Activist fined $1,000 for violating order to stay off gas sites
A Susquehanna County judge has fined anti-fracking activist Vera Scroggins $1,000 for getting too close to a natural gas site earlier this year. The money will cover part of the legal fees incurred by the region’s biggest gas driller– Cabot Oil and Gas. The company has repeatedly sought to have her held in contempt of court for violating an injunction to stay off its property.
At a court hearing Thursday in Montrose, Scroggins maintained her innocence and hopes to appeal the fine.
“[Cabot] had a false witness, who was willing to perjure himself under oath, and the judge found him more credible. I am not willing to pay a fine for something I didn’t do.”
If she doesn’t pay within 45 days, she could go to jail. Judge Kenneth Seamans didn’t seem to mind that possibility.
“If there’s a fine and she doesn’t pay it, she’s going to jail.” he said. “And I’m going on vacation.”
The fine is the latest twist in a protracted court battle between the driller and the activist. The case drew international attention last year, after Cabot got a sweeping injunction against her – effectively barring her from half the county. Last March, the order was modified to be much less restrictive. But she still has to stay 100 feet from Cabot wellpads and access roads.
The company says she repeatedly trespassed and poses a safety risk.
“The defendant violated the law, and the judge enforced this order,” wrote Cabot spokesman George Stark in an email.
“She had a warning”
In February Seamans ruled that Scroggins violated the injunction when she brought a pair of French journalists to a Cabot site. A contractor for the company testified he saw her on an access road to a wellpad. Scroggins and several of her friends disputed that and said she had remained on a nearby private property.
That incident was the second time she was found to have violated the injunction. Last fall, Seamans did not impose a punishment, because there was confusion about whether Scroggins had stepped onto a Cabot access road, or a family’s driveway.
“She had a warning,” Seamans said at Thursday’s hearing. “You only get one bite of the apple after that. My father always told me to come and take my lickings. And I did. If I didn’t, it was awful.”
He said the main concern is that she does not interfere with the company’s daily operations, or bring harm to herself or others.
“Once in a great while, there are explosions at these things,” he said of gas well sites. “She has no real reason to park there. Neither does anyone else.”
Scroggins’ attorney Sheila Dugan argued she should not have to observe 100 foot buffer zones which extend out onto public roads.
“It’s unreasonable she can’t do what she wants on a public road,” she said.
Seamans disagreed, and said 100 feet is reasonable because there are often large trucks which need space to move in and out of access roads.
Deal or no deal?
Scroggins is still under a temporary injunction, but Cabot is seeking to impose a permanent court order to limit her movements.
Last fall it appeared the two sides had reached an agreement about where she can and can’t go. It 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 say that doesn’t matter– the agreement is still valid and should be enforced. Scroggins says she thought her signature was necessary.
At Thursday’s hearing, Dugan suggested they devise guidelines for her to follow– rather than a binding court order.
“Based on her conduct, guidelines are not enough for her,” said Cabot attorney Jeremy Mercer. “Guidelines don’t apply to her.”
Cabot also subpoenaed two of Scroggins’ former attorneys to testify against her. They repeatedly objected, citing attorney-client privilege, but were overruled by the judge. Cabot wanted their testimony to show Scroggins had approved of the deal and authorized them to agree to it on her behalf.
Vic Walczak, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said he’s never seen anything like this in nearly 30 years of practicing law.
“In addition to probably spending six figures on lawyers to keep going after Vera, they have also disrupted my life,” he says. “This is the third time I’ve been subpoenaed to come up here. It just shows the lengths to which this gas company will go to suppress dissent.”
Judge Seamans did not rule on whether the permanent injunction deal with stand. He said he’ll make a decision in a day or two.