Huntingdon County, PA – In May, Unicorn Riot visited Camp White Pine, a direct action encampment on the Gerhart family’s property in the hills of Huntingdon County, PA. Several tree-sits currently sit on the easement for the Mariner East 2 pipeline, where Sunoco has claimed eminent domain to build the pipeline against the property owner’s consent. Read our report here.
We spoke with Elise Gerhart for almost two hours about the history of her family’s property, their struggle against encroachment by Sunoco, and what she expects in the fight ahead. We also discussed regulatory corruption in Pennsylvania, law enforcement responses to pipeline resistance, and the implications for climate activism in the post-Standing Rock era.
Listen to the interview below (1 hr 38 mins) or click here to download
Elise Gerhart: “My family lives here in south central Pennsylvania and we are part of the resistance to the Sunoco Logistics Mariner East 2 pipeline, and the fossil fuel industry in general. This property where Camp White Pine is, my family moved here in 1982. I was born in 1987 and I’ve lived here ever since. The plan as far as my family was concerned was to manage the majority of t a conservation area, to engage in forest stewardship, which we have done since the ’80s.
And so this place has become a pretty diverse and vibrant piece of forestland, probably been at least 80 years since it had been clearcut given the size of the white pines that are left. It’s pretty important wildlife habitat, there’s all kinds of critters here. We’ve got vernal pools in the wetlands that are critical habitat for amphibians, we’ve got a pond that supports other types of aquatic wildlife, there’s migratory birds that come in and use that area. We’ve got pileated woodpeckers, black bears, general Pennsylvania wildlife I would say… We’ve seen some flying squirrels, flocks of turkeys pass through here from time to time…
Up until this whole thing with Sunoco happened it had the feeling of kind of a sanctuary in a way. It was never going to be developed, not on my mother’s watch, not on my watch. We do have a homestead up the hill here, but we try to minimize the impact of that, we’re not too into the idea of lawns or things like that. We have a small patch where we grow our own food, but other than that this place was left kind of to its own devices, left to continue re-wilding itself, so Sunoco kind of came in and disrupted those plans a bit, with wanting to turn a space like that into an industrial zone.
We’ve got two streams on the property that are part of the Juniata watershed, which is part of the Susquehanna watershed. We’re kind of in the western reaches of the Susquehanna river watershed, the springs for those streams are actually on this property, and so to us that seems pretty important to care for those streams and maintain them. I mean not that we’re doing anything to maintain them but trying to prevent them from being destroyed seems pretty important. Part of this is human-centric, it’s about rights, it’s about safety, it’s about having the right to defend yourself from harm and having the right to have a peaceful life, but another part of it is environmental. Very much so. Growing up on a property like this, it’s not very surprising that I became an environmentalist, but that was my plan, to continue stewarding this land and protecting it, so I’m just trying to follow through with that obligation at this point.
We have a handful of large white pine trees that are still standing in the easement due to defense that was done last year to protect them. And those trees have now been fortified into a pretty elaborate tree village, if you will, with platforms, traverses…capacity to support a small village of forest defenders. We’ve got a few banners that we’ve put up specific to the pipeline resistance but we’ve also used this installation as an opportunity to express solidarity with other campaigns and raise awareness about other issues such as the recent release of two political prisoners, Oscar and Chelsea, and solidarity with Palestinian hunger strikers.
So we got a lot going on here, it’s become kind of a vibrant little spot of intense resistance, but also there’s a lot of positivity here, and there’s lot of love and there’s a lot of community. So we’ve not only built a tree village but we’re building that community too.
Sunoco Logistics approached my family more than two years ago seeking an easement for the Mariner East 2 pipeline. In the first discussion about it, they threatened to use eminent domain to take the land if we wouldn’t give it to them for the amount of money that they decided it was worth. And since then, we have been fighting it in court, we were sued for the property through a condemnation (also known as the eminent domain process). We went through county court doing that, and the local judge, George Zanic, he ruled against us in favor of the company, even though the project didn’t really meet the criteria for the use of eminent domain – it’s not serving the public good, it’s not serving us, our neighbors, anyone in Pennsylvania or really anyone domestically except for the corporations involved – it’s all for export and use in the plastics industry.
So, yeah, that fight didn’t go well, it kinda went as expected though, the state of Pennsylvania is extremely corrupt and in favor of industry, not just for pipelines, but the fracking industry as a whole…[Pennsylvania] has a history of being in favor of industries like coal and things like that, and generally against the regular working class people.
We fought permits for about two years as well, there were a lot of people that were fighting permits across the state – organizations, individuals, grassroots community groups, nonprofits – litigating against both the use of eminent domain and the permitting for the project, because even based on existing laws (even though the legal system in this country is far from perfect and far from being able to uphold people’s rights, human rights, and rights of the environment), even within that framework, this project is illegal, and shouldn’t be allowed to use eminent domain.
It doesn’t meet environmental regulation standards, yet those regulatory agencies like the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] have just allowed it to happen there – and not just allowed it to happen, they’re facilitating it, they’re permitting it, they’re talking about how great it is, and actually sitting down at the table with these industries, excluding regular people from those talks, and figuring out how they’re gonna not only build the Mariner East 2 pipeline, but they’re figuring out how they’re gonna build 30,000 miles of pipeline in Pennsylvania over the next 10 years. And this, 2017, is actually the first year of the implementation of that plan, that’s a collaboration between the state of Pennsylvania and many different entities within the fossil fuel industry and plastics industry.
Based on all those things, we tried to contact regulatory agencies from the county level up to the federal level. I had phone conversations with US Fish & Wildlife, with the DEP, with the county conservation district, went to all the meetings we could, did petitions, letter writing, phone calls, litigation, all of that…and yet here we are and Sunoco is building the Mariner East 2 pipeline right now.
