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24 Mar, 2014 15:31

Anti-fracking activist asks court to lift ban keeping her from local hospital, grocery store

Attorneys for a 62-year-old anti-fracking activist from Pennsylvania are in court on Monday attempting to overturn a ruling that keeps their client from stepping foot in nearly half of the county she lives in.

Since October, a preliminary injunction filed against Vera Scroggins of Brackney, PA has barred the retired nurse’s aide and grandmother from being on the property of any part of Susquehanna County leased by Cabot Oil and Gas — a Texas-based energy company that conducts shale gas extraction in the region through the controversial practice known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Scroggins is a vocal opponent of fracking and, according to Cabot, has trespassed on their property no fewer than 11 times to either lead unsanctioned tours of drilling sites or record footage about the operations that are then uploaded to her personal YouTube account. Currently, her page on the video-sharing site contains nearly 500 clips ranging from anti-fracking protests to county commissioners meetings where drillings were discussed.

Attorneys for Cabot likely aren’t exactly fans of that footage, though, and intend on May 1 to argue at trial that the preliminary injunction filed against Scroggins last October should be made permanent. In the meantime, Scroggins’ own legal team is in court this week arguing that the injunction should be altogether thrown out on account of being what they consider to be entirely too broad.

The current injunction indicates that “Ms. Scroggins is restrained, enjoined and prohibited from entering upon property owned and/or leased by Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation including but not limited to well sites, well pads and access roads.” According to Scroggins’ attorneys, though, Cabot has leased subsurface rights to more than 200,000 acres across the state, including around 40 percent of Susquehanna County.

In a motion to vacate that injunction filed by the defense, Scroggins’ attorneys said that the court’s decision not only “imposes a substantial hardship on her, is overbroad and violates her constitutional freedoms of speech and movement,” but wrote that “Cabot’s claim that it may exclude a person from the surface of any land above a Cabot mineral-rights leasehold would, if adopted, fundamentally alter the contours of Pennsylvania property law and usurp the rights of property owners throughout Susquehanna County to decide who may enter their land.”

“In the company’s view, the right to extract gas also includes the right to curtail the movements of an individual protesting the company’s activities so sharply that the individual is banned from her grocery store, local hospital, rehabilitation center, recycling center and friends’ homes,” they wrote. “In short, the right to extract gas is, according to the company, also the right to banish.”

Indeed, Scroggins says that her personal life has effectively put turned upside down by the injunction. According to the motion to vacate, she legally is not allowed inside of the hospital that is nearest to her home or the neighborhood hardware store. Additionally, her lawyers say she spent hours researching what properties are in fact leased to Cabot “and she is anxious that she will accidentally go where she is forbidden.”

"They might as well have put an ankle bracelet on me with a GPS on it and be able to track me wherever I go," Scroggins told The Guardian in January. "I feel like I am some kind of a prisoner, that my rights have been curtailed, have been restricted."

"We need a map. We need to know where I can and can not go," she told the paper. "Can I stop here, or can I not stop here? Is it OK to be here if I go to a business or if I go to a home? I have had to ask and check out every person I go to: 'are you leased to Cabot'?"

When The Guardian reached Cabot for comment in January, spokesperson George Stark said “Cabot supports an individual's right to free speech and regrets having to seek relief from the court in order to prevent Ms. Scroggins from repeatedly trespassing on company property, where she could potentially jeopardize the safety of herself and others."

"Cabot's primary concern is with operational sites where safety issues are concerned," he added to Reuters this week.

Monday’s hearings are at the Susquehanna County Court of Common Pleas in Montrose, Pennsylvania and will be head by Judge Kenneth Seamans. Scroggins is being represented by attorneys from both the American Civil Liberties Union and Public Citizen.