Meet the Mother-Daughter Duo Resisting Pennsylvania’s Largest Pipeline Project

by Meg Lemieur

April 25, 2017

Ellen and Elise Gerhart are standing up for their land against one of the country’s largest pipeline companies — and they won’t back down.

Ellen & Elise Gerhart

Elise and Ellen Gerhart stand in front of a pond they are trying to protect from the Mariner East 2 pipeline. The Juniata Valley Audubon Society recognized their efforts with a conservation award. Photo by Laura Jackson.

Fighting for the safety of her land and her family is not how Ellen Gerhart expected to spend her time after she retired from teaching in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania two years ago. Since then, she’s been arrested three times — three times more than she’d been arrested in the 60 years before that.

Ellen and her husband bought their 27-acre property in 1982 and raised their daughters on the land. Tucked into the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, it is so pristine and untouched by human development that they were able to place it in the Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program more than a decade ago, with hope to preserve it for generations to come.

But two years ago, a land agent came knocking at their door to inform them that Sunoco Logistics wanted to put the Mariner East 2 pipelines through three acres of their property, including under their pond and through wetlands and streams. Promising that it wouldn’t affect them, they offered $14,000 for the trouble, but doubled the amount the next day when the Gerharts asked if they would. Although they never intended to take the money, they realized that many of their neighbors probably did take the lower amount due to the threat of court proceedings.

The Mariner East 2 project is planned to be two 350-mile pipelines, 16 and 20 inches in diameter respectively, that will carry 75,000 barrels of propane, butane and ethane, or natural gas liquids, per day from Ohio and West Virginia to Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, where it will be exported. Sunoco Logistics is planning to export all of the gas to Europe, even though Pennsylvania currently uses 22,000 barrels of propane per day. The Mariner East 2 project isn’t about energy independence or reducing the cost of energy for people living near the pipeline — it’s all about profiting off dirty fuel through the global market.

When the Gerharts refused the money and said they didn’t want the pipeline going through their property at all, Sunoco Logistics took them to court in order to seize the land forcibly by eminent domain. Even though the pipelines won’t be sending product back to Pennsylvania, the PA Public Utilities Commission still classified the project as a public utility, allowing them to continue with the land grab, which Ellen immediately appealed.

Pennsylvania is responsible for 20 percent of the country’s natural gas production, second only to Texas, but fracking companies can’t expand further without the construction of more pipelines to get the gas to market. That’s why many other communities in the state are facing eminent domain for proposed pipelines, like the Atlantic Sunrise and the PennEast pipelines.

Elise Gerhart occupied a tree last year when forest clearing began for the Mariner East 2 pipeline. Photo by Coryn Wolk.

Elise Gerhart occupied a tree last year when forest clearing began for the Mariner East 2 pipeline. Photo by Coryn Wolk.

Last year, when Sunoco’s crews came to cut down the forest that blanketed the three acres of the easement, Ellen and her daughter Elise were ready. Elise sat in a tree stand for two weeks as other trees were felled all around her while Ellen and other activists gathered in solidarity nearby. Ellen and two friends were arrested during the process. Elise was criminally charged a month later.

This year, Ellen and Elise are ready for Sunoco workers to come onto their property again when the company plans to lay the pipeline that could literally kill the family. The Gerharts’ house lies within the over 1,000-foot potential blast radius for the pipelines, which would carry hazardous and extremely volatile liquids. Sunoco Logistics — a part of Energy Transfer Partners, the same company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline — is one of the largest pipeline operators in the U.S. and has one of the worst safety records, with more than 200 spills since 2010.

In order to defend their lives and the lives of other innocent Pennsylvanians, they have invited activists to their property who have built three tree stands called Camp White Pine, and have been following through with every legal angle possible. While the Huntingdon County judge who could stop the construction during the Gerhart’s appeal seems in Sunoco’s pocket, the family hopes that standing up for the land and its inhabitants will encourage others to stand up for what they know to be the right thing in their hearts.

You can join Ellen and Elise in resistance by calling Pennsylvania Governor Wolf at 717-787-2500 and telling him that he should block any further construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline from proceeding and instruct the Department of Environmental Protection to revoke its permits.

By Meg Lemieur

Meg Lemieur is a member of EDGE (Ending Dirty Gas Exploitation) in Philadelphia and a guest blogger for Greenpeace USA.

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