Last year, in March of 2016, a few months after Judge Zanic ruled against us in the eminent domain case in county court, Sunoco decided they were going to come down and do clear cutting for the project. And back then, they did not have a single permit for the project. They had no permission to build the pipeline, even as far as the state was concerned. But they just independently decided that they were going to start clear cutting.”
Unicorn Riot: They already had eminent domain on your property at that point?
Elise Gerhart: “They had eminent domain on this property but they had no permits for the project. And so it was really really preemptive, but they came to do it anyway, and the reason that I believe they came to do it was as an intimidation tactic. They didn’t have all the easements secured for the pipeline at that point and they wanted to scare people into signing easements. And so we decided that we weren’t just gonna stand by and let them do that. We organized a series of tree-sits along the easement – on this property, my family’s property, its a three acre easement, at some points 150 feet wide – its a pretty big area. And so we had three tree sits along that area. I occupied one of them.
The company came in, they brought a lot of police and they arrested the property owner, my mother, even though she wasn’t standing on the easement, she was standing on her own private property that isn’t even being disputed. They arrested two other supporters, one of whom was put on $200,000 bail, another person was put on $100,000 bail, for really doing nothing more than advocating for the safety of the people in the trees, telling Sunoco that what they were doing was wrong…I mean no-one who was arrested did anything but have conversations with the police and the workers and yet they were hauled off to jail and put on these ridiculous bails.”
Unicorn Riot: They weren’t like physically obstructing their movements or anything?
Elise Gerhart: “No, none of the people arrested during that clear cutting were physically obstructing anything.”
Unicorn Riot: What were they charged with?
Elise Gerhart: “They were charged with disorderly conduct and contempt of court. Two separate counts of disorderly conduct, one is a misdemeanor, one is a summary offense – and then another summary offense of contempt of court. Which, people were warned or threatened by the judge before this all happened that [contempt of court] would mean an automatic six months in jail, no conviction, no trial, no jury, no nothing, straight to jail for six months. That didn’t happen, thankfully, but people were subjected to an eight month-long court process only to have those charges then dropped.
I was not arrested during that tree clearing, I was occupying one of the trees. They didn’t try to extract me, they never told me to come down. I was charged about a month later and went through the court process with the other people who had been arrested. We were in the end let off the hook because from what the district attorney said, after a rigorous investigation during that time, they determined that we were on private property and those charges did not apply. Which they obviously knew from the beginning, from before they even decided to come here, because this whole thing is regarding issues of property rights. It was never unclear to them that this was private property.”
Unicorn Riot: What different kinds of police or sheriffs came in? Can you describe their demeanor and attitudes and the interactions when they were here?
Elise Gerhart: “So on the first two days that they came to clear cut, they showed up right off the bat with more than a dozen police. I was told that there was about 16 police on those days, and that was the sheriffs department, the Huntingdon county sheriffs. And their demeanor was pretty callous and smug, like they didn’t really understand the situation that we were in, and they didn’t really care. When Sunoco was doing this clear cutting, you can see how close to the trees were are still standing that they were cutting. All of those trees are down around them, and some of them were being felled into the trees that people were sitting in, into lines that were, you know, life support lines for safety. And we were trying to explain that to the workers and the police, and they seemed to take it as a joke.
We were telling the police that what Sunoco was doing was very dangerous. That felling into lines that are actually holding someone up someone’s life when they’re fifty feet up in a tree, felling trees into large branches above a platform that somebody’s sitting in, those are very dangerous things to be doing. And we were telling them that, and they did nothing. The police said “oh, they [Sunoco] know what they’re doing, they’re professionals, don’t worry about it.” They claimed that they were here looking out for people’s safety, but when real safety concerns were coming up, they weren’t doing anything about it. And what they indeed did do, was – so they’re doing that, there’s one very large tree up there on the hill above the place where I was [tree]sitting. They were getting ready to cut it, and I’m screaming at them like, hey, are you out of your minds, that’s uphill from this tree, and I’m just sitting up there and I couldn’t come down if I wanted to, there was no way for me do that safely with all those trees being felled all over the place.
So I’m pretty much trapped up there, and they’re getting ready to fell this giant tree above me, and I’m yelling at them and they’re not listening. So that’s when our one friend walked very calmly partway up the hill to try and tell them “hey, that’s really dangerous, don’t do that, you could kill somebody right now.” And she was arrested and put on $100,000 bail. And when I was yelling down to the police (I wasn’t yelling at the police, I was yelling to them) saying “Why won’t you help us? Why are you letting them do this?”, their response was to smile at me smugly and wave. And so that was incredibly frustrating, not only just given what was happening, but where this is. This is my home. I have lived here since my parents brought me home from the hospital, and you’re just gonna let these thugs come in and put my life in danger on that property, and then claim that you’re protecting and serving the public? That just doesn’t add up. You’re letting them put my life in danger and my friends’ lives in danger – people who have our permission to be here – yet you’re here enforcing these people who we’re very adamantly telling “no, you’re trespassing, you can’t be here, you have no right to do this”…and so that’s kind of the way it went.”
Unicorn Riot: Did the police or Sunoco notify you that they were going to come cut trees on your property on that day?
Elise Gerhart: “They did that day… we knew in court – there was a short court proceeding before that happened and so we were aware of the date they were gonna come that time. They clearcut for two days then, they cleared almost all of this – everything except the trees that were occupied or tied into trees that were occupied. And then, everybody left – the police left, the workers left, the majority of the supporters left. And then a week later, we’re just sitting up at the house, me and my family and one friend, and we hear chainsaws. I was actually on the phone doing an interview – and we just hear chainsaws and we come running down here – and we find them down here trying to cut down these trees – that one tree in the middle there has a notch in it at the bottom, you can go up there and see it, from where they were cutting into it.
