Police Back Pipeline Despite Lack of Permits, Landowner Objections
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Backed by Pennsylvania state police and Huntingdon County sheriff’s deputies, on March 29, Sunoco Logistics Partners’ chainsaws cut a swath through forest that the Gerhart family had protected for decades, clearing the way for the Mariner East 2 pipeline.
Hundreds of Pennsylvania residents had called and emailed Governor Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) on March 28, requesting that they intervene to prevent Sunoco from felling trees in sensitive areas without the necessary water-crossing and erosion permits. But the DEP declined to stop Sunoco from felling trees, saying on March 29 that Sunoco “indicated” that it is not cutting trees near water bodies or in wetlands. On the same day, Sunoco’s crews were observed cutting trees on steep slopes and allowing them to fall across streambeds, trespassing outside the pipeline right-of-way and allowing trees to fall outside its boundaries. Some falling trees narrowly missed observers who were standing, legally, outside of the right-of-way.
By the end of the day’s cutting, multiple sections of streams and wetlands were filled with trees, branches and sawdust. In response to the near-misses and complaints of Sunoco tree-cutters trespassing, state troopers said that observers were responsible for their own safety and claimed they were not aware that pipeline workers had to stay inside the right-of-way.
Those opposing the cutting were treated differently. State police arrested an Altoona resident, who is alleged to have crossed into the right-of-way to warn crews that a tree they were about to cut held a safety line for one of three tree-sitting protesters, as well as another observer who had been telling crews to stay inside the right-of-way. The two were taken to Huntingdon County jail and charged with indirect contempt of court and disorderly conduct. Bail for both was set at $100,000. They face up to six months in jail for the charge of contempt of court, and at least one faces a year for an additional charge of misdemeanor disorderly conduct.
On Monday, March 28th, Huntingdon County’s President Judge George N. Zanic had issued Sunoco an emergency injunction to allow tree-clearing to proceed. The family intended to appeal that decision, but the chainsaws arrived before they were able to do so.
Cutting is expected to continue on Wednesday, March 30.
Ellen and Stephen Gerhart purchased the property in 1982 and placed it in the Forest Stewardship Program, pledging never to develop it. Now they are fighting seizure of their property by eminent domain, in a case that is still in litigation. The Gerhart family refused a cash offer from the company, stating concern about the impact of the pipeline on the environment and on their community’s health, safety and well-being.
“We are living, breathing Pennsylvanians who have tried to preserve this land,” Stephen Gerhart, 85, wrote in a letter to Judge Zanic. “Sunoco is a billions of dollar, faceless entity, based in Texas. The products that they want to transport through our land are not needed in Pennsylvania, or anywhere else in the United States.”
“Our opposition to the project,” said Ellen Gerhart, “has to do with our rights as property owners and stewards of the environment. You would think that government officials who have sworn to uphold the Pennsylvania Constitution would do so, but they’re ignoring their responsibility and allowing out-of-state companies to run over the rights of Pennsylvania citizens.”
In early March, the Gerharts hired Schmid & Company Consulting Ecologists to conduct an independent analysis of the waterbodies and wetlands on their property. Schmid & Company found that Sunoco had undercounted the number of wetlands on the property by a factor of seven. The Gerharts then asked the Pennsylvania DEP to put a stop to tree clearing for the pipeline until Sunoco secured the necessary erosion and water-crossing permits, a recommendation supported by Schmid & Company.
“I believe it is unwise public policy to allow private parties to damage the environment prior to any determination that the proposed impacts are either necessary or unavoidable,” James Schmid wrote in a letter to Judge Zanic before Monday’s hearing. “But that is what appears to be about to happen here.”
Before tree-clearing began, Dr. Mark Bonta, a member of the Environmental Studies faculty at Penn State Altoona, looked at the Gerhart’s property and said that “it appears to be a model for how to leave an upland woods and forested wetland alone to foster biodiversity.”
Sunoco Logistics Partners is a company controlled by Energy Transfer Partners of Dallas. It has contracts with European petrochemical companies for the export and sale of massive amounts of NGLs that would flow through the Mariner East 2 pipeline. On March 24, after a two-week journey from Marcus Hook, Pa., the first export shipment of ethane from Sunoco’s Mariner East 1 pipeline reached Norway on the Ineos Intrepid, the largest multi-gas carrier in the world; it would be one of eight ships in a planned “virtual pipeline” carrying Mariner East ethane to petrochemical depots in Europe.
Sunoco LP is embroiled in dozens of eminent domain cases across the state. Landowners and residents are banding together to oppose its massive NGL export project, saying that it is unnecessary and is not for public use, while the company claims it is a public utility with eminent domain rights.