by Walter Brasch
Vera Scroggins of Susquehanna County, Pa., will be in court, Monday morning.
This time, she will have lawyers and hundreds of thousands of supporters throughout the country. Representing Scroggins to vacate an injunction limiting her travel will be lawyers from the ACLU and Public Citizen, and a private attorney.
The last time Scroggins appeared in the Common Pleas Court in October, she didn't have lawyers. That's because Judge Kenneth W. Seamans refused to grant her a continuance.
When she was served papers to appear in court, it was a Friday. On Monday, she faced four lawyers representing Cabot Oil and Gas Corp., one of the nation's largest drillers. Seamans told the 63-year-old grandmother and retired nurse's aide that to grant a continuance would inconvenience three of Cabot's lawyers who came from Pittsburgh, more than 250 miles away. He also told her she might have to pay travel and other costs for the lawyers if she was successful in getting a continuance.
And so, Cabot presented its case against Scroggins.
The lawyers claimed she blocked access roads to Cabot drilling operations. They claimed she continually trespassed on their property. They claimed she was a danger to the workers.
Scroggins agreed that she used public roads to get to Cabot properties. For five years, Scroggins has led tours of private citizens and government officials to show them what fracking is, and to explain what it is doing to the health and environment. But she was always polite, never confrontational. And when she was told to leave, she did, even if it sometimes took as much as an hour because Cabot security often blocked her car. Cabot personnel on site never asked local police to arrest her for trespassing.
But now, Cabot executives decided to launch a mega-attack, throwing against her the full power of a company that grosses more than $1 billion a year and is the largest driller in the region.
In court, Scroggins tried several times to explain that while near or on Cabot drilling operations, she had documented health and safety violations, many of which led to fines or citations. Every time she tried to present the evidence, one of Cabot's lawyers objected, and the judge struck Scroggins' testimony from the record. Cabot acknowledged Scroggins broke no laws but claimed she was a "nuisance."
Scroggins tried to explain that she put more than 500 short videotapes online or onto YouTube to show what fracking is, and the damage Cabot and other companies are doing. Again, Seamans accepted Cabot's objection, and struck her testimony.
And that's why Cabot wanted an injunction against Scroggins, one that would forbid her from ever going anywhere that Cabot has a lease. It had little to do with keeping a peaceful protestor away; it had everything to do with shutting down her ability to tell the truth.
Four days after the hearing, Seamans issued the temporary injunction that Cabot wanted. It forbid Scroggins from going onto any property that Cabot owned, was drilling, or had mineral rights, even if there was no drilling. The injunction didn't specify where Scroggins couldn't go. It was a task that required her to go to the courthouse in Montrose, dig through hundreds of documents, and figure it out for herself.
The injunction violates her rights of free speech by severely restricting her ability to document the practices of a company that may be violating both the public trust and the environment. According to the brief filed on her behalf, "The injunction sends a chilling message to those who oppose fracking and wish to make their voices heard or to document practices that they fear will harm them and their neighbors. That message is loud and clear: criticize a gas company, and you'll pay for it."
The injunction also violates her Fourteenth Amendment rights of association and the right of travel; Scroggins can't even go to homes of some of her friends, even if they invite her. That's because they had leased subsurface mineral rights to Cabot. However, Cabot never produced a lease, according to what the ACLU will present in court, to show that "it had a right to exclude her from the surface of properties where it has leased only the subsurface mineral rights."