And I had to run up and say “no, what are you doing?” and they were trying to explain to us what they were doing here, that they had a right to be here, and don’t we want to listen to them, and I just kept telling them “no, you have no right to be here”- because according to their own injunction, which they used to come in the week before, they said they had to be done by March 31st because they didn’t want to violate the migratory bird act and blah blah blah, and they care so much about hibernating bats and whatever… so we told them ‘you guys said by your own accord that you were gonna be done by March 31st and that we were gonna cause irreparable harm if you didn’t get it done by March 31st ‘..and then you just show up, they just showed up…and these are big trees, right? That is a dangerous thing to come onto somebody’s property and do with zero warning – zero warning we had when they came back on April the 7th.”
Unicorn Riot: So that was after the endangered species deadline they [Sunoco] were expressing concern about?
Elise Gerhart: “Yeah, that deadline is March 31st to not violate the Migratory Bird treaty act, I cant remember exactly what its called but its this thing put in place to protect migratory birds, nesting birds, bats coming out of hibernation, things like that. So, we were telling them no, they were trying to explain to us how they determined that this isn’t bat habitat – even though there is a protocol for determining if certain trees or forests are bat habitat, and they didn’t do any of that. It has to do with observing at certain points in the day, and they didn’t do any of that. They didn’t know if there was any endangered species in this area. They never bothered to do any kind of study like that.
That’s another big misconception with these pipelines, is that the companies are really forced to do environmental studies. They’re not. They never came out here on the ground with any kind of wildlife experts or anyone like that to document what type of wildlife lives here. They just get on a database that is incomplete, because noone has ever come out here to do that study. They just do ‘guess-timations’ basically, and never identified plant life here…they just come in and start destroying stuff and it’s not even on record what’s being destroyed.
And so they did that, that was after the people who had been arrested the week before were out of jail. When they came back that second unexpected time, they arrested my mother again, they arrested my friend. I was able to get back up that tree before the police arrived so they again didn’t arrest me that time. My mom was held in solitary confinement for three days on a supposed suicide watch even though she’s not suicidal, never expressed any suicidal ideations or anything like that. She’s fighting for life here, she doesn’t have a death wish, but they just wanted to restrict her ability to speak to a lawyer, to speak to anyone else. She had contact with her elderly husband cut off, she’s his primary caregiver and was just unexpectedly taken away for three days from him and couldn’t even call anybody else to come and take care of him because she couldn’t call anybody on this restricted suicide watch. They put her on $5,000 bail that time, which it took us three days to get that together…until we were able to pay the bail she was stuck in there, and then the friend was also bailed out by a family member for another $5,000.
So, that happened…and that was all before they had permits for this project. All of that. Five people criminally charged, people being put in isolation, people’s lives being put in danger, this just complete harassment, arresting landowners on their own property…without any guarantee that the project was even gonna move forward. So that’s the way it happened.
The second time they came, I guess I’ll note that that was the State Police that came that time, because it was kind of on the fly, the first time was more organized, the sheriffs had been authorized by Judge Zanic to come out and escort the pipeline company and arrest anybody who got in the way. And then the second time, I don’t think that Sunoco told anyone they were coming here, informed anybody, because it came as surprise to the police I think too that time.
The State Police actually got pulled off of a drug bust to come here and arrest my mother and a friend, which is absolutely ridiculous. I mean, where are the priorities there? You’re going to come and arrest a retired special education teacher who’s being harassed and abused by this multi-billion dollar corporation instead of dealing with the serious drug problems that we have in this state? Not that I’m advocating for the state to deal with those, but they say that that’s their priority, they say that dealing with the heroin problem is a major problem because we have a lot of people dying, in the state of Pennsylvania, in West Virginia, from heroin and other opiates. The state claims that dealing with that is a priority but when they say they’re out there busting these drug dealers or whatever they’ll just stop what they’re doing and come arrest retired teachers instead.”
Unicorn Riot: The local sheriffs or the state police, have they called ahead or tried to have any conversations with you at all, or has that been few and far between? Is it fair to say that they aren’t communicating with you very much but they seem to be actively coordinating with Sunoco?
Elise Gerhart: “Yeah, I would say that the sheriffs and the state police are coordinating with the company and they’ve made zero effort to reach out to us, they’ve made zero effort to defend our rights against a company harassing us, abusing us, violating environmental laws, violating property rights…they seem completely disinterested in doing any of that. And not even just turning a blind eye, like I said, we had a situation where my life was imminently in danger from a giant tree being dropped on me, and my friend went to quietly and calmly tell them that that was not okay, and she wound up in jail with a $100,000 bail because the police arrested her.”
Unicorn Riot: So it seems like the basis for the police, the sheriffs or local courts essentially enforcing Sunoco’s will onto your property is based on the classification of the pipeline as a public utility?
Elise Gerhart: “Yeah, I would say that’s what the courts would say. What Judge Zanik would say is that Sunoco is an established public utility, which I disagree with. What’s happening with the Mariner East 2 pipeline is that back in 1932, this pipeline, which is now called Mariner 1, was built. I don’t know what it was called back then, I believe it was owned by a different company at that time. And the purpose of that pipeline was to transport oil from refineries in the Philadelphia area out to areas like this [Huntingdon in central PA] and western Pennsylvania. And they had easements for that pipeline, which is a half mile north of here, not on our property at all. What Sunoco is doing is saying, “well, we were granted public utility status for that pipeline, for the Mariner East 1, so that means that in all circumstances, whatever we do, whatever product we’re shipping, wherever it’s going, we are a public utility.”
But in reality, there’s a huge difference between an oil pipeline that is actually bringing a product from a refinery to people in Pennsylvania for their use, and a pipeline that starts in Ohio and ends at an export facility in southeastern PA and is going overseas to be used for plastics manufacturing. And the courts are refusing to acknowledge that difference. They’re refusing to make Sunoco get certified as a public utility on a case-by-case basis, on a project-by-project basis. They’re just allowing them to use these antiquated easements to build this entirely new project that has an entirely different purpose.”
