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 email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Springdale Twp. police car crashes into veterinary clinic
- Driver in crash sues ambulance driver, New Kensington
- New Kensington-Arnold school officials eye $1.5M in projects on ‘must do now’ list
- ‘Big Mo’ ranks with A-K’s gridiron greats
- South Buffalo family business decides not to rebuild after fire
- Freeport residents to school board: Don’t neglect us
- Allegheny Valley School District to discuss hiring, renovation
- Water authority officials keep eye on forecast
- Alle-Kiski Valley lawmakers split on $30B Wolf budget
- Travelers triple-teamed
- Months of hard work go into Alle-Kiski high-school musicals