By Michael Badges Canning
Federal Marshals with automatic weapons and bullet proof vests. Sheriff’s deputies and state troopers dispatched to “keep people safe.” Something terrible must be happening in Pennsylvania’s forests to result in this show of power.
Something terrible is happening, but it’s not what you may think. Large corporations are taking lands owned by Pennsylvanians while federal marshals, sheriff deputies, state troopers and even our courts are being dispatched to help them do it.
Who could blame Stephen Gerhart, 85, for thinking that the darker times he’d lived through—the Nazi occupation of his native Hungary, the Communist “liberation,” the brutal Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956—were over when he moved to Pennsylvania in 1957. Gerhart thought that he would live out the rest of his days on the wooded hills in Huntingdon County, where he and his wife Ellen had spent 34 years. It was land they cared deeply about, having signed up for the Forest Stewardship Program when they bought the property.
But on March 28, 2015, Gerhart had to endure one more brutality at the hands of the state – a chain saw crew ripping apart the woodlands he and his wife had looked after all these decades.
This atrocity came about after Huntingdon County President Judge George N. Zanic ruled that Sunoco Logistics, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Corporation (ETC), was a public utility and could condemn, via eminent domain, a 3-acre right-of-way through the Gerhart property to run the Mariner East 2 pipeline.
This phenomenon, in which private lands are seized so that pipelines can be constructed, has affected several communities in Pennsylvania over the last few weeks. In early March, Williams Partners, recently acquired by ETC, unleashed a chainsaw crew on North Harford Maple, a sugar maple operation near New Milford, PA owned by the Holleran family. U.S. District Court Judge Malachy E. Mannion had earlier ruled that Williams Partners was a public utility and allowed them to seize a 125-foot right-of-way through the heart of the producing trees to lay the Constitution pipeline.
Both the Gerharts and the Hollerans were offered compensation; for example, the Gerharts were offered $100,000 for the 3-acre right-of-way. But in both cases, it wasn’t about the money, but about these families’ desire to preserve something money cannot buy. For the Hollerans’ case, it was a life-sustaining business and magnificent old maples. For the Gerharts, it was the beauty of the forest and the wild things that inhabit it.
Eminent domain has its roots in antiquity, when all lands belonged to a sovereign. In the United States, the Constitution limits the power of eminent domain to condemnations “for the public good” and requires “just compensation.”
Both the Mariner East 2 and the Constitution pipelines are projects of multi-billion-dollar corporations. Their aim is profit, while the “public good” for their projects can be debated. What’s not debatable is that neither the Gerharts nor Hollerans have received any compensation, let alone a just compensation as the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution dictates.
A just compensation would take the Hollerans’ business into consideration, and the Gerharts’ 34 years of nurturing their land. Beyond the issue of just compensation is the fact that a pipeline on one’s land causes additional problems. A landowner will only get compensated once but will continue to pay taxes on property that they cannot develop. Landowners who have pipelines on their land can also experience trouble getting homeowners insurance.
On March second, with the sap flowing, seven federal marshals armed with automatic weapons and clad in bulletproof vests, along with state police, arrived at the Holleran property in Susquehanna County to protect the chain saw crew from the Holleran family and friends there to witness and document the destruction. The Constitution pipeline hasn’t been approved in New York, so its completion isn’t certain; yet, Williams Partners chose to move forward with the cutting anyway. With the family looking on, completion of the cutting was completed on March 4. A visibly shaken Megan Holleran, a family member and field technician for North Harford Maple, said, “I have no words for how heartbroken I am. We’ve been preparing for this for years, but watching the trees fall was harder than I ever imagined.”
Shortly afterward, Williams Partners announced that it was ceasing work on the pipeline for 6 months. When Megan Holleran heard this news she said, “It proves that I was right when I said it was completely unnecessary for them to do this at this time. It’s proof of how stupid it was that they came out and cut our trees already.”
On March 28, County sheriff deputies and state police arrived at the Gerhart property to protect the chain saw crew. The situation at the Gerharts’ was even more egregious than at the Hollerans, as the Judge who ordered the cutting to begin despite the fact that Sunoco grossly misrepresented the extent of the wetlands of the Gerharts’ property.
The Gerharts, like the Hallorans, had assembled friends to witness and document the destruction. However, the Gerhart property also had three “tree sitters,” people perched high in trees or suspended between them to protect the trees. The sheriff nonetheless permitted the chain saw crew to engage in reckless behavior that endangered those in the trees and arrested several people, including one individual that was not in the right of way. Those arrested were charged with indirect civil contempt and had bail set at $100,000. They also faced up to 6 months in jail.
Having lived through the Nazis, the Hungarian Communists, and the Soviets, Stephen Gerhart knows a little something about injustice. In a letter to Judge Zanik, Gerhart wrote, “It is unjust to give [Sunoco Logistics] the right of eminent domain so that they can trample on the rights of the people of Pennsylvania.”
The eminent domain process is broken. It allows wealthy interests to steal property from others. The courts may sanction it, but there is no justice. It may be legal but it is not right.