Unicorn Riot: So, the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission…did they specifically classify Mariner East 2 as a public utility?
Elise Gerhart: “No.”
Unicorn Riot: So it was carte blanche, like because Sunoco is a ‘public utility corporation’ and they’re building it? Did Sunoco already have the public utility classification under law before they came onto your property in 2016?
Elise Gerhart: “Sunoco applied to the Public Utilities Commission [PUC] for a Certificate of Public Convenience for the Mariner East 2 pipeline, and then they withdrew that application. It was never decided one way or the other by the PUC. And so then instead of applying for a new certificate for this new project, they then just turned around and said “well, we’ll just use our existing certificates.” And the PUC never found an issue with that, the DEP never found an issue with that, the courts don’t care, so, that’s what they’re doing. They’re saying “once a public utility, always a public utility.” Which makes no logical sense – if you have a company that bakes cupcakes, and then you suddenly retrofit your kitchen to become a pizza place, that doesn’t mean that you’re still a cupcake factory, you know what I mean? It just doesn’t make sense. So, that’s the truth as I understand it and the twisting of the process as it’s happening in Pennsylvania.
And beyond that, the Mariner East 2 Pipeline is an interstate pipeline. Even Sunoco admits that it starts in Ohio. You look at their maps on their website, there’s a generic map of it staring at Scio, Ohio and ending at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia. And yet the federal government, the FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) has been hands off of this project and that doesn’t make any sense to me either. Not that the FERC is a beneficial agency to be regulated by as far as the people are concerned and the earth is concerned, but it just doesn’t make sense to me why this project isn’t federally regulated, how in the heck they’re just going state by state for an interstate pipeline and how they’re going going county by county to get eminent domain. The reason they’re doing that is that it is easier to buy off local politicians, local judges than it is to buy off the whole federal government I suppose. But again, that doesn’t make sense with the nature of the project and the laws that are on the books. There’s nobody enforcing the laws of Pennsylvania and the United States right now when it comes to pipelines. So that puts the people and the land in a really precarious place, because there’s noone looking our for us – noone but ourselves and our communities and this sort of spread-out resistance to pipelines. There’s noone else that’s doing it.
The Pennsylvania DEP can impose fines and indeed has imposed fines on Sunoco Logistics in the past, in the recent past. They’ve fined them for a 2008 spill into Turtle Creek, where there was a bunch of gasoline that was spewing out of a pipeline directly into the creek. They fined them for doing work on Mariner East 1 without any permits. When Sunoco was retrofitting Mariner East 1 to start carrying NGLs (natural gas liquids) and to start carrying the product in the opposite direction, they just went ahead and did the work in five counties, including this county, without any permits. And so they got fined $60,000 by the DEP, which is chump change – it means nothing to Sunoco, nothing to Energy Transfer partners.
So there is sort of regulation in place but it’s so ineffective that it does not keep these companies in check. Putting fines of five, six figures doesn’t do anything. Imposing fines after the environment is already damaged doesn’t really do any good for the environment. The Pennsylvania DEP is underfunded, understaffed – but that’s not an excuse for issuing permits and then not having the capacity to oversee those projects, to regulate those projects. But that’s what’s happening in Pennsylvania right now. The DEP admits ‘we don’t have the staff to properly permit, but here we are handing out permits like candy and not sending our people out on the ground to make sure that environmental laws are followed’…[they’re] not listening to the public when they report things- problems with the industry environmental violations, health and safety violations.
Those things get reported all over Pennsylvania and nothing seems to ever be done about it. Like the fracking industry in Pennsylvania, they’ve been terrorizing people for over a decade, polluting water, killing people – with pollution, with contamination, with stress. There were 9,400 complaints related to fracking made to the DEP that were just shoved into in a box, put in a closet, and ignored. They’re still unanswered. There’s still people desperate for clean water that aren’t getting any help getting it. The industry is just not taking responsibility for their accidents. The state, the DEP is not forcing them to. So people are just left to fend for themselves and try to pick up the pieces and try to carry on their lives and try to survive with contaminated water.
So, now, with this pipeline boom, they haven’t even dealt with what’s come before, and they’re allowing all these pipelines to come through and further destroy the environment and the watersheds and the air quality, when it comes to compressor stations and things like that…The DEP’s not out here with their clipboard taking notes. They’re not watching for spills. They’re not watching for violations of the Clean Water Act or the Clean Streams Act. We’re just left out here to fend for ourselves, and try to not only resist this, but at the same time train ourselves to look out for environmental violations, like try to somehow enforce that ourselves with no resources and no authority.
So in Pennsylvania it’s kind of just happening that supposedly the Mariner East 2 Pipeline is regulated by the state but the state has no capacity and no political will to actually do that. But it doesn’t change the fact that the Mariner East 2 is an interstate pipeline and therefore should have federal oversight, but the FERC is not regulating this pipeline. They do plan to regulate other pipelines in Pennsylvania, such as the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline, which is planned to go north to south through Pennsylvania and carry natural gas. But Mariner East and this whole NGL pipeline just seems somehow to not fit into any of that regulatory framework, and I couldn’t tell you why exactly its not being federally regulated. I don’t think that Sunoco would have any trouble getting permitted by FERC for this project, so I don’t know why they weren’t required to go through that process, but they weren’t.”
Unicorn Riot: Have there been any violations or accidents in the process of constructing Mariner East 2?
