Activist faces fines, jail time for getting too close to Cabot site

  • Marie Cusick
A Cabot driling site in Susquehanna County.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Cabot has waged an aggressive legal battle against an anti-fracking activist who brings visitors to its sites and points out environmental violations. The company says Vera Scroggins frequently trespasses and poses a safety risk.

A Susquehanna County judge has found anti-fracking activist Vera Scroggins in contempt of court for getting too close to a Cabot Oil & Gas site last month. She now faces a fine and possible jail time.

This latest ruling was a win for Cabot in its protracted legal battle against the self-described “gas tour guide.” She frequently brings visitors to Cabot sites and points out its environmental violations. The company says she has repeatedly trespassed on its property and poses a safety risk.

Cabot spokesman George Stark says the company is pleased with the contempt ruling.

Contempt of court

The case drew international attention after Cabot got a sweeping court injunction against her in 2013– which effectively barred her from half the county. Last March, the injunction was modified to be much less restrictive. But she still has to stay 100 feet from Cabot wellpads and access roads.

“After repeatedly telling this individual that her actions were illegal and dangerous, Cabot was forced to seek an injunction to prevent harm to her or others,” Stark wrote in an email to StateImpact Pennsylvania.

Anti-fracking activist Vera Scroggins was found to be in contempt of court for getting too close to a Cabot site.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Anti-fracking activist Vera Scroggins was found to be in contempt of court for getting too close to a Cabot site.

At an October 2014 hearing, Scroggins was found to have come too close to an access road, but she was not punished, since there was some confusion about whether the road was a family’s driveway.

This time, she will likely face a fine of $300 to $1,000. She says she’s innocent and won’t pay– which could mean jail time.

At a hearing in Montrose Wednesday, Cabot contractor Jordan Huffman testified that on January 16th he saw Scroggins and three other people parked on the access road to the Gesford 2 wellpad in Dimock Township, Susquehanna County.

Testimony from two of her friends contradicted that– they said her car was parked on a private driveway nearby, and she never approached the access road. Huffman showed the courtroom a photo he’d taken of Scroggins on the private driveway.

He had not taken a photo of her Cabot’s access road. He said she moved her car after he initially spotted her. She says he was lying.

“I’m shocked and disturbed an individual would fabricate a story to get me held in contempt,” she said.

“I’m not going on any tours”

Things did not look good for Scroggins from the start.

A few minutes into the hearing, she and Judge Kenneth Seamans began arguing. He echoed Cabot’s arguments about safety and questioned why she continually gets so close to natural gas industry sites.

“What if something flies off the wellpad and hits you?” he said.

She argued that if the gas sites are dangerous, they should not be so close to homes.

“You might want to come on a tour, so you could be informed,” she told the judge.

“I’m not going on any tours,” he replied.

Apart from the contempt charge, Seamans is also being asked to rule on whether Scroggins must adhere to a permanent injunction deal.

Is it a deal?

Last fall, it appeared the two sides had reached an agreement, which would bar her from Cabot sites and require 25 to 100-foot buffer zones. She initially agreed to those terms, but later changed her mind and refused to sign the settlement documents.

Cabot’s lawyers argue that doesn’t matter– the agreement should still be enforced. At Wednesday’s hearing, Scroggins testified that she thought her signature was necessary. At issue now is whether her attorneys were authorized to make the deal on her behalf. Cabot has subpoenaed one of her lawyers, Vic Walczak, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

The company is also seeking access to emails she exchanged with her attorneys.

“I’ve been practicing law almost 30 years,” says Walczak. “This is the first time the other side has tried to– and seems to be getting close to– getting access to very confidential emails. The ability to represent a client requires that shield of privacy.”

The judge will rule on the settlement agreement and determine the punishment for the contempt charge at an upcoming hearing. A date has not been set.

Letters from landowners

As the court fight continues, identical form letters about Scroggins have started to appear at the Susquehanna County District Attorney’s office.

“We’ve received a number of letters from landowners who have leases with Cabot– essentially providing notice to Ms. Scroggins that they don’t want her on their property,” says District Attorney Jason Legg.

He estimates between 10 to 20 such letters have arrived at his office since last summer. They’re also being sent to Scroggins’ attorney, Jerry Kinchy.

“They’re form letters, written by Cabot,” says Scroggins. “I don’t know 95 percent of the people. I don’t even know where their property is. [Cabot] got these people to discredit me. This is what kind of county we live in.”

In order to be found guilty of defiant criminal trespassing, someone needs to be given notice that they are not permitted on a property. It carries a penalty of up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

“Cabot is planning some massive assault to bring her in for criminal contempt,” says Kinchy. “They’re orchestrating landowners to sign these letters.”

Cabot did not respond to a request to comment on the letters.

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