Photographer denies trespassing to take photos of power plant
Amateur photographer Gary Sprague of Upper Burrell was pleased with the pictures he took in September of industrial sites in the Conemaugh River valley.
He was less excited by the citation he received in the mail a few weeks later from state police for allegedly trespassing at the Conemaugh Generating Station, a power plant in West Wheatfield, Indiana County, across the river from New Florence, Westmoreland County.
Sprague and another photographer who accompanied him on the Sept. 14 excursion insist they never left the side of a state road and did not cross the well-posted fences and barriers onto the power plant's property.
Sprague believes the trespassing citation, to which he has pleaded not guilty, was in retaliation for taking photos of the site.
“I do plan on fighting it,” said Sprague. “I was not trespassing. I did not break any laws. I was exercising my rights as a photographer.”
Sprague, 52, a co-founder of the 2-year-old New Kensington Camera Club, said he enjoys photographing industrial and historical sites. He and a fellow club member had set out for Indiana County that Saturday, following railroad tracks along the Conemaugh River.
They arrived in the area of the Conemaugh power plant just as a train hauling coal was passing. They stopped along Power Plant Road (State Route 2008) and Sprague began snapping pictures.
Sprague said they also stopped at another roadside spot so he could get a better angle of new construction at the plant. He said he and his colleague remained in the area for about two hours, always along the public right of way and never crossing the barriers.
Eventually, a power plant security guard approached them and told them they were trespassing, Sprague said.
“He said, ‘There's no photography allowed here,' ” Sprague said, adding that the guard referenced a Department of Homeland Security-related prohibition on photography at power plants.
“There's no signs saying ‘no photography,' ” Sprague said. “There are signs that say ‘no trespassing' and ‘hunting by permit allowed.' So I can walk in there with a loaded gun, but I can't take pictures?”
The other photographer, an Arnold woman who asked not to be identified because she has not been cited, confirmed Sprague's account.
She said the guard seemed more concerned about Sprague's photos than the alleged trespassing.
Sprague said he declined when the guard allegedly asked him to either delete his photos or surrender his camera's memory card. Sprague said the guard took down their information and asked them to leave; they complied.
Sprague thought the incident was behind him until a trespassing citation arrived in the mail, indicating he had “ignored numerous ‘no trespassing signs' and entered private property” at the Conemaugh power plant.
The citation, filed by state police Trooper Richard Englert, carries a fine in excess of $400. Sprague has pleaded not guilty and faces a summary trial before Blairsville District Judge Jennifer J. Rega on Nov. 5.
David Gaier, a New Jersey-based spokesman for power plant operator NRG Energy Inc., declined to comment on the incident other than to say the guard filed an incident report with the state police.
Gaier would not comment on whether there are restrictions on photographing the power plant.
Trooper Englert, at the state police station in Indiana, did not respond to calls for comment.
Not the 1st time
Bill Hall of Lower Burrell, the New Kensington Camera Club's treasurer, said it's not the first time one of their members has been hassled for taking pictures. He said one photographer has run into problems trying to photograph trains and another man for photographing a federal building in Pittsburgh.
Authorities tell photographers, “Since 9/11, you can't do that,” Hall said. “They're making it up.”
Sara Rose, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said the organization nationally is aware of cases in which people have been accosted while trying to photograph “sensitive” places such as government buildings, transit facilities and bridges.
“There certainly have been issues since the terror attacks on Sept. 11,” she said. “It comes up a lot. People often are told there is some type of law that prohibits photography.
“Never have we been able to find such a law.”
Rose was not familiar with Sprague's case but said she was interested in learning more.
“As long as he was, in fact, standing in a place he had a right to be, I think the trespassing citation is certainly not valid,” she said.
Rose said that the pursuit of charges could appear retaliatory for him not surrendering the photos and therefore could be an infringement of Sprague's First Amendment rights.
Sprague said he is on a limited income and can ill afford the fine, court costs and possible attorney fees.
But the issue is about more than money for the photojournalism student who took an interest in photography a dozen years ago when his wife, Brenda, was battling cancer and could only receive his pictures of flowers rather than the real thing.
“I want to raise awareness of what your rights are,” he said. “I have never run into anything like this before.”
Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or firstname.lastname@example.org.