Elise Gerhart: “Yeah, well, to backtrack a little bit, they had the existing Mariner 1 pipeline which I was explaining was retrofitted in the recent past to ship the same product, NGLs [natural gas liquids], from western PA to Marcus Hook near Philadelphia. It went into operation last year; it has had three reported spills in that time period. So there’s that. And one of [the spills] clearly shows that the emergency protocols that are in place failed, because the leak was not detected by the company. It was detected by a resident on the ground who saw that the ground around the pipe was turning black. So Sunoco’s computers didn’t tell them that there was a leak, or maybe they did, and they didn’t feel like it was important enough to deal with, maybe they thought it was too small to expend the resources to deal with it, that maybe they wouldn’t get caught if they just ignored it. So there we have a pipeline in operation for less than a year with three leaks.
Now with the construction of Mariner East 2, which is a much larger diameter pipeline, we’re talking about a 120-inch pipeline going in right now, Sunoco plans to tear the entire right of way through Pennsylvania up again next year and place a second pipe in which would be a 16-inch pipe… lets see, it was a few weeks ago in Chester County, they were drilling underneath I believe its called Chester creek, its in Brook Haven, PA, they were doing horizontal directional drilling, and they had a leak of that drilling fluid, which they try to play off like “oh, its just clay, its just bentonite clay, its nothing to worry about,” but its actually clay mixed with chemicals and the amount of drilling fluid that they use in those operations, and all that clay, can be deadly to aquatic wildlife.
It happened in Ohio shortly before that on the Rover pipeline, which is another ETP (Energy Transfer Partners) project- there was a massive spill on bentonite clay and chemical slurry. According to the Ohio EPA director, that slurry does kill aquatic life. I would trust his opinion on that particular matter… And so what happened in Ohio with the Rover pipeline was there was a five million gallon leak of that bentonite clay and chemical slurry, and it did kill wildlife. It is a huge deal. And yet that pipeline isn’t stopped because of something like that, and the only thing that’s put on hold for them was new HDD projects, any HDD (horizontal directional drilling) projects that they were currently working on, they were permitted to finish, but new ones are on hold, I think there’s about eight of them that because of that spill were put on hold, but there rest of the pipeline construction is allowed to continue. And so its just kind of like they’re putting a pause on certain parts of it, but in no way shape or form is that stopping Rover Pipeline from being completed. They have plenty of other areas where they can be trenching and laying pipe while they’re waiting for the smoke to clear.
So, in a similar or slightly smaller way, what happened with Sunoco in Pennsylvania is that they had a leak of the clay and chemical slurry into Chester Creek, and they put up a bunch of sandbags around it, to supposedly contain it, but there’s photos showing the slurry just leaking out from those sandbags. And then we had a lot of rain in that time period (you know, in spring, it rains a lot) and the creek rose up, and it rose up over all those sandbags and was just washing that slurry downstream. And so that happened in Pennsylvania, yet none of Sunoco’s HDD projects are being put on hold because of that, because we don’t have a regulatory agency or a head of a regulatory agency like they do in Ohio who’s willing to step up and say “hey, this is a major problem, this company is doing whatever they want and they’re killing wildlife and it’s my job to stand up to that”… we’re not as lucky here in Pennsylvania to have someone n one of those positions who’s willing to take that stance.
Just to be clear, it’s not permitted county-by-county, the pipeline is permitted by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, statewide. What’s happening county-by-county is eminent domain decisions. It started, the first eminent domain case was lost in Cumberland County, there were cases lost in Washington County, we lost our case here in Huntingdon…Beyond that, in southeastern PA which is the most populated segment of Pennsylvania, the most populated region, there are a lot of residents who were not informed about the plans to put this pipeline through their community because they weren’t directly along the right-of-way, they weren’t asked for an easement, but they live right next to one, or a thousand feet away from one, or their children go to school at a place like Glenwood Elementary, for example, where the installation of the pipeline would put that elementary school in a blast zone if there were to be a leak that was then ignited.
So, an area like that, where you’re talking about three thousand people or so per square mile, they call it a “high consequence area” and people are scared and upset that their lives, their children’s lives, are being put at risk by Sunoco’s desire to export fossil fuels for the plastics industry. So there’s been a lot of parents coming out, health professionals, engineers who understand the structural layout of the pipeline and things like that, who have been really breaking it down to show how dangerous this is and exactly why it’s dangerous and what could happen in a scenario. And those concerns have been presented locally to school boards, to townships, borough councils, and also on the state level there was a panel of citizens from that area who went and made a case to the [PA state] Senate Committee on Emergency Preparedness. And they really know what they’re talking about, they’re educated people who have done their research, people who have worked in disaster relief, worked for the FFA, work in aerospace engineering, they understand these concepts, and so they’ve done work to educate other people in their community about that, who maybe don’t have that specialized knowledge.
And people have come out and demanded that these townships or towns come up with safety plans, emergency preparedness plans. Same with the school district – I think it was Rose Tree Media school district recently held a drill at one of the elementary schools for a pipeline leak scenario. It was really surreal to see these kids coming out and doing this practice run for like “if there’s a pipeline leak, here’s what we’re gonna do, we’re gonna calmly walk out of the school and get on these buses and go to safety” but the problem with that emergency drill is that you can’t bring in busses if there’s a leak of natural gas liquids, because those engines could ignite the gas. Cell phones could ignite that gas. A water heater kicking on could ignite that gas. Little, normal, everyday things could result in a massive explosion.
So it really seems like kind of a “duck and cover” scenario that’s going on, giving a sort of false sense of hope to people, and a false sense of safety, because there is nothing safe about putting an elementary school being next to a massive natural gas liquids pipeline. That can never be safe. Sunoco has the worst safety record of any pipeline company operating in the United States. Out of 1,500 or more operators or more they are number one. You can find that info through PHMSA, that they have I think its now more 280 spills in this instance, in the past decade. Like I said, they had three spills or leaks on Mariner East 1 in the past year, on a pipeline that hasn’t even been in operation for a year. And that’s an eight-inch pipeline – we’re talking about these massive pipelines so we’re talking about the potential for a much larger explosion. So, yeah, down that way in the more populated areas there are hundreds of residents coming out and trying to get their townships, their towns, their school districts, to force Sunoco to help them come up with an emergency plan, or just for the emergency management for the area to come up with it.
