Gas, Guns, and Pipelines

  • Joe Bezjak, with his father's .22 rifle. A pipeline company says he threatened workers on his land. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

  • Joe Bezjak, near an abandoned coal mine on his property. He claims a pipeline broke a pipe that handled minewater there. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

By Reid R. Frazier

December 21, 2012

Back on his farm after serving his first-ever jail sentence, 73-year-old Joe Bezjak said this week he couldn’t wait for state environmental inspectors to show up at his property after seeing pipeline workers dump mine water onto his land. So he broke a judge’s order not to communicate with the workers, and paid for it with a weekend at the Fayette County jail.

Bezjak, of Nichols Township, Fayette County, was given the order after numerous run-ins with workers and contractors for Williams, a pipeline company, including one in which he allegedly told the workers he’d shoot them if they didn’t leave his farm.

But in late November, Bezjak saw a backhoe pushing abandoned mine drainage onto his property, into a small marshy area and a stream that bisects his 800-acre farm. The pipeline has been the subject of several violations from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

“I saw they were wrecking the environment, I saw they were damaging my land. And I knew that was illegal because the man—the DEP told me a couple days ago that’s illegal they can’t do that,” Bezjak said.

A few weeks before, the DEP had cited the company for pumping highly acidic water from an abandoned mine onto his hillside and into the stream. This time, Bezjak tried to get a DEP inspector to come out, “but they wouldn’t come out. So I took it upon myself to go over there.”

John Poister, a DEP spokesman, said Bezjak did the right thing by calling the agency, but said its inspectors can’t come all times.

“We can only be in so many places at once, so we can’t always be there immediately when we get a call,” Poister said.

"Eating Beans and Weanies"

After telling the workers they had to leave, Bezjak was summoned before Judge Nancy Vernon Dec. 14. Vernon sentenced Bezjak to four days in jail.

“I didn’t realize they were going to put the hammer on me,” said Bezjak. “Because I am not a criminal, I shouldn’t have been incarcerated. But, [I said to the judge] ‘If that’s your decision, Judge, that’s your decision, that’s fine with me.’ And she didn’t like [my response]. She didn’t like it at all. But she won,” he said, because that night, “she was eating steak, and I was eating beans and weenies.”

Bezjak, a former teacher and school principal in the Albert Gallatin school district, said he saw numerous former students in the jail—both guards and prisoners.  One of the prisoners gave him coffee—a jailhouse luxury; another lent him shower shoes.

“It reminded me of boot camp,” said Bezjak, who served in the U.S. Air Force in the 1960s.

CONFRONTATIONS OVER CATTLE

Bezjak signed a lease with Williams, allowing them to build a gathering line on his property transporting gas from nearby Marcellus shale gas wells to a compressor station in nearby Springhill Township. He split the proceeds with his brother, netting him around $50,000.

Bezjak’s run-ins with the company began in May, after workers cut his cattle fence, allowing his cattle to roam free.

Bezjak kept the herd of 180 segregated by age and sex to prevent inter-breeding and impregnation of his young heifers, which can endanger their health.

Neighbors reported seeing cattle wandering around on a nearby road shortly after construction began.

Bezjak confronted the workers about the fence, driving up on them with an ATV with a .22 rifle mounted on the front and telling them to leave the property. In court documents, the company claims Bezjak told workers he “would shoot them” if they did not leave, and that he “had a rifle in his hands when the threats were made.”

Bezjak says the rifle never left the ATV.  “We have a quad here that has a .22 rifle on it that we keep on the quad…I don’t shoot anything with it.”

When asked to clarify whether Bezjak held the rifle that day, Scott Carney, a Williams spokesman, said he didn’t think it mattered.

“You can’t come up to people in a threatening tone with a rifle. What message does that send? Whether he pointed at them or not, what difference does it make? How would you feel if someone rode up with a gun and said ‘Get off my land?’” Carney said.

Though court rules prevented her from speaking to reporters, in court documents, Judge Vernon appeared to come to a similar conclusion.

According to court transcripts, after looking at a photo of Bezjak’s ATV, she said:  “The people are met with someone on a quad with a gun, or shotgun, or rifle on the front. That’s going to be intimidating.”

Bezjak asked the workers to leave his land several times over the summer and fall because he wasn’t satisfied with the fence, according to court documents.

PROBLEMS WITH AN ABANDONED MINE

Exacerbating the problem, Bezjak says, is that the pipeline ran through an abandoned coal mine on his property. The mine had leaked acidic mine drainage, into his farmside stream, known as George’s Creek.

But he contends that in digging the pipeline, the company made the situation worse, as mine water pooled up on the property.

On Nov. 9, a DEP inspector issued a notice of violation to the company for dumping “acidic water from their pipeline trench onto the farmer’s pasture,” said Poister. The water was measured to have a pH of 3.36, roughly the same acidity of vinegar. A background reading of George’s Creek was even more acidic, with a pH of 3.09, indicating that mine drainage is a big problem in the area.

Abandoned mine drainage (AMD) can leach heavy metals off rock and become highly toxic to humans, animals and plants, according to the EPA.

Bezjak complained about the placement of the pipeline through the mine entrance to both the DEP and the company, but could not get the line re-routed.

Carney said the company was unaware initially that the water was polluted.  But, he said, acid mine drainage is unavoidable when laying pipeline in southwestern Pennsylvania. 

“This whole area has a legacy of strip mining occurring and there’s acid drainage anywhere you dig. To expect to dig a hole in the ground without some acid seepage and welling up is just unreasonable,” Bezjak said.

But Poister, of the DEP, said this was an ‘unusual’ case.

“This is one of the rare occasions where someone who’s digging a trench runs into a legacy AMD problem,” Poister said.

Poister said the site will be stabilized for the winter, and that none of the damage appeared to be permanent.

He also said the DEP never received a pre-construction survey about the pipeline’s environmental impact, which the DEP requires. The agency will consider this omission in deciding whether to assess a penalty for any violations.

“It’s one of the things we’re talking to them about,”  Poister said.

“Had they done a preconstruction survey, it might not have resulted in a change of routing of a pipeline, but they would have known they were going to run into some AMD issues there and they could have been better prepared,” Poister said.  “They have to do these things or else they run into these problems.”