by Walter Brasch
Vera Scroggins of Susquehanna County, Pa., was found to be in contempt of court, Thursday, and fined $1,000.
Her offense? She tells the truth.
Truth is something that apparently has bypassed the court of Judge Kenneth W. Seamans, who retired at the end of 2014, but came out of retirement to handle this case.
The case began in October 2013.
Scroggins, a retired real estate agent and nurse’s aide, was in Common Pleas Court to explain why a temporary injunction should not be issued against her. That injunction would require her to stay at least 150 feet from all properties where Cabot Oil and Gas had leased mineral rights, even if that distance was on public property. Because Cabot had leased mineral rights to 40 percent of Susquehanna County, about 300 square miles, almost any place Scroggins wanted to be was a place she was not allowed to be, even if the owner of the surface rights granted her permission.
Before Judge Seamans were three corporate lawyers, a lawyer from the county, and several Cabot employees who accused Scroggins of trespassing and causing irreparable harm to the company that had almost $1 billion in revenue the previous year.
Since 2009, Scroggins has led Pennsylvania and New York residents, celebrities, government officials, and journalists on tours of the gas fields. She often had friendly discussions with the workers—and when management asked her to leave, she did. She has posted more than 500 YouTube videos of fracking operations, documenting what fracking is, what it does, and how there may be unsafe practices. The state DEP has even used her documentation as part of the evidence necessary to cite and then fine gas drillers.
Scroggins asked the judge for a continuance because she had only received the summons three days earlier, on a Friday, and couldn’t get legal representation by Monday.
Seamans told her he wouldn’t grant a continuance because she didn’t give the court 24 hours notice. “He said that to grant a continuance would inconvenience three of the lawyers who had come from Pittsburgh [about 250 miles to the southwest], and I might have to pay their fees if the hearing was delayed,” says Scroggins.
That afternoon, Seamans granted Cabot its preliminary injunction.
By March 2014, Cabot and Scroggins were back in court for a hearing to modify Seamans’ original temporary injunction. This time, Cabot wanted the buffer zone extended to 500 feet, but couldn’t show any reason why 500 feet was necessary. Unlike her first appearance when she didn’t have legal representation, she now had Public Citizen, the Pennsylvania ACLU, and local attorney Gerald Kinchy, represent her when she sought to vacate the order.
The revised order prohibited Scroggins from going within 100 feet of any active well pad or access roads of properties Cabot owns or has leased mineral rights, even if on public property.
Although the judge agreed that his preliminary order may have been broad and violated Scroggins’ First Amendment rights, he continued the injunction, which still violated her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
What Seamans didn’t agree about was his conflict-of-interest. He refused to remove himself from the case. On Nov. 9, 2007, he and Elexco Energy signed a mineral lease agreement for 79 acres in New Milford Twp., in the northern part of the county. On April 29, 2008, that lease was transferred to Southwestern Energy. Whether or not that lease proved to be financially lucrative is not in dispute—what is in dispute is that the judge, by signing with an energy company working separate fields in the same area as the plaintiff, even if not Cabot, could benefit, thus compromising his objectivity.
In February, Scroggins and her attorneys were again in court, trying to rebut claims she violated the injunction. This time, Cabot claimed that on Jan. 16, Scroggins, while leading another tour of the gas fields, walked on an access road to one of its operations. It never claimed she was on Cabot property—only that she was on a public access road. “There was no guard on this site,” says Scroggins, noting, “it’s an inactive site; no personnel; no trucks.”
Scroggins argued she had parked in the private driveway of a friend 672 feet from Cabot property, and that the three persons she was hosting, including a French photojournalist, walked to the gate of a Cabot operation, took pictures, and then walked back to the driveway where she waited for them. Scroggins had witnesses who testified under oath she did not leave the driveway or go onto Cabot property.
Cabot produced a worker who backed up the company’s claim, and provided a photo of Scroggins. However, that photo didn’t show Scroggins on access roads or on Cabot property but, as she had truthfully claimed, on a private driveway 672 feet from Cabot property. The judge believed the one paid-for worker, not the other witnesses.
According to a brief filed by Scroggins’ attorneys, “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.”
And that’s why the Cabot Oil and Gas Corp. wanted an injunction against Scroggins. It had little to do with keeping a peaceful protestor away or protecting worker safety; it had everything to do not only with shutting down her ability to tell the truth but also to put fear into others who might also wish to tell the truth about fracking and Cabot’s operations.
Just as important, a judge willingly became a co-conspirator to corporate interests. Seamans had said the fine will go to Cabot to defer some of its legal costs.
[ Dr. Brasch, an award-winning journalist, is author of 20 books. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]