A year of traumatized landscapes and communities along ETP's fracked gas liquids pipeline construction route

On my first trip to the Gerhart’s home in rural, south central Pennsylvania a little over a year ago I only saw a small portion of the property, the area that the Gerharts and their friends had managed to protect through a forest defense camp called Camp White Pine.

If I had gone a little further over the hill I would have seen the area they were not able to save, a deep scar through the woods where Sunoco, later purchased by Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), had cleared trees for their Mariner East 2 pipeline (ME2), which will transport fracked gas liquids across Pennsylvania.

I knew pipeline construction was all around in late August of 2017, but the patch of woods I walked through with Elise Gerhart and her mom Ellen felt like it was surrounded by a protective dome, as if their love for their home and their refusal to give into the fossil fuel company that had taken their land through eminent domain had actually manifested into a physical protective barrier.

When I went back in April of 2018 that feeling was gone.

For two years, tree sits in three tall white pines had halted construction on the Gerhart family homestead. Early in the morning on April 8, ETP came and cut down the trees.

“The first day it was hard, but I was more angry than anything,” Ellen Gerhart told me back in April as we stood looking at the site where the tree sits once towered above the forest floor. “The second day was more of like a grieving day, but by the third day I was back to being ticked off.”

We then walked over the hill to the portion of the property I hadn’t seen back in August.  There were no leaves yet on the trees so the destruction was easy to see.

With the trees gone, the land gashed open by heavy construction equipment and ETP surveillance felt on the property 24/7, the sense of protection I felt in August was gone, but that of resistance felt even stronger.

“I just consider it the closing of chapter one and now we’re going to start chapter two,” said Ellen Gerhart. “If Sunoco thought by coming in here and cutting the trees down that was going to make us tuck our tail between our legs and take off, they were sadly mistaken.”

From day one the Gerharts have refused to be bullied by the pipeline company and stood firmly in their belief that the pipeline is not safe and should not be built.

Construction of the pipeline has only confirmed their concerns, triggering sinkholes in the eastern part of Pennsylvania and causing multiple cases of water contamination across the 350 mile pipeline route. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection(DEP) has reported that ETP has caused over 200 spills or ‘inadvertent returns’ as they’re called, during construction so far.

That list doesn’t include a 4,000 gallon hazardous drilling fluid spill that occurred on the Gerhart property or what happened to the Blumes.

Ralph and Doris Blume haven’t had drinking water in their home for over a year now. Their well water was contaminated last summer when ETP stripped vegetation on their property for the ME2 pipeline causing water to flow off the hill into their hand dug water well, introducing iron bacteria.

Ralph Blume asked ETP to dig him a new well since construction on the pipeline caused the contamination. ETP told Ralph Blume, who had lived on the land for decades with his wife, to hire an expert to prove it.

Many communities along the pipeline route are reporting that construction has caused drastic changes to the environment like Ralph Blume described. When I was at the Gerharts in April, Ellen pointed out the erosion socks ETP put in place to ‘protect’ a stream near construction.

She said before they never needed erosion socks on the property because the trees were there to prevent erosion.

On September 10 the Revolution pipeline, also an ETP pipeline, exploded a few hours away from the Gerharts in Beaver, Pennsylvania. It’s believed that the explosion was caused by heavy rains and a landslide. The fracked gas pipeline had only been in service a week.

It’s the exact kind of situation Ellen Gerhart had written to the Huntingdon County Emergency Manager about a few months before, asking if the county and first responders were prepared if there were to be a leak or explosion of the ME2.

Instead of addressing Ellen’s concerns, ETP claimed that she had called a bomb threat in on the pipeline. Along with that ridiculous claim they said she impeded pipeline construction by trying to lure bears and mountain lions on to the easement.

On July 27, four sheriffs came to arrest Ellen on her own property based solely on ETP’s claims.

Despite having 24/7 surveillance on the Gerhart property, ETP was unable to present any physical evidence when Ellen was brought before Judge George Zanic on August 3. Judge Zanic even acknowledged that mountain lions have been extinct from Pennsylvania since the 1930s but at the end of the hearing he found Ellen guilty of indirect criminal contempt for interfering with the construction of the pipeline and sentenced her to jail to 2-6 months.

Ellen had already been in jail a month, when I went back to Huntingdon County on August 30. She was in court again, before a different judge, because ETP was claiming an additional harassment charge. Once again despite 24/7 surveillance on the Gerhart property, ETP was unable to provide any evidence to back their claims. The judge found Ellen not guilty.  

After court I went back to the Gerharts home with Elise. It was a little over a year since I had been there the first time. ETP’s surveillance has further encroached on the Gerharts home with a new security tower even closer to the house.

The protective dome I had felt a year earlier had been traumatically shattered. Elise can’t even leave now to take a break from the around the clock security and pipeline construction presence at home because her mom is her dad’s main caretaker.  With Ellen in jail Elise has to be there to take care of her dad. And monitor the pipeline company.

Despite the hundreds of spills and violations ETP has committed while building the pipeline, the state of Pennsylvania has done almost nothing to protect its citizens.

“That is how a situation like this can wind up with a property owner with no prior criminal record in jail for 6 months is when she’s abandoned by all these agencies who are suppose to be protecting people,” said Elise.

Elise believes that ETP targeted her mom to try and scare other people from resisting their pipelines. Fossil fuel companies are also pushing ALEC inspired bills in Pennsylvania that would charge pipeline protestors with felonies. Similar bills were passed already in Louisiana and are now being used against water protectors trying to stop ETP’s Bayou Bridge pipeline.

It was hard to see Ellen brought into court in handcuffs and know that her freedom is being stolen from her while ETP continues to wreak havoc across Pennsylvania, but being back at Camp White Pine it was clear that the resistance to ETP has only grown alongside the tree

Lee Ziesche, Fossil Fuel Resistance Correspondent