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Protestors Takes To Trees As Pipeline’s Chainsaws Approach

By Reid Frazier - The Allegheny Front, March 30, 2016

Web Editor's Note: This campaign involves members of the IWW.

As the chain saws revved nearby, Elise Gerhart was literally up a tree Tuesday protesting a pipeline slated to course through her family’s wooded property.

Gerhart, 29, of Huntingdon, and about 20 protesters coalesced around the Gerhart property as a work crew—chaperoned by local sheriff’s officers—took down trees along the property. Two protesters were arrested as the work crews cleared land for Sunoco Logistics’ Mariner East 2 pipeline, which will carry natural gas liquids from Ohio, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania to the Philadelphia area.

The company was granted a right-of-way on the Gerhart’s land by a judge through eminent domain in January. Though they are appealing that decision, the Gerharts were ordered by Huntingdon County Common Pleas Court Judge George Zanik Monday to stay clear of the chain saw crews.

Elise Gerhart said she didn’t know what else to do, so she climbed a tree early Tuesday to keep the crews away from at least one tree. 

“We’ve been forced to do this because the government isn’t protecting us,” Gerhart said, wearing a helmet and sitting on a platform wedged between branches of the tree, 40 feet in the air. “These agencies aren’t doing their job to protect the people and the environment.”

Two protesters were arrested for violating the judge’s orders. Huntingdon County District Attorney Dave Smith says the protesters were Elizabeth Glunt of Altoona and Alexander Lotorto of Milford. Bail for each was set at $100,000.

The chainsaw crew was attempting to finish the cutting by March 31, the end of tree-clearing season established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect migratory birds and the Indiana bat.

Elise Gerhart said she would stay in the tree until the end of the week, when the tree-clearing season ends.

The Gerharts bought the property in 1982 and have participated in a state program to preserve forestland on their property.

As she watched a chainsaw crew cut down a tall tree, Ellen Gerhart, Elise’s mother, teared up.

“It’s our little part we thought we could do some good in by at least protecting three acres of Pennsylvania.” 

The Gerharts are among dozens of property owners in Pennsylvania fighting with Sunoco over Mariner East 2. The $2.5 billion pipeline travels through 2,700 properties in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Company spokesman Jeff Shields said in an e-mail that the pipeline will carry “mostly propane and butane, with some ethane.” These liquids can be used for home heating but also as the raw materials for plastics. Shields says the ethane would be exported from the Marcus Hook industrial complex in Philadelphia overseas but eventually could be “part of other petrochemical processing units” at the complex. 

“(T)oday Sunoco Pipeline proceeded under the law and continued with our tree-felling activity in Huntingdon County,” Shields said. “We will continue to work with landowners to address their individual needs and concerns, but as the court noted, protesters do not have the right to prevent Sunoco Pipeline from conducting lawful activity.”



Police Back Pipeline Despite Lack of Permits, Landowner Objections

Tree-Sitting Protesters Block Completion of Clear-cutting

Huntingdon, PA – Backed by Huntingdon County sheriff’s deputies, 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. By March 30 the 3-acre right-of-way was almost entirely cleared, aside from two trees occupied by protesters on platforms high above the ground and some adjacent trees. One of the tree-sitters is Elise Gerhart, whose mother, property owner Ellen Gerhart, was arrested along with two others.

Hundreds of Pennsylvania residents had called and emailed Governor Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) on March 28, requesting intervention to prevent Sunoco from felling trees in sensitive areas without the necessary water-crossing and erosion permits. But the DEP declined to stop Sunoco, saying on March 29 that Sunoco “indicated” that it was not cutting trees near water bodies or in wetlands. While DEP did not indicate that it would go and see for itself, Sunoco’s crews were observed cutting trees on steep slopes, 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 tree-cutters visibly trespassing, deputies ignored these offenses, saying that observers were responsible for their own safety and claiming they were not aware that pipeline workers were restricted to the right-of-way.

Those opposing the cutting were treated differently. On March 29 sheriff’s deputies arrested Altoona resident Elizabeth Glunt, who is alleged to have crossed into the right-of-way; she was warning crews that a tree they were about to cut held a safety line for one of three tree-sitters, and Milford resident Alex Lotorto, who had been telling crews to stay inside the right-of-way. On March 30, one of the property owners, Ellen Gerhart, 60, was arrested while similarly warning crews that they were endangering her daughter. It appears that all three were charged with indirect contempt of court, with a possible sentence of up to six months, and misdemeanor disorderly conduct. Bail for Glunt was set at $100,000; she posted bond and was released. Lotorto’s bail was raised to $200,000; he is still held. Gerhart was released March 30 on a $5000 bond and welcomed by her husband, Stephen Gerhart, 85, along with about 40 supporters, most of them students from Juniata College.

On Monday, March 28th, Huntingdon County’s President Judge George N. Zanic had issued Sunoco an 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. It is unclear if the crews will confront the tree-sitters on Thursday, March 31, the last day they can legally cut under environmental rules protecting native animal species.


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.”

In early March, the Gerharts hired Schmid & Company Consulting Ecologists to conduct an independent analysis of the waterbodies and wetlands on their property. Schmid 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.

“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.

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