But there’s really no good way to manage something like that. We witnessed that last year with the Texas Eastern pipeline explosion that happened in Westmoreland county, Pennsylvania, which is southwestern Pennsylvania. The fire company that responded, the emergency responders were at the mercy of the pipeline company. They had to just sit back and wait for the line to be shut off and the fire to burn out, because they couldn’t get anywhere near close enough to it to do anything about it. The fire chief had said that he had to stop his vehicle about a quarter mile away, and in his full firefighter gear he couldn’t get out of the vehicle – it was too hot. That fireball incinerated a house that was about five hundred feet from the pipeline. A man who was there nearly escaped with his life, he was burned on seventy-five percent of his body, he had amputations due to those injuries, a lifelong thing he is going to have to deal with, he’s a new dad now since that incident, his wife was pregnant at the time, luckily she wasn’t home…
But that’s the kind of thing we’re talking about that could potentially happen, and across the state there’s no plan on how to deal with something like that. There’s no resources on how to deal with that. Out here, there’s even less motivation for emergency preparedness plans, because rural areas in Pennsylvania are considered ‘low consequence’ which means that if a pipeline explodes, maybe only a few people will be killed, as opposed to possibly hundreds of people being killed if it happened in a more populated area. And so that doesn’t seem to matter to anyone except to people that live here, and that understand those risks, that support us. Rural Pennsylvania has been a sacrifice zone for a really long time, to many different industries. And so what we’re experiencing is just a continuation of that.
The fire company we have out here, I appreciate them so much, I am glad that they’re ready to respond in the case of an emergency every day out here, to come to our aid, we’ve had to make 911 calls in the past and they’ve been here for us. But they can’t respond to a pipeline explosion; they can’t help us in that kind of circumstance. I wouldn’t expect them to. It’s not safe for them to try to respond to an incident like that. And we’re talking about a volunteer fire company who doesn’t get enough funding for their operation, and has to hold fundraisers to be able to stay in operation. They rely on donations and bingo and cornhole tournaments and fish frys and things like that to just be able to do their regular day-to-day like responding to car accidents, responding to house fires, things like that. There’s no way they can respond to a giant natural gas liquids fireball burning out of control that can’t be turned off by anybody but Sunoco and Energy Transfer Partners.”
Unicorn Riot: Before you mentioned that Sunoco has by all accounts a pretty troubled history of accidents, health and safety violations, leaks and stuff like that….and Sunoco and Energy Transfer Partners recently announced their merger, so they’re like the same company now, whereas before they were definitely involved with each other… Energy Transfer Partners, most people would know them as the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline which is almost finished (or is finished but isn’t operating yet, I guess it could be operating by the time we publish this)… So you’ve been dealing with Sunoco trying to come onto your land for what, about two years?
Elise Gerhart: Yeah, two years.
Unicorn Riot: What are your observations on the dynamic, or the attention being paid to your situation before the movement against DAPL took off…what went down at Standing Rock and the aftermath of that, how has that affected your situation? Has it changed in terms of more attention or more support, or do the company or law enforcement seem more nervous? How would you say things were before, and now are after, DAPL coming into the spotlight?
Elise Gerhart: “Well, I wouldn’t say that we were resisting before anybody at Standing Rock. I mean, in simple terms, we had a tree sit about the same time that the camp was getting started at Sacred Stone, but that struggle has been going on for so much longer, probably 525 years of resistance. So I would say we never had national media coverage until after the #NoDAPL movement, the resistance at Standing Rock…I think that that fight really mobilized a lot of people and spread a lot of awareness, I mean there was so much attention on it, it was on the news every day (I mean if you’re looking at the right type of news). And the media, the grassroots media that was put out every single day to really show what was going on, and people telling their own stories, was really really important to get that truth out, to not have it twisted by CBS News or whoever else.
That kind of aspect has been really helpful because people are just more aware of what’s going on and how brutal the pipeline companies and the police can be to people who resists and how legitimate the fight against fossil fuel infrastructure is. Especially when its an indigenous-led resistance. And that’s something that we’re really aware of, is how our resistance here is really hypocritical in a lot of ways because we’re not indigenous. This resistance, this fight for property rights, is happening on stolen land. And I think that when we put that kind of message out, people understand that more now than they would have if we were saying that before people knew about Standing Rock. Like they understand what that means more so. It’s a little hard to say how Standing Rock has changed this, I mean we’re still a pretty small operation around here, still struggling to get media attention for the most part. But I think that when people do hear about us, that there is more of a context there, having been educated by people from Standing Rock, from the #NoDAPL movement. Like we don’t have to start at square one with everybody. A lot of people have some sense of what’s going on.
I think that because of that fight [at Standing Rock] we’re able to do more national networking. Like for instance there’s the ‘Stop ETP’ movement that’s getting off the ground right now, which is a collaboration of organizers across many different pipeline fights that are all under that ETP umbrella, they’re all different Energy Transfer Partners projects. We have Mariner East 2, Sabal Trail, Bayou Bridge…you were saying before how DAPL is basically done, but it’s my understanding that Bayou Bridge is actually a southern leg of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which has not even moved into the construction phase yet. So people from those fights are able to get connected with each other now, find each other through social media and pipeline resistance networks, and so the main way I think our fight is changing is we’re able to access that, access a broader network of people resisting fossil fuel infrastructure. And I think that that is kind of the next era of these fights, is they’re getting organized, so we’ve gotta get organized. They’re working on a national or global level, so we’re gonna do that too. We’re gonna fight this all the way from the frack fields to the pipelines, the plastics industry, the pollution that’s a result of that…we can fight them at all those points, we can bring people together from all of those struggles and make them one struggle, I think.”
