Sheriff Yessman said the protests in Schuyler County are straining law enforcement resources.

About two weeks ago, Schuyler County Sheriff Bill Yessman sent his patrol officers to the Crestwood gas facility where dozens of protesters have been arrested in an attempt to stop a plant expansion.

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Soon after, 911 received a call that a person elsewhere in Schuyler County had gone into cardiac arrest. By the time responders arrived it was too late: the patient died.

Sheriff Yessman said one of the officers who would have been near the patient — had he not been called to the Crestwood protests — was trained as an Emergency Medical Technician and equipped with a defibrillator.

“Would it have made a difference? We’ll never know,” Yessman said in an interview Tuesday.

“I support people’s right to protest — they have a cause, they have a passion … but when we have to deal with this every day we are putting our citizens at risk for a real emergency.”

Sheriff Yessman said the protests in Schuyler County are straining law enforcement resources.

Hundreds of protesters have descended on this small community to protest the proposed Crestwood gas facility expansion. The sheriff said the movement has put a serious strain on law enforcement resources — and noted, with nine more arrests Tuesday, that there appears to be no end in sight since rallies began in late October.

The protesters say they don’t agree with the sheriff’s description of the effect of their civil disobedience, which has involved blocking the gates of the gas facility. They say their fight is of crucial importance that will do far more to protect public safety and health in the region.

They also say that the sheriff’s office does not have to devote resources to confronting the protesters.

“We don’t want to be a priority for the sheriff, so we’re happy to have them be non-responsive to us,” said Sandra Steingraber, a leader in the protests.

“We certainly encourage the sheriff to respond to every single 911 call before they come to us.”

Steingraber added that the Crestwood opposition sees the expansion “as a terrible threat to our first responders.”

“We are acting to protect the sheriff and his deputies because if there’s a terrible accident (at Crestwood) they’ll be the first ones out there,” she said.

Crestwood officials have swept aside the criticism. The company plans to store compressed gas in empty salt caverns.

“The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has repeatedly approved natural gas storage projects using US Salt caverns in the same salt formation,” a presentation by Crestwood officials states. “Propane has been stored safely in Schuyler County for more than 50 years.”

However, the protesters have questioned the safety of Crestwood’s expansions given its proximity to Seneca Lake, the source of drinking water for more than 100,000 people.

But Sheriff Yessman’s comments raise new concerns in the debate: that the protests could be interfering with local law enforcement duties.

Yessman also said that the county’s taxpayers are shouldering the financial burden of keeping the protesters in jail. Most of those who have been jailed, he said, are from outside the region.

Disagreeing with Steingraber, Yessman said the sheriff’s deputies have to respond to Crestwood if the protesters break the law.

“We have to control a situation if we’re involved with it,” Yessman said.

“If we have to go up there every day, we’ll go up there every day.”

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.