ITHACA, N.Y. — I saw something today at the Tompkins County Legislature meeting that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in my short time covering local government.

I can’t decide if it was brilliant or bonkers; either way, it was definitely surreal.

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Here’s what happened: 

On Tuesday, the assembled lawmakers took up a proposal — brought forward by some of the more liberal members of the legislature — to urge the state to study the dangers of an expanding natural gas infrastructure in New York.

The resolution, “Protecting Public Health from the Impacts of Large-scale New Pipeline Projects and Compressor Stations,” had no real regulatory teeth. It instead called for county officials to send a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, among others, noting that Tompkins County joins the the American Medical Association in “advocating legislation to require a comprehensive health impact assessment” about the dangers of new natural gas infrastructure, according to a news release.

Enter Tompkins Legislator Mike Sigler, a Republican from Lansing.

Sigler was not alone in opposing the bill, which eventually passed by a 10-3 margin. (Legislator Jim Dennis, for instance, raised doubts about the efficacy of the proposal and even questioned the truth of some of its written components.)

But what I’d never seen before is how Sigler tried to defeat the motion: He proposed that the resolution be expanded, so that it call for a moratorium on all new natural gas infrastructure — something that hadn’t been discussed and went far further than the original bill.

One of the lawmakers appeared confused. “Will you vote for it?,” she asked Sigler.

“Sure,” Sigler responded.

It wasn’t clear if he was serious. The legislature’s Chair Mike Lane wanted to move things forward.  “Are you — Do you want to move an amendment?,” Lane asked, searching for clarification.

Sigler responded that he did. “I think we should enforce, if anybody wants to put in a new system we shouldn’t let them do that,” he said. “We shouldn’t let people put in new natural gas infrastructure.”

Lane pressed Sigler over what he was up to. “Mike, I need to know the nature of your amendment,” Lane said.

Mike Sigler

Sigler confirmed that he was proposing a “new moratorium on any new natural gas installation anywhere in the, what, county? Or state? How big are we going to go?”

Lane shrugged.”Is there a second for an addition of a resolution calling for a moratorium?,” he asked.

Nobody seconded Sigler’s motion, and the amendment failed. Then the initial motion was quickly passed, with Sigler voting against the bill that he had just been unable to strengthen.

The argument for the proposal

Why was the proposal made?

Legislator Carol Chock spoke at length Tuesday night about the environmental and ecological dangers of the Dominion Pipeline and other “gas build-outs” set to carry natural gas across states from the Marcellus Shale region.

The feared impacts of the pipeline infrastructure is long. The resolution, for instance, says it “… exposes humans and animals to the same chemical and radioactive emissions as those released at drilling sites, which include dangerous mixtures of contaminants such as carcinogens, mutagens, endocrine disruptors, neurotoxins, respiratory irritants, mucocutaneous irritants and toxins, and hematological, and cardiovascular toxins, and which are especially damaging to the development of embryos, fetuses, and children, as well as reproduction and survival of livestock, poultry and wild animals.”

Legislator Martha Robertson said the bill was a “very good start” at getting officials to study the health impacts of natural gas infrastructure across the state, much as occurred during the anti-fracking movement.

“I think it’s certainly time and timely to ask the state to look at this very important issue,” she said.

A federal agency is considering proposals from multiple companies to expand natural gas pipelines and compressor stations in multiple parts of New York state, including Chemung, Madison and Tompkins counties.

“Pipelines and Compressor Stations have been documented to sustain damage during natural 5 extreme weather events such as floods, tornados, hurricanes, landslides, and lightning storms, and result in explosions, fires, and other life-threatening events,” the resolution states.

Sigler’s questions

Still, Legislator Sigler raised reservations about the proposal. “I don’t know what ‘large scale’ means,” Sigler said, referencing the title of the bill. He also said the letter should go to the federal government, not state officials — given that the discussed pipelines sometimes cross state lines.

But Sigler’s sharpest criticism of the motion — and what led to his unusual tactic — stemmed from what he appeared to see as a contradiction. Sigler was pointing to what he sees as the discrepancies between the severity of the health dangers claimed by the county resolution, and the fact that the bill only called for further study — rather than immediate action to remedy the problem.

If the other lawmakers believed that the natural gas infrastructure causes such catastrophic health impacts, Sigler suggested, far more dramatic action would be required than additional study.

“Maybe you should be pushing for a moratorium … from what everyone just said, are we in danger by sitting in this building? When you guys redesigned this building … and heated it with natural gas, are you saying you put all these people in danger? So all the schools, really should be retrofitted,” he said. “And then, I guess, all the Cornell buildings, too.”

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Jeff Stein

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