Unicorn Riot: So you mentioned how theres a lot more networking between different pipeline fights, and in this new ‘Stop ETP’ campaign, people are specifically connecting fighting different pipelines being built by Energy Transfer Partners…We were chatting a little bit earlier about how Sunoco is basically interchangeable with Energy Transfer Partners at this point. So Sunoco, ETP, whoever, has been working pretty directly with local and state law enforcement to come on your property, for instance – [police] working with the pipeline companies to bring their crews on and cut trees or do whatever they’re doing. And with the Lancaster Stand, another camp in Pennsylvania against the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline, I was reading about how: North Dakota officials had been contacted by local officials in Lancaster asking for help on how to keep pipeline protests under control. I’m curious what your read is, on locally in your area, either messaging that Sunoco is using, or how- I mean they haven’t come on to your property very recently – but do you have any sense of how they’re preparing? Are they gaining support from locals? What methods or tactics do you see them using?
Elise Gerhart: “Yeah, we’re aware that North Dakota law enforcement is coming to Pennsylvania to educate the police force about what they deem is an appropriate way to deal with pipeline protests. And that doesn’t just apply to protests in Lancaster, it obviously applies to any forms of civil disobedience or direct action to fight a pipeline. And even groups that don’t use direct action do get surveilled, have tactics applied against them to try and stop their resistance.
I think that the biggest tactic used against people is fear. Always has been, probably always will be. They threaten people’s livelihoods, they make examples out of people like they tried to do with us last year with arrests. And that’s freaked some people out, they’re like “well if I go to jail for three days, what’s gonna happen with my kid?” I have had people express to me personally that they would get involved but they’re literally worried about their children being taken away from them if they wind up in jail. They don’t know what they’re going to be charged with. So I’d say that that’s probably the biggest thing.
I don’t know what to expect here when the police actually show up. I would expect them to be more forceful than when they were here last year, because last year was just kind of a show of force, an intimidation tactic. It was done preemptively as far as pipeline construction is concerned, but right now they’re actually trying to get the pipe in the ground and get the NGLs pumping. So I would say that the company is much more desperate now, so they will use greater force to get what they want. And I expect the police, both local and state, to do their bidding. I couldn’t tell you specifically what kind of training they’re getting; I know that the local police force before they came here last year did get some kind of training on direct action tactics. They were talking about things that I know that hey really had no idea what they were talking about but they were using words related to direct action. They clearly had some kind of training because this kind of thing has never been seen in Huntingdon County before, there’s no way that the local police, the Huntingdon County Sheriffs knew anything about tree-sitting or blockades or anything but they were talking about it in a way that showed they did receive some type of training before they came here last year.
What else is happening in Pennsylvania right now is there is currently a bill proposed by a senator whose name is Scott Martin. It’s a bill that’s titled something about like protecting critical infrastructure, I forget the name and the number of the bill right now. But the gist of it is they want to up penalties for protests on infrastructure sites. They don’t want them to be misdemeanors anymore. They don’t want trespassing to be considered a misdemeanor, they want to up it to a felony. Certain offenses would be a first degree felony, others would be a second degree felony. For the second degree felonies they want to impose a minimum fine of $5,000 and for the first degree felony offenses they want to impose a minimum fine of $10,000. And this is a bill being discussed in the Pennsylvania senate, right now. So I feel like there is truly a conspiracy happening against the people of Pennsylvania right now, by our own government in favor of the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries.”
Unicorn Riot: I know in PA, a few years ago, an anti-fracking activist went undercover at an Anadarko Petroleum conference, and there was a presenter who had done PSYOPS (psychological operations) for the US Army in the middle east and now works for Anadarko, saying “we’re dealing with an insurgency, you have to use counterinsurgency tactics against people who are opposing your company”…. Other than actually using violence and force, a main component of counterinsurgency is managing people’s perceptions, a lot of it overlaps with PR… Have you seen, has Sunoco tried to do any local outreach or tried to curry favor? I know other landowners in the area have signed easements and received checks from Sunoco. How have you seen them trying to give themselves a sunny image in your area?
Elise Gerhart: “Yeah, they spend hundreds of millions of dollars on PR, and that’s always something that we’re having to fight an uphill battle against. We don’t have those kinds of resources to spread lies…not that we would spread lies, we would spread the truth, but…They take out ads in local papers to say how many jobs they’re providing, and don’t bother to disclose that when they say 30,000 jobs they actually mean 30,000 job years, which is a different measurement, and means less actual jobs provided. They just go really hard on basically the jobs thing and pretend like they’re boosting local economies. They always say that these pipelines have no impact on people or the environment, which we can pretty easily disagree with, with photos, videos, testimonials of people telling the real truth.
Recently, I want to say maybe a month ago, if that, Sunoco made it a point to have a non-publicized meeting with the Huntingdon County Commissioners, where it was basically just the same thing, it was a PR stunt, but it was directed at the Huntingdon County Commissioners specifically. I am sure that we are not the only county who has experienced that. There was evidence found in another county through a FOIA request that Sunoco had paid off the county conservation district with a $50,000 grant. (I cannot disclose what county that is, but that happened.) They spend all this money to tell people how great they are; if they were so great they wouldn’t have to spend all that money. They would just do what they do and people would love them for what they do, but that’s not how it is – they do use a lot of PR.
