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Article published December 3, 2012
Citizens’ voice feared
Michael Bagdes-Canning Cherry Valley
The war on terrorism is an abject failure. The terrorists are here in Western Pennsylvania, and our state government protects them. I spent a recent weekend with a group of about 100 concerned citizens on an organic farm in Bessemer, Lawrence County. We spent the entire weekend camping, strategizing — peacefully exercising our right to assembly. We were there to discuss how we should deal with a gas well being installed by Shell Oil Co. about 4,000 feet from a farm. The placement of the well is problematic for a number of reasons, but that’s not the point of this letter. The state Department of Environmental Protection has, intentionally, withheld water test results from homeowners near wells. Though that is a scandal, that also is not the point of this letter. Shell Oil is a corporate bad actor. It has been alleged that Shell’s relationship with the Nigerian government, police and military led to a wide range of human rights violations and deaths. In 2009, Shell agreed to pay a $15.5 million settlement, although admitting no wrongdoing. The suit alleged that Shell was involved in a campaign against local activists — a campaign that left 2,000 dead and 30,000 homeless. Shell also has a long history of environmental disasters. A pipeline in Nigeria had two leaks that spilled more oil than was spilled during the Exxon Valdez disaster. It still has not presented a plan to clean up that mess. Shell had more than 200 significant leaks in Nigeria in 2011. Shell had a huge oil spill in the North Sea in 2011. It didn’t report that spill for two days. On the Monday morning following the weekend at the organic farm, with just a small group of the citizens still in attendance, still at the farm, almost a mile from the Shell well, we were finishing our meetings and preparing to go to the site to protest. That’s when we noticed a state police helicopter circling over the farm. Shortly thereafter, we noticed three state police cruisers parked on the road adjacent to the farm. There also were state police vehicles parked on other roads near the farm. A bit later, after I flagged him down, a trooper told me there also were troopers at the well site. I assured the trooper that we were a peaceful, nonviolent group. I personally saw 10 separate state police vehicles and the helicopter; a reporter at the scene told me she had seen 16 separate vehicles. What does it say about our country when such a force is mobilized in the face of approximately 40 demonstrators exercising their right to peaceful assembly? What it says to me is that there are people in high places who have little regard for the constitutional rights of citizens. What it says to me is that the “rights” of an exploitative multinational corporation with a long, disgraceful history are protected at great cost while the voice of the citizens is feared. The attempt by the state to intimidate and stifle citizen speech is reprehensible. It will backfire. If Gov. Tom Corbett or Shell thinks that this show of force will dissuade future attempts by citizens to have their say, they are sadly mistaken. We’re not going anywhere.