By Joshua Pribanic & Melissa Troutman
Public Herald journalists photographing natural gas operations in Pennsylvania were falsely detained in the middle of the night by two water truck drivers on an unmarked road in Tioga State Forest and labeled ecoterrorists.
Listen to full story » Podcast: Natural Gas Ecoterrorism
This report is the retelling of what happened in August 2011.
On our way home from an interview in Troy, Pennsylvania, we decided to take an alternate route through Tioga State Forest and take advantage of the clear night to photograph drilling rigs for our documentary concerning shale gas development, Triple Divide.
We didn’t have a plan but knew we needed night shots, so we followed the dark, dirt and gravel public roads to where the lights of a rig were illuminating the sky. The drilling rigs at night are captivating. As the sun falls, glowing orbs form across the landscape, reshaping the dark forests of northern Pennsylvania.
The roads were unmarked except for occasional road names, number posts or the small signs gas drilling companies are required to put alongside the road to display well permit numbers. We wound our way to the first rig site, which had a small trailer under floodlights at the entrance with a guard on duty. Guard trailers are often found where companies hold multiple well sites, as a safety precaution, since drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking,’ are dangerous and specialized work.
The guard granted us permission to photograph outside of an orange fence that demarcated a restricted area surrounding the drilling operation where pipe was being driven into the ground to extract natural gas.
Joshua: While I photographed from the fence, a dark silhouette emerged from the light of the drill site.
He asked what I was doing, and wore a hard hat clustered with stickers.
‘I’m a photographer getting some shots of the rigs at night,’ I replied and showed him some of the photos on my camera’s LCD screen. I told him I’d checked in with the woman at the guard shack for permission.
We talked for a minute about shale gas. The worker opened his phone to boast about a photo he’d taken of a glowing sunset behind a rig at a different well site. After chatting a few more minutes I continued photographing, and after about an hour we left the first site.
Before leaving, we asked the guard if more rigs were close by. She gave us directions to where another rig should be, and though we thought we had followed her directions closely, we ended up at a large impoundment pond instead. Observing no signs to indicate a restricted road, I pulled the vehicle to the side and took a few pictures and video of the pipes under flood lights.
A large truck with a tank was backed up to the pond’s perimeter and a hose was pumping water in. Two workers, also in hard hats and who later approached us to see what we were doing, said the water was from an old mine and going to be used for hydraulic fracturing. They also told us that the water was contaminated from acid mine drainage, and it had no use to the city. One worker mentioned that it helped decrease the need for fresh water to frack the wells.
Melissa: The workers at the pond said more trucks hauling water were on the way, and they were about to come over a hill from the direction we were headed. At that point, it was getting late and I was getting tired, so we turned around and started to navigate our way out of the forest, heading north toward Route 6. By pure luck, driving out of the forest on what I thought was Arnot Road, we passed another swath of light only a few hundred yards away. We turned onto a side road that ran between the edge of a forest, where the rig was, and a clearing. There was no guard shack, fences, or signs of any kind, so we pulled onto the berm to photograph.
While Josh stayed at the car to set up his tripod, I walked up a small hill to photograph. I had sandals on; I hadn’t planned on photographing that night. I walked up what turned out to be a muddy mound. My feet sank, the mud sliding between my toes. I started changing my camera settings when I noticed there were other bright lights heading our way. I turned around and saw Josh set his tripod aside and pull his car further onto the
edge of the dirt road to give a water truck more room to pass. But instead of driving by, the truck stopped in the middle of the road. Josh approached the driver’s door to talk. I saw them start talking, didn’t think much of it and turned back around to photograph. A minute later, Josh called for me to return to the car.
As I carefully made my way down the mud mound, a second truck pulled up, stopping in the middle of the road opposite the first with the car in the middle. The second driver got out of the truck as I made my way back to the car and told us we were trespassing and that he was instructed to get our license plate number and keep us there for questioning.
