Anti-fracking activist in court, fights ban from Pennsylvania land

David DeKok
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Anti-fracking activist Scroggins speaks to reporters after a court hearing in Montrose, Pennsylvania

Anti-fracking activist Vera Scroggins (C) speaks to reporters after a court hearing in Montrose, Pennsylvania, March 24, 2014. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

By David DeKok

MONTROSE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - A Pennsylvania judge could rule as early as this week on whether to modify his five-month-old injunction banning an anti-fracking activist from approaching lands leased by a Texas-based natural gas producer that effectively prohibits her from visiting the local hospital or grocery store.

Judge Kenneth Seamans suggested at a hearing on Monday in the Susquehanna County Court of Common Pleas that he was not inclined to lift the injunction against Vera Scroggins, 63, of Brackney, Pennsylvania, but he was skeptical about the 150-foot (46-meter) exclusion zone from active drilling sites and access roads requested by Cabot Oil & Gas Co.

"What is the significance of 150 feet?" Seamans asked.

Cabot leases about 40 percent of the land in Susquehanna County, where Scroggins lives, and the broad scope of the company's holding, coupled with the exclusion zone, made much of the county along Pennsylvania's northern border off-limits to her.

Amy Barrette, a lawyer for Cabot, said the figure for the zone takes into account the length of the large tractor-trailers that bring in supplies and equipment to drilling sites along narrow country roads.

Scott Michelman, a lawyer with Public Citizen Litigation Group in Washington, D.C., representing Scroggins, noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has limited protest exclusion zones around abortion clinics to as little as 15 feet.

Michelman argued that Cabot was attempting to send a message to anti-fracking activists that they risk punishing injunctions if they challenge the gas industry. Cabot denies that claim.

Fracking is the controversial process of injecting water, chemicals, and sand into the underground shale formation to extract oil and gas. It has brought about a gas boom in recent years in northeastern Pennsylvania, but also concerns about its impact on the environment.

Nearly 100 friends and foes of Scroggins crowded the 19th century courtroom to hear arguments by opposing lawyers.

Tammy Manning of Dimock, Pennsylvania, a town with flaming tap water that was highlighted in Josh Fox's Academy Award-nominated "Gasland" documentary, said her water supply had been contaminated by gas drilling.

Tom Shepstone, a drilling advocate from neighboring Wayne County, called Scroggins "a public menace" for her fracking tours that included celebrity activists such as Susan Sarandon and various public officials.

Vic Furman of Shenango Forks, New York, claimed that Scroggins, who shoots video to document the activities of the fracking industry, was feeding the public "misinformation."

Scroggins, a short, grey-haired grandmother, greeted Furman cheerily before the hearing.

His curt response: "Please stay away from me."

Scroggins said at a news conference after the hearing that she would not stop her activism against gas fracking, no matter what the court said. Asked if she was willing to go to jail, Scroggins said she was, if it was necessary to protect friends and family from the "contamination" of the shale gas industry.

(Editing by Scott Malone and Gunna Dickson)