Starkey Citizens for a Clean & Healthy Environment
Schuyler Co. Joins 21st Century

By Michael J. Fitzgerald | Updated 3 weeks ago

Monday night I witnessed Schuyler County politics dragged kicking and screaming from the 19th century into the 21st.

In a meeting jammed with 200 spectators, and with another 100 protesting outside, three county legislators broke ranks and voted against a resolution to support a proposal to store 88 million gallons of liquid propane gas in salt caverns three miles north of Watkins Glen on Seneca Lake’s east shore.

The people who oppose the project — an industrial facility proposed by Crestwood of Houston, Texas — were crestfallen that the pro-project resolution passed 5-3, doubly so when a second resolution opposing the project received just two votes.

But by Tuesday many realized a sea change had taken place. Three legislators (Michael Lausell, Jim Howell and Barbara Halpin) defied Chairman Dennis Fagan, whose resolutions and political marching orders — until that moment — were mostly routinely rubberstamped.

It was like witnessing Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall losing his grip on power in the 1870s.

The vote also signified the philosophy of “any industry, any time” in pursuit of jobs might be on its way out, replaced by a philosophy that encourages finding clean industries that benefit and complement the community, not just profit-driven, out-of-state corporations that pillage our pristine environment, then take the money and run when the going gets tough.

The session of the legislature moved from its normal meeting quarters to the Schuyler County courtroom after a Binghamton-based pro-hydrofracking group put out a regional call for people to attend. The coalition promised attendees a free Crestwood T-shirt to wear into the meeting, provided they agreed to speak in favor of the project.

Police announced only 85 people would be allowed inside. But Chair Fagan surveyed the courtroom as it filled and gave the nod to police to allow nearly 200 people to cram in.

Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the last 30 people in were wearing white Crestwood T-shirts.

The meeting featured impassioned speeches from opponents who pointed out the propane storage project would industrialize our scenic area, seriously damage the fast-growing tourism and wine industries and pose dozens of obvious, serious dangers to residents and the water of Seneca Lake.

But legislators also said Crestwood has not-very-subtly threatened to close the Watkins Glen U.S. Salt plant if it doesn’t get its LPG project approved.

That doesn’t sound like the kind of bully we want for a neighbor.

U.S. Salt was purchased by the Inergy corporation in 2008 (since absorbed into Crestwood) to gain control of the salt caverns where Crestwood wants to store LPG for export to the entire Northeastern U.S.

While it’s doubtful Crestwood would close U.S. Salt in a fit of corporate pique, the threat gave off a whiff of company desperation.

Seneca County Supervisor Steve Churchill testified that the LPG storage project is not a provincial Schuyler County matter, but regional, affecting 100,000 people around Seneca Lake who rely on it as a water source.

He listed other elected political entities around the lake that have passed resolutions stating the LPG project is a manifestly bad idea and should be turned down by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which is still reviewing it.

The narrow Schuyler County approval of the pro-storage resolution now puts the political ball firmly into the court of Watkins Glen village trustees, who are fiscally very conservative but more progressive than their county legislative counterparts. So far, they have not taken a formal position on the LPG storage.

But the trustees have a tendency to be fiercely protective of Watkins Glen residents who will clearly bear the brunt of greatly increased propane-related traffic, worry about drinking water quality, and need to plan a response to the daily threat of propane tanker derailments on the trestle spanning the popular Watkins Glen State Park.

Mayor Mark Swinnerton and his trustee colleagues will have to choose to side with the 19th or 21st century on this issue: Let the south end of Seneca Lake turn into a multinational corporation’s industrial hub, or continue its rapid growth as a tourist Mecca with a growing worldwide reputation for fine wine

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