Josh wanted to keep his car off the record and called to me to get in the car, but I wanted answers. I knew I had done nothing wrong and defended my right as a member of the public to be on state forest land. I later identified myself and Josh as press.
I noted there weren’t any signs indicating that I had left state forest land and was now on someone else’s property. The driver said “it doesn’t matter” and that I could be “arrested for trespassing” while writing down our license number. I told him that I would also record his license number and walked to the back of his truck to take a picture.
Just as I had snapped a photo, I heard Josh yell and say something about not touching his equipment. As I came around the truck to see what had happened, I caught Josh pushing the man away. I tried to turn the video camera on to document what was happening, but in my hurry toward Josh I accidentally turned the camera off. As I approached the driver, Josh backed up to the rear of his vehicle — the man turned, caught site of my camera and lunged toward me.
Around six feet tall and weighing at least twice as I much as I, he wrapped his right arm around my shoulders and forced me against the car, trying to grab my camera which I had hugged to my chest. He missed, grabbing my left breast with his left hand. Josh reached us and began to pull the man back. Then, suddenly, the man was off.
He took a few steps backward, yelled “Get out of here! Just get out of here!” We jumped into the car, made a three point turn between the trucks and drove through the grass around the first truck to go out the way we had come in. All the while, the first driver never left his vehicle, and I never saw his face.
If I had been alone, who knows what would have happened? I don’t think I’d still have my camera if Josh hadn’t been there.
Joshua: The first truck driver made every attempt to make me feel like we had committed a crime and at any second they could have authorities there to arrest us. He rolled his window down two or three times to say this, as he went back and forth on the CB. Again and again, he spoke as to how we had trespassed on Seneca Resources property and that he was waking up the “gas guy” to come down and handle it.
In honesty, I was shocked to hear the man suggest we were trespassing on state property…but people talk, and when you say you’re investigating shale gas the warning is, “you better be careful, those people don’t play nice,” and those words echoed in the back of my mind as I looked down the dirt road and saw a second set of lights closing in.
I moved away from the first truck and approached what was a second water truck, parking in the middle of the road near the front of my car. As I walked to the second truck I hollered to Melissa, thinking again about the caveat.
The second driver swung the door open, pulled out a pen and paper, stepped out of the truck and walked straight to my license plate. I did not want my car marked for companies to cite as I worked on stories throughout the state, so I threw my equipment in the car and told Melissa to get in. I would have risked scraping through the ditch ahead rather than have my license plate on a list. But Melissa had other things on her mind and began debating with the trucker while he took down my plate. After arguing back and forth about who we were, Melissa told him we were investigative journalists, which seemed to justify for him any action he’d taken so far. He turned on the heel, went back to his truck, said something about how he had someone coming for us, and I went for my camera to photograph both trucks.
I shot the first, shot the front of the second, went to the side of the second to get the name of the door, but stepped back as the trucker jumped out, yelled for my camera, saying “give me that picture of my truck!” I managed to shoot one more photo before his hand reached for my camera. I threw him back, yelled that if he touched my equipment I’d have him in a room with my lawyers. He yelled again for the picture of his truck, and I shouted back that I hadn’t taken a picture of his truck, making any attempt to calm him down as I saw Melissa head toward us with her camera. I moved to the rear of my car hoping he might be led away, but as soon as he turned and saw her approaching he lunged toward her.
My instinct kicked in when he wrapped his arms around her and pinned her against the car; I locked my arms around his and pulled him back until he lost his strength and Melissa was free. He walked off shouting for us to just get out of there, and I had no intention to wait around to meet any more gas guys.
Melissa: As the gravity of what had just happened still hung above us, I just wanted to get far away fast. However, we had the sense of mind to stop and check at the road’s entrance, maybe 200 yards from where the trucks blocked us in, and snap photos to see that we hadn’t missed some sign in the dark. There were no signs, so we left and decided to file a report in the morning.
