Last month an anti-fracking group settled a lawsuit against Pennsylvania, after it was erroneously labeled a potential terrorist threat. The case dates back to 2010 and was an embarrassment for then-Governor Ed Rendell.
But documents obtained by StateImpact Pennsylvania show law enforcement here and in other parts of the country continue to conduct surveillance on anti-fracking activists, leading some to claim their Constitutional rights are being violated.
“This is scary”
It’s not hard to tell Wendy Lee is an animal lover. When I arrived at her home in Bloomsburg, I was greeted by several dogs, an iguana the size of a cat, and three birds. With her cockatiel, Quantum, by her side, she showed me her blog. Lee is a 55-year-old philosophy professor at Bloomsburg University and proud anti-fracking activist.
“My long history of political activism is on the left,” she says. “I am the author of books with titles like ‘On Marx’ if that gives you an idea.”
She often travels to gas industry sites and takes photos. Her website is filled with criticism of fracking, and she’s used to getting criticized for her views.
Still, she was surprised last February when a Pennsylvania State Trooper came to her house to ask her about a visit she’d made to a gas compressor station.
On that trip, she was joined by two other activists and took some photos of the compressor. It wasn’t long before security guards told them all to leave.
“When they tell us to leave, we left,” she recalls. “There was no altercation. There was nothing.”
As the trooper stood inside her door, he questioned her about the incident. After a while, he brought up eco-terrorism.
Lee was stunned when he asked her if she knew anything about pipe bombs.
“Part of me was like, ‘Oh this is scary. This is actually scary.’” she says. “And part of me is just laughing on the inside because it’s ludicrous.”
Lee was never charged or arrested for anything.
It turns out that same Pennsylvania trooper had already crossed state lines and traveled to upstate New York to investigate the compressor incident. He visited 65-year-old Jeremy Alderson, one of the other activists with Lee that day.
When Alderson got a knock at his home in Hector, a New York trooper was there too.
“Having two troopers show up at your door, that’s kinda scary,” he says. “Because you don’t know what’s happened.”
While he was being questioned about trespassing, Alderson assumed the police knew about his newsletter, the No Frack Almanac. He’d published photos and an article about his visit to the compressor.
So he asked them, “Why would I publish all that if I thought I’d done something illegal?”
But neither trooper knew anything about it.
“It was clear they’d come to visit me before they had even put my name into a search engine on the internet,” says Alderson. “So this led me to believe, what possible reason do they have to come here but to intimidate me? They don’t care about information. They haven’t done a thing to get it.”
Alderson was also not charged or arrested for anything.
“A history of suppressing dissent”
The Pennsylvania Trooper, Mike Hutson, declined to comment for this story. But documents obtained by StateImpact Pennsylvania through the Right to Know Law show Hutson is part of a broader intelligence-sharing network between law enforcement and the gas industry.
It’s called the Marcellus Shale Operators’ Crime Committee. It allows the industry to swap information with local, state, and federal law enforcement about activists, protests, and potential threats.
“Energy companies have a history of suppressing dissent in this country,” says Witold Walczack, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “Whether it’s coal, oil, or now natural gas.”
Walczack has represented fracking opponents as clients. He says a small percentage of activists resort to crime.
There have been reports of pipe bombs, charred debris, and gunshots fired at gas sites.
“But the vast majority of people who are involved today in the anti-fracking movement are law-abiding citizens.”
A spokesman for the state’s main gas industry trade group, The Marcellus Shale Coalition, declined to comment for this story but sent an email saying, “safety is the industry’s top priority.”
But some activists complain police are trampling free speech under the guise of tracking real threats.
The Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition is the group from northeastern Pennsylvania that recently settled a lawsuit with the state for being labeled a terrorist threat in 2010. The group’s attorney Paul Rossi says he’s disturbed to now hear about the Marcellus Shale Operators’ Crime Committee.
“We just had a ruling that this was unconstitutional,” says Rossi. “I’m about as flabbergasted as an attorney can be at the serial violations of First Amendment rights in this state.”
Both the FBI and the Pennsylvania State Police say they’re not official members of the Operators’ Committee but acknowledge they receive updates from it and have attended meetings.
J.J. Klaver is a special agent with the FBI in Philadelphia and points out part of its jobs is monitoring threats to infrastructure.
“The FBI is not in the business of investigating or tracking groups for having specific beliefs,” he says. “That’s not within our jurisdiction or within the law.”
The documents obtained by StateImpact Pennsylvania show the intelligence-sharing between police and the oil and gas industry goes on in other parts of the country too.
Surveillance in other shale plays
A man named Jim Hansel sends out many of the updates to the Marcellus Shale Operators’ Crime Committee. He’s based in Williamsport and manages security for the Texas-based gas driller, Anadarko Petroleum.
Neither Hansel nor Anadakro responded to requests to comment for this story.
In one of his early emails to the group, Hansel writes that drillers are involved in similar partnerships with law enforcement around the country– in Texas and the Rockies.
Cliff Willmeng is not surprised to hear about the surveillance. He’s a nurse and anti-fracking activist who lives near Boulder, Colorado.
“To some extent, I think we’re experiencing a sort of quasi-privatization of our legal forces,” says Willmeng.
Two summers ago he found himself under arrest– pinned down onto his driveway by a pair of police officers.
“They were yelling ‘Stop resisting!’ and my wife was watching this the entire time screaming,” says Willmeng.
Why was this happening?
According the Erie County Colorado police report, Willmeng drove up to a security guard at a gas well site and asked some questions. He was there for about 60 seconds and never got out of his car. After he left, the guard called police and said he’d felt threatened and harassed.
Two departments showed up at Willmeng’s home. In their report, the officers said he was uncooperative. They charged him with four misdemeanors: harassment, criminal trespassing, obstruction, and resisting arrest.
All the activists in this story say they feel like they’ve been targeted for their viewpoints.
It’s not clear to what extent the surveillance will continue under Governor Wolf’s new administration. His pick to head the state police, Col. Marcus Brown says he’s not familiar with the Marcellus Shale Operators Crime Committee.
“Very early on, we’ll make sure the state police are doing what they should be doing,” Brown said at a recent press conference. “If their actions are appropriate, then we’ll continue it. If they’re doing something they shouldn’t be, we’ll make sure it doesn’t go forward.”
After her visit from the Pennsylvania state trooper, blogger and Bloomsburg University professor Wendy Lee filed an open records request with the state police, trying to find out why she was questioned.
Months later, her request was denied. Among other reasons, the police said the records were part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
“They don’t tell me whether I’m the object of that investigation– which would be quite mystifying — and they don’t tell me in any way I would be connected to that investigation if I am not its object.” she says.
Lee thinks the visit was simply to intimidate her.
“While we get to believe we have the free exercise of our First Amendment rights, we’re not actually supposed to use them.”
She still hopes to get the police records and is appealing the decision.
This story has been updated to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of Wendy Lee’s home. It is in Bloomsburg, not Lewisburg.