Ellen Gerhart sat in leg irons and cuffs, a guard standing behind her, as Houston-based pipeline giant Energy Transfer Partners made its case against her on Friday in a Pennsylvania courtroom. Seconds after Huntingdon County Court of Common Pleas Judge George Zanic found the 63-year old retired teacher guilty, he began the sentencing phase of the proceeding, reading from a prepared statement on his computer. Zanic sentenced Gerhart to two to six months in the Centre County Correctional Facility about an hour away from her home.
A week earlier, Gerhart was arrested when four officers arrived on her property late in the afternoon. She’d been charged with indirect criminal contempt by Energy Transfer Partners for interfering with the construction of the Mariner East 2 hazardous liquid gas pipeline on a portion of her 27-acre property they’d taken by eminent domain. Although yesterday’s hearing date had already been set, the company filed a motion last Friday to revoke her bail, claiming, among other things, that she’d baited bears and mountain lions to the pipeline easement.
The courtroom was filled with supporters from across the state. Ellen and her family have gained many in the course of their years-long battle to keep the pipeline off their property and protect the streams, creeks, woods, and wetlands they have stewarded since moving therein the 1980s. The family’s concerns are not unwarranted. In May, the company spilled 4,000 gallons of drilling fluid on the Gerhart property, threatening the family’s well water.
In a press statement, Elise Gerhart, Ellen’s daughter, said, “If you build a pipeline through the woods, you should expect to see bears and other wildlife. Judge Zanic gave this $50 billion company the power of eminent domain over my family’s property and our governor gave them the permits. My mom’s protest on her own property is not the injustice here.”
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In 2016, her daughter Elise sat in a tree for days to protect it and others around it from being felled to establish the pipeline’s right-of-way. Ellen and supporters Alex Lotorto and Elizabeth Glunt who remained on the ground were arrested on charges that didn’t hold up in court and were dropped, but not before the three were jailed. Ellen spent three days in the same facility where she sits today. Glunt was held overnight before making her $100,000 bail the next day. Lotorto was held for three days on bail set at a whopping $200,000 by Judge Zanic.
Most of the Gerhart’s trees targeted by the company came down. Their efforts saved a couple of dozen of them. Earlier that same month in 2016, the Holleran family in Susquehanna County lost their long battle against the felling of trees on their property for a different pipeline project, Williams Partners’ Constitution pipeline. Although the interstate natural gas transmission pipeline had not received all of the required approvals, the company was able to take the land by eminent domain and was given a notice to proceed with the tree clearing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that oversees siting of pipelines. The following month, on Earth Day, the Cuomo administration rejected the water quality permits for the New York side of the pipeline, effectively killing the project.
While stories like those of the Gerhart’s and the Holleran’s have attracted attention from the press, theirs are hardly the only examples of the interests of the shale gas industry being put before the interests of the people. There are thousands of them. Since the shale gas boom began, we heard the stories coming from the shale fields -- stories of contaminated water, polluted air, illness, disease, injury, property damage, noise pollution, light pollution, the taking of land, bullying tactics, lost property value, earthquakes, spills, leaks, explosions, fires, illegal dumping, increased crime, increased traffic accidents, lost quality of life, and more. The need to create a market for all that gas meant a push to build more and more pipelines, power plants, processing facilities, export terminals. The problem has metastasized. The whole of Pennsylvania is now affected. And the thread that connects all of it is a government that is utterly unresponsive to its people.
Michael Bagdes-Canning, a longtime opponent of shale gas development who posted on Facebook his perspective on what he witnessed at the hearing, said of Zanic, “He spoke of his restraint, as long as she ‘obeyed’ the law. He talked about how he ‘let’ her ‘protest’.” He continued, “(Zanic) lectured Ellen and all in attendance, about how refusing to follow his orders makes a mockery of justice. Allowing huge corporations to steal and destroy the property of a 63-year old retired teacher is a mockery of justice. Making a 63 year old retired teacher sit through a court hearing in leg irons and cuffs with a guard standing behind her is a mockery of justice. Sentencing Ellen to 2 to 6 months in jail for protecting what she loves is making a mockery of justice. Calling such blatant injustice “justice” is making a mockery of justice.”