The next day, I called Tioga State Forest District Forester Roy Siefert and scheduled a meeting to file a report with him and Chief Ranger Brian Caldwell. Chief Caldwell took written statements and pictures of our vehicle, gave me a crime victim case number, and verified that we were not trespassing and completely within our rights to take pictures. According to Caldwell, the road where we parked when the incident occurred should have had a sign restricting vehicle access, but that the sign had been missing for a couple weeks. Regardless, they told us, it would have been perfectly fine to park on the main road and walk down the vehicle restricted road in order to photograph on foot, but added we had no way of knowing without a sign.
Caldwell and Seifert also gave us a handout concerning Public Use Policies on State Land which stated: “The state forest system is publically owned. As long as visitors follow post signs, stay off of well pads and associated areas, visitors are allowed to observe, photograph and recreate in the surrrounding forest.”
(See the handout at the end of this report.)
Joshua: We recommended to the foresters that natural gas contractors be informed of public rights on public property via a handout, or better, an orientation with forestry officials. We also recommended that state forest personnel be the ones to handle security within public state forests.
We told the DCNR that Melissa feared retribution should the driver, who may have a family to support, lose his job or have criminal charges filed against him. Seneca also operates Marcellus wells in the Susquehannock State Forest less than a mile from her family’s home. She’s a known reporter and easy to find. For these reasons, she did not press charges at the time of filing the report, fully expecting Seneca Resources and the state to handle corrective action and create measures to prevent a similar incident from happening again.
Melissa: Two days after we filed our report, I received an email from Doug Kepler of Seneca Resources. Kepler’s email simply said, “Please call me at 814-771-0281. Thank you.” But I didn’t call; I wanted to hear back from the Bureau of Forestry first. In hindsight, I wish I had called the State Police when it happened and had the courage to wait until they arrived. Caldwell and Siefert told me when we gave our written statements that, though I could do what I thought best, their powers within the state forest were equal to that of the state police.
Joshua: On August 25, after three and half weeks of interviews for his investigation, Chief Ranger Caldwell stated, in a voice message he left Melissa, that the driver “didn’t know who you were and didn’t want photos of his vehicle out there,” but that he’d informed the driver that “while on public property and in plain view” there was no law against taking pictures of vehicles and that the driver’s actions in trying to steal the camera were “inappropriate.” Caldwell also stated that there were concerns on the part of the gas company about other areas our car was in prior to the assault.
When Melissa returned Caldwell’s call, he told her the gas company had expressed to him other concerns, including the fact that they had “recently experienced vandalism” and thought we “may have been ecoterrorists.”
Melissa: I later exchanged emails with Doug Kepler from Seneca, wherein he wrote that “any reasonable person would question the veracity of someone claiming to be the press at two a.m. on a dead end road next to our operations where we have had vandalism.” I replied, stating our work as journalists occurs 24/7 at times, just like gas drilling, and that even though citizens express concerns to us about trucks hauling liquid running more at night than by day, we don’t assume suspicious activity based upon the time trucks are hauling.
Kepler didn’t respond to my email reply and didn’t return my phone call after that.
Regardless of any concerns the company or their employees may have had, it is highly unethical and common thuggery to first accuse us of trespassing and use it as a reason to detain us, then use force and attempt to steal our cameras. Ranger Caldwell was very helpful and investigated the matter as false detainment and simple assault, however, once he finished his investigation and handed it off to Harrisburg, we heard nothing further from DCNR or Seneca.
Claims “Without Merit”
Joshua: When a Sandusky Register reporter called me to write a story about my work investigating natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, Seneca was back on the table. I’m from Sandusky, Ohio where the newspaper is published, and mentioned the incident in Tioga State Forest to the reporter who followed up by calling Seneca Resources for comment.
