the huge oil company is running scared. If they don’t have anything to hide, why are they putting up such a fight?”
Scroggins has asked the judge to vacate the preliminary injunction, and a hearing is scheduled for March 24th. The two sides are also trying to negotiate an agreement about where she can and can’t go.