Trespass charge related to Conemaugh power plant photo shoot dismissed
A trespassing charge was dismissed against an Upper Burrell man who was taking photos at the Conemaugh Generating Station after the plant's owner failed to send witnesses to a preliminary hearing Monday.
Blairsville District Judge Jennifer Rega dismissed the summary charge of defiant trespass filed by state police against Gary Sprague, 52. The charge, which carried a fine of more than $400, stemmed from a Sept. 14 incident at the plant site in West Wheatfield Township, Indiana County, which is located across the Conemaugh River from New Florence, Westmoreland County.
The case may not be over entirely, as Sprague said he is considering legal action.
According to Sprague, who is an amateur photographer and vice president of the New Kensington Camera Club, he and a fellow club member stopped at the coal-fired plant that day while exploring areas along the river.
Sprague said the pair stopped along the side of Power Plant Road (State Route 2008) and at another location, where he snapped photos of the plant. Sprague said they did not stray from the public right-of-way.
According to Sprague, a plant security guard eventually approached them and told them they were trespassing. He said they left when told to do so, but he added that he did not surrender his camera or delete his photos when, he said, those options were suggested by the security guard.
“We were polite with each other,” Sprague said of his verbal exchange with the guard. “There was no argument, no confrontation.”
According to Sprague, the guard also stated that photography was not allowed at the plant, referencing a supposed Department of Homeland Security-related prohibition of taking photos of such facilities.
“No such law exists in this land,” Sprague said.
Sprague noted that his companion said she did not take photos, and she was not charged.
Trooper Richard Englert, who filed the trespass charge after being contacted by staff at the power plant, informed Sprague Monday outside Rega's courtroom that the charge was being dismissed. Englert said he'd seen security footage from the plant that he said shows Sprague standing beside a “no trespassing” sign.
Sprague maintains that he did not cross into the posted area or leave the public right-of-way.
David Gaier, a New Jersey-based spokesman for power plant operator NRG Energy Inc., said Monday afternoon that the company is not pursuing any charges related to the Sept. 14 incident.
“Our only concern is ensuring the safety and security of our employees and the security of our plants,” he said, declining further comment on the incident.
Though the charge has been dismissed, Sprague said the case isn't over as far as he's concerned and he's considering legal action. “It's about photographers' rights and awareness,” he said.
Noting that he is a photojournalism student at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Sprague said he wants to set a good example for other photographers: “People need to know what their rights are.”
Sprague's attorney, Glen Downey of Pittsburgh, said before making any decisions about possible legal action, he intends to visit the plant site and to file a right-to-know request with state police in the hope of gaining access to the footage referred to by Englert.
“We will attempt to determine if they have the footage,” Downey said. “The footage will be an objective determination of what happened that day.”
“Despite that the power plant doesn't like it, people have a right to stand on the public right-of-way and photograph what they choose,” Downey added.
This is not a rare legal case, according to state and national media law experts.
“Unfortunately, we see this happening far too often around the country,” said Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association.
There are more legal challenges to photographers' rights because of a perfect storm of post-9/11 security issues, the proliferation of cell phone cameras and Internet distribution, and a heightened sense of fear and suspicion, according to Osterreicher.
“There are far too many people who think they can infringe on a photographer's First Amendment right to take photographs from a public place,” he said.
According to Melissa Melewsky, media law council for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, it is cut and dried that a photographer can take pictures from a public place like a street.
“Photography from public places is a problem that comes up on a pretty regular basis,” she said. “Sometimes, it's because the public property owner wants to discourage pictures being taken. Sometimes, it's a misunderstanding of the land owner and, sometimes, the police don't want you to record what they are doing.”
Valley News Dispatch reporter Mary Ann Thomas contributed to this report. Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100 , ext. 2910 or firstname.lastname@example.org. .