The comment issued by the company, according to the reporter, claimed that the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry had found our claim “without merit.” Melissa immediately called Tioga State Forest office and asked for Siefert, who wasn’t in. She then asked for Caldwell, who informed her that he could not release any reports or confirm what determinations his superiors in Harrisburg had made, but he did tell her that it couldn’t be proven from the audio and video submitted with our written statements that the driver had actually touched anyone, other than the audio recording of me yelling at him not to touch her. Melissa asked Caldwell why her written statement had been ignored, to which he replied that the other driver claimed to not have seen or done anything and that we had to call Harrisburg with any other questions, that he was not really supposed to talk to her about it.
We decided to seek legal counsel when it became apparent that, not only had nothing been done to the driver who perpetuated the violence, but that there seemed to be a complete dismissal of the incident altogether.
Melissa: Our attorney, Jeffrey Pribanic, made the following statement: “We’re pursuing a legal claim for false imprisonment, assault — both physical and verbal — and potential defamation on behalf of our clients, Melissa Troutman and Joshua Pribanic.
“We wrote to DCNR on two occasions for information about the outcome of the investigation conducted by chief investigator Mr. Caldwell with no response,” said Jeffrey, adding, “No one has the right to violate First Amendment privileges.
“For violations to the general public, and for investigative reporters, it’s necessary to seek justice; to uphold your rights; to be protected as a citizen from any violations by the gas industry.”
Jeffrey stated a case like this could last almost two years before it is completed.
The law firm Pribanic&Pribanic, an LLC taking shale gas cases in Pennsylvania is a sponsor of Publicherald.org and provides legal representation to The Public Herald. Jeffrey is also Joshua’s uncle.
Ecoterrorism & Journalism
In discussions between the Seneca Resources and Chief Caldwell, we were made out to be considered “ecoterrorists” who attempted to trespass and potentially vandalize Seneca’s drill sites, even though the audio recording of this incident is clear that we identified ourselves as investigative journalists in conversation with the second truck driver.
The irony in all of this of course lies in the fact that the industry, under the guise of protecting the public and private sectors from acts of intimidation, harm or violence, are themselves using scare tactics to incite fear and danger by falsely assigning the title of “terrorist” to whomever may be perceived as a nuisance.
In September 2010, an intelligence bulletin for law enforcement officials was leaked from the Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security and made public by ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten. The document listed a screening of the film, Gasland, and a meeting of the Pennsylvania Forestry Association among events having potential for “aggressive protest action” against shale gas drilling. For his article, Lustgarten questioned Pennsylvania State Police who had not had identified any reports of environmental extremism in the state.
The bulletin identified protesters of certain groups as “environmental militants.” An ecoterrorist, or organization considered to perform acts of ecoterrorism, can be red flagged by the Department of Homeland Security and subjected to various forms of surveillance. Their tactics usually include tree spiking — where a metal stake is driven into the ground near the tree trunk to break a chainsaw — arson or even bombing.
To be labeled as, or even associated with, an ecoterrorist is no small thing.
It’s been revealed in various media reports, starting with CNBC, oil and gas executives currently operating in Pennsylvania consider their public opposition an “insurgency” and recommend “psy ops” or “psychological warfare” tactics to deal with an “emotionally charged issue”.
Clearly, a need for government to protect the people within the United States from real acts of aggression or violence has been usurped by private interests when journalists, or the public, can be so easily labeled as “ecoterrorists.”
PH thanks the Editors-at-Large who assisted in writing this report.
Public Herald is a member of the Committee to Protect Journalists and takes any threat or attempt to harm personnel, verbally or physically, very seriously. We were exercising a constitutional right as members of the free press to document and record events of interest to the public on public property when stripped of that right by contractors of Seneca Resources.
PH as a nonprofit will use its resources to ensure the rights of the public and those provided to a free press are upheld according to constitutional standards. To help PH in this case please consider becoming a Lifetime Member for $30. Readers can also share their personal story about the natural gas industry by emailing our editors.