Minisink environmental rally leads to threat of lawsuit after worker's car hits protester

Protesters rally against Millennium Pipeline Co.'s project to Protesters rally against Millennium Pipeline Co.'s project to a $43 million Minisink compressor station in Westtown Saturday. (Feb. 16, 2013) Photo Credit: Nick Russo

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Nancy Russo was with about 200 other protesters Saturday, demonstrating against a compressor station down the street from her Minisink house when she says she was hit by a truck -- and now she's threatening to sue.

Tensions were running high at the protest and Russo, the wife of 9/11 first responder Nick Russo, said she was watching troopers arrest a man for disorderly conduct when she was knocked off her feet by a truck driven by a construction worker.

"I don't even know where he came from," said Russo, who suffered bruises and was treated by paramedics at the scene. "Thank God he wasn't going any faster. It happened so fast. I couldn't believe he hit me."

Russo said she was still shaken hours after the incident and said her back was sore where the truck hit her.

The protest, originally slated to feature anti-fracking activist and actor Mark Ruffalo, is aimed at stopping the controversial Millennium Pipeline Co. from building the $43 million Minisink compressor station in the heart of Orange County's famed black dirt farm country. Neighbors, many who live only a few hundred feet from the site, argue the project has ruined quality of life in their quiet neighborhood and poses a health hazard.

Each side told a different version of events after the emotional hourlong early afternoon rally. The protesters saw malice in the incident, while contractors working at the site said they were intimidated by protesters as the crowd swelled to more than 200 and moved closer to the work area.

Russo said she was livid that State Police didn't admonish the driver of the truck and didn't allow her to press charges.

"At this point, I want his job," she said of one trooper who declined to take a report. "My right as a human being is to be safe. (The trooper) never went over to the truck, never did anything, never took his name down."

"I want to give Michael Sussman a call," she said, referring to the high-powered Orange County attorney known for litigating cases involving police. "For the troopers to act like it's OK and for Millennium to allow their workers to act like that? I don't think so."

State Police declined to discuss the allegations Saturday, but confirmed they arrested one protester and defused the situation when protesters -- who were told to stay across the street from the construction site -- spilled out into the road and confronted the construction workers. The man who was arrested is a 48-year-old who lives nearby; he was charged with disorderly conduct, a violation.

Troopers said they eventually did take a report from Russo.

"She did report an allegation and it's an open case and under investigation," said State Police Sgt. Ken Ward.

A spokesman for Millennium refuted the claims of protesters, and said people in the crowd were the aggressors. The wife of a welder stopped by the site to drop off lunch when the protesters tried to block her path, said Millennium spokesman Steve Sullivan. The welder's wife had the couple's 8-month-old baby in the backseat.

As the woman tried to pull out of the work site, "the opposition folks started banging on her car and really scared her, so she pulled back into the site," Sullivan said.

The welder, fearing for the safety of his wife and child, got in his truck and tried to "guide" his wife out, driving in front of her car so the protesters focused on his truck instead. That's when he accidentally "bumped" Russo, according to Sullivan.

"She was quite scared and obviously he was very upset by the fact that his wife was so intimidated," Sullivan said.

The protesters were supposed to stay clear of the work site and were told not to interrupt traffic, he said.

"Apparently emotions were running very high and it sounds like an unfortunate situation," Sullivan said. "But people have no right to be banging on cars and stopping the flow of traffic."

Russo said protesters hit the welder's truck, not his wife's car. She disputed the timing of Sullivan's account, saying the crowd reacted only after the welder struck her.

"He took it into his own hands and he gassed it like he was going to run people over," she said. "And yes, people started hitting his truck, and that was the white truck, not the truck that the woman was in."

Some lamented that the incident obscured the reason for the protest.

The protesters gathered shortly before the 12:30 rally with chants for justice. While most of the demonstrators were across the street from the construction site, some had drifted over to the entrance just as two pickup trucks pulled out, said Paul Gallay, president of the environmental group Riverkeeper and one of the scheduled speakers.

"There was a lot of emotion," he recalled as he watched from a distance. "The trucks came out hot and I'm sure that didn't sit well with people. ... Some tempers boiled over but for the most part, people stayed calm and spoke their piece about the unfairness of this project in the view of safer alternatives."

Asha Canalos, a spokeswoman for Stop the Minisink Compression Station, said onlookers screamed as the truck backed into Russo. Canalos said people were "upset and crying."

While the protesters are not trying to stop the pipeline, which will supply natural gas to New York City, they want the compressor station moved to a more remote industrial site owned by Pearl River-based Millennium in nearby Deerpark. Compressor stations are typically built along a pipeline's route to help keep the pressurized gas moving through the system.

Some people living near compressor stations in other parts of the country have reported chronic sore throats, headaches, nosebleeds and other ailments. There haven't been any scientific studies linking illness specifically to compressor stations, but a major study in Fort Worth, Texas, found that large compressor stations might exceed some pollution standards.

The rally was held this weekend to spotlight the residents' hope for a response next week from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. They have petitioned to stop construction of the nearly completed compressor station, have it dismantled and relocated.

With The Associated Press

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