A pair of protesters remained in trees Thursday as a deadline neared for clearing a path for a $2.5-billion natural gas pipeline.
Elise Gerhart, 29, of Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, remained in a tree platform 40 feet above the ground on her family’s property. Gerhart and another protester are protesting tree clearing on the property and a judge’s decision to award Sunoco Logistics an eminent domain right-of-way on the Geharts’ land to build the Mariner East 2 pipeline.
Three protesters have been arrested for defying a court order to stay clear of cutting crews. Among them was Elise’s mother, Ellen Gerhart, 60, who was released Wednesday.
Ellen Gerhart said she had come onto the right-of-way Wednesday morning to warn the chainsaw crew about cutting too close to the tree her daughter was in.
“If they’d cut those trees down, it could have endangered her life,” she says. Gerhart says all but a dozen trees were cut down along the three-acre right-of-way. “We held them off from whacking everything. This is wrong, and you have to stand up to it.”
Elizabeth Glunt, 35 of Altoona, and Alexander Lotorto, of Milford, were arrested Tuesday. Glunt was released on bail. Lotorto remains in Huntingdon County jail on $100,000 bail.
According to the criminal complaint, Lotorto was accused of interfering with the work crews “by directing persons to interfer [sic] with the project through the use of a handheld device.” Fellow protester Nicholas Miller, of Huntingdon, said Lotorto held a walkie-talkie during the protest.
The protest began Tuesday as about two dozen protesters converged on the property.
The chainsaw crew was attempting to finish the cutting by the end of March—the end of a tree-clearing season established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect migratory birds and an endangered species of bat.
The Gerharts are among dozens of landowners across Pennsylvania fighting with Sunoco Logistics over the path of the Mariner East 2—a 350-mile pipeline that will take propane, butane and ethane from Ohio, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania to the Marcus Hook industrial complex near Philadelphia.
The company says the pipeline will “relieve the oversupply” of natural gas liquids from production in the Marcellus and Utica shales. Propane and butane can be used in fuels but can also be used in plastics and chemical manufacturing. Ethane can be processed into ethylene, a chemical used in common plastics.
Sunoco Logistics spokesman Jeff Shields said the ethane would be exported but could eventually be “part of other petrochemical processing units” at the Marcus Hook complex. European chemical company INEOS recently began exporting Marcellus Shale ethane to Europe that was moved through a related Sunoco project, Mariner East 1.
The Gerharts bought the 27-acre property in 1983 and have participated in the state’s Forest Stewardship Program to preserve habitat on their land. In January, Huntingdon County Court of Common Pleas Judge George Zanik ruled in favor of Sunoco in its eminent domain case against the Gerharts. The family had turned down the company’s offer of $100,000 to route the pipeline through their property, and is appealing the eminent domain decision.
On Monday, Judge Zanik ordered the Gerharts and other protesters to keep clear of the tree-cutting crews and warned them they would face six months in jail if they defied the order.
Even if the crews are unable to cut down the remaining trees on the route, Sunoco’s Jeff