Residents of Lancaster County, Pa., are ratcheting up their efforts to prevent Williams Partners LP from building a 42-inch-diameter natural gas pipeline through their community. Approximately 150 people walked more than three miles on June 12 to protest the company’s proposed Atlantic Sunrise natural gas pipeline project.
The large turnout at the walk in the township of Conestoga, Pa., where 80% of the landowners have not accepted easement offers from Williams, served as another example of the well-developed campaign that residents of Lancaster County are waging against the pipeline project.
“We have strategies encompassing every possible means of fighting this pipeline. We are organized. We are funded. And we are determined,” Kim Kann, the lead organizer of the walk against Atlantic Sunrise and a member of the Conestoga Community Group, a pro-home rule grassroots group, said in an interview. “We have people willing to show up in this community.”
Kann said Conestoga Township, a sparsely populated community, has held multiple meetings where large numbers, sometimes as many as 300, people showed up. “Not one single government official has stood up and offered us support whatsoever,” she said. “Every bit of information that has been disseminated, every bit of resistance that has been organized has come from total grassroots community members.”
Williams subsidiary Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Co. applied with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for the estimated $2.6 billion project in March 2015. In May, FERC staff issued a favorable environmental impact statement for the nearly 200-mile project, which Williams describes as connecting Marcellus Shale gas to U.S. markets to the south. Opponents fear that a large portion of the 1.7 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas transported on the pipeline will be sent to Dominion Resources Inc.’s proposed Cove Point liquefied natural gas export terminal and shipped to other countries.
Kann, a public school teacher, owns a 20-acre farm in Conestoga Township with her family that will be divided into two 10-acre parcels by the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline. Half of her property will be inaccessible without crossing the pipeline right of way, she said. “My biggest concern is private property rights and the illegitimate use of eminent domain,” she said. “The fact that this is not a pipeline that intends to serve anybody in this region, that it is primarily contracted for export, which means the intention is to steal my lifetime accumulation of wealth and use it to pay executive salaries and shareholders.”
Debbie Swanson and her husband John own the 12-acre farm where the protest walk began. Debbie has lived in Lancaster County her entire life, and the farmhouse on the property has stayed in her family since it was built in the mid-1800s. The Atlantic Sunrise pipeline would traverse the eastern part of their land, and Williams plans to set up a staging area for its pipeline and other equipment in a field across the two-lane country road from their property.
“We will not be free to do what we want with this property if this thing goes through,” Swanson said in a speech prior to the protest walk. If Williams is permitted to build the pipeline through her family’s property, Williams and other pipeline companies will likely get authority in the future to build expansions or new pipelines using the same right of way, she asserted. “This has all the hallmarks of something that will grow in the future,” she said.
Once they put a right of way in, all of the pipelines in the area are supposed to go through that corridor, added John Swanson. “With the amount of gas up north left to be fracked, they could put three or four more pipelines through our property,” he asserted.
The heated disputes between pipeline companies and landowners are likely to continue in Lancaster County and across Pennsylvania. The administration of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, projects 30,000 miles of new pipe will be needed in the state over the next 10 years to handle the massive volumes of natural gas and liquids getting produced from the region’s shale gas fields.
In March, a confrontation occurred in Huntingdon County, Pa., in the central part of the state, where several people were arrested on property owned by the Gerhart family. The arrestees were monitoring crews hired by Sunoco Logistics Partners LP who had arrived to cut trees on property owned by the Gerhart family. The company wants to clear a right of way for a pipeline that would transport natural gas liquids across the state for export at the Marcus Hook terminal near Philadelphia.
During the tree-cutting process on the Gerhart property, Elise Gerhart remained perched on a platform high in a tree with the goal of saving the grove of trees on her family’s property. Gerhart was never arrested, but her mother, Ellen Gerhart, and other protesters, including environmental and union activist Alex Lotorto, were arrested and hauled off to jail.
While Elise Gerhart was not arrested, she was criminally charged by the Huntingdon County district attorney’s office with misdemeanor disorderly conduct and summary disorderly conduct. Her mother and Lotorto are facing misdemeanor disorderly conduct and contempt of court charges. Their trial is scheduled to begin on Aug. 26 in Huntingdon County.
“I don’t see why Huntington County is invested in prosecuting landowners for doing nothing more than protecting their own property,” Elise Gerhart said in an interview at the Lancaster County event. When the Gerharts bought the land in 1982, the family agreed to make the property part of Pennsylvania’s Forest Stewardship program, which gives tax breaks in exchange for not developing the land.
Gerhart lamented that no one from a state or federal agency has come to the family’s aid to protect their property. “They’ve just completely thrown us under the bus,” she said.
In a speech prior to the walk against Atlantic Sunrise, Gerhart told the protesters that her family did not have the same level of local support that exists in Lancaster County. “What I’m seeing down here, I think you have a real chance” to stop the pipeline, she said. “People are not going to just lay down and let these pipelines be built over their communities.”
Gerhart traveled to Lancaster County because she wants to support people who are experiencing the same threats to their property and the environment. “My family is basically upstream from here in the Susquehanna watershed,” she said in the interview. “The pipeline buildout that is happening in Pennsylvania right now is going to affect everybody. The eminent domain issue is happening in so many places, not just in Pennsylvania but in other states.”
The protest walk occurred one day before the FERC’s planned meeting in nearby Manheim Township, Pa., High School to receive public input on the proposed pipeline project. Many of the protesters said they view FERC as a “rubber stamp” that will ultimately approve the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline project, but they still planned to show up at the June 13 meeting in large numbers.
John Swanson remembers seeing photos of federal marshals who showed up at the Holleran family property in Susquehanna County, Pa., with M16 rifles to protect crews who were cutting down maple trees to create a right of way for the Williams-led Constitution Pipeline project. Swanson, a former Marine who fought in combat in Vietnam, said he thought it was overkill for the government to send in federal marshals armed with assault weapons. “I’ve seen what an M16 does to somebody,” he said.
Many pipeline supporters are characterizing the anti-pipeline members of the community as left-wing hippies, according to Kann. “That’s off-base. You couldn’t find a more conservative issue than property rights, constitutional rights, protecting what our Founding Fathers intended to protect for us,” she said.