I couldn’t tell you exactly how they enact psyops, how the industry enacts that, but clearly it’s happening. If Anadarko’s using that tactic, why not Sunoco? And the fact that they even think they have to go to those lengths against Pennsylvania citizens is pretty out of control, I mean we’re not the enemy to be fought against but that’s what we get treated like. We get slammed like we’re anti-progress, anti-development, anti-modern life, anti-everything, but really what we’re doing is for our communities, for our lives, for the environment, we’re defending what we love. We don’t wanna fight, I mean nobody wants these fights. This is a horrible position to be in. It’s stressful, it’s time consuming, it’s expensive. It’s terrible to experience this pipeline infrastructure buildout and infrastructure buildout in general, but they bring these fights to us, they literally come knocking on your door, they literally come in your backyard or in your state forest or wherever it is. And yet we’re treated like we’re the ones who are attacking someone. When all we’re trying to do is defend ourselves, defend our families, stand up for the environment, protect our future.
I’ve had people say the most ludicrous things to me because they’re hearing these PR campaigns and they’re believing them. I have people trolling me on Facebook saying “well you need to just shut up until you aren’t using gasoline in your car and you aren’t having home heating” or this or that, and it’s just so missing the point because as I was explaining, nothing about these new pipelines is about domestic consumption. It’s not about putting gas in your car to go to work; it’s not about using it for your home hearing. But people have these misconceptions about it because of all the advertising put out there by the companies. And people turn against people in their own communities because of it, because they wanna believe this apparent authority that’s coming from the corporations. Authority doesn’t mean legitimacy anymore, it just means that you have power and money and that’s what gives you authority. And people are manipulated by that, they turn against their own neighbors sometimes, and that is the reality of what you have to deal with.
In addition to that, on the state level and soon to be on the federal level, we have…I’m blanking out on his name right now but one of the public utility commissioners of Pennsylvania came out with a statement calling people working against pipelines ‘jihadists’, implying that we are terrorists. And he is now nominated for the FERC and there are confirmation hearings coming up on May 25th in DC for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. And that’s going to be a very bad day if he is put in that federal position. It’s bad enough to have him in a state position if that’s his attitude, that farmers and teachers and parents trying to defend themselves and their families are terrorists to him, that doesn’t bode very well. And it’s really awful to be treated like that, and to see people treated like that, who are just trying to mind their own damn business. That’s usually what we do in rural Pennsylvania, we mind our own damn business. And they won’t let us do that. They won’t let us live in peace.”
Unicorn Riot: You mentioned earlier how there’s some sort of statewide ‘anti-terrorism’ task force that is based on surveillance, or trying to prevent actions against the fossil fuel industry… and also there’s this public utilities commissioner in Pennsylvania you mentioned who’s called people who protest pipelines ‘jihadists’ who might be now in a federal position… we were also talking a little bit earlier, Sunoco has merged with Energy Transfer Partners, who built the Dakota Access Pipeline…
Elise Gerhart: “And used terror to to it….”
Unicorn Riot: …yeah, that pipeline was built with brute force as its entry mechanism, so in terms of where we are now, I know there’s probably certain details you might not want to discuss and that’s fine… So right now where were sitting is on your property, not on the easement, is that correct?
Elise Gerhart: “Yeah, this is my family’s property here.”
Unicorn Riot: A few yards across the stream from where we’re sitting, there’s all these felled trees, and this is the easement that is already under eminent domain for the Mariner East 2 pipeline. There’s a few active tree-sits here, and then its a pretty short walk to the road and right on the other side of the road is where the right-of-way is already torn up, there’s pipe sitting on the ground, last night we saw them put up floodlights…What do you see happening when they do decide they wanna finish their work here? How do you see that playing out?
Elise Gerhart: “I expect them to come with brute force. That’s how they’ve done it in the past, that’s what we saw at Standing Rock…that’s the way that they do it. If they can’t trick you, they bully you. If they can’t bully you, then they attack you. So, that is what I expect. I don’t know in detail what they’re planning. I’m not necessarily afraid of it, because there’s not a whole lot I can do about it. We’re not gonna get out of the way because what they’re doing is wrong and someone has to stand up to them. We’re doing what we can to just be peaceful, remain peaceful, but put our foot down at the same time and stand up to them.
And they want to build this pipeline and we’ve seen, when Energy Transfer Partners wants to build a pipeline, they’re willing to physically hurt people to get them out of the way. And we’ve seen how the police are complicit with that. At this point I am expecting to go to jail, potentially for an extended period of time, I’ve been trying to prepare for that. All I can say is that sometimes you just have to do what’s right. You have to try and protect yourself from harm, and we’re just trying to do everything we can to do that.”
Unicorn Riot: So with the almost guaranteed certainty of Sunoco/Energy Transfer Partners completing their project on your land against your consent, probably some degree of police violence involved in allowing that to happen…you and other people here seem to have no illusions about where this will probably go. Why do you think it’s important, or what do you see being the lasting value of choosing to be here and stand in the way, even though you know what’s coming?
Elise Gerhart: “We have no choice because what they’re doing with these projects is leading us towards and endgame – with the climate, with access to clean water, clean air – so we’re in trouble already if we don’t put a stop to the fossil fuel industry, we are going to lose anyway. So why don’t we just try to set things up for the future, for future generations, and if we don’t do that there’s no hope there. And I think a lot of that was expressed in Standing Rock too. It’s not really much of a choice as far as I see it, to let them do it. We’re gonna hurt either way. People who aren’t resisting this pipeline actively are going to suffer from it also. So its like, well you can suffer and let them do it, or suffer and put up a fight. We just chose the latter is all.
“You don’t fight fascists because you’re going to win, you fight fascists because they’re fascists.” And maybe we’ll win, you never know. It’s not good odds but I don’t think it’s completely out of the question. But it’s also not really about winning. This is part of a constant struggle of humanity versus destruction. Its the battle, or the war, that has been going on for ages, and this is just part of that ongoing struggle. There was a woman who told me once that looking at things in terms of winning and losing is not the way to look at it. Because there is no winning and losing, there’s pretty much just the struggle. And if you look at history, it’s there. We’re not the first to put up a fight and we won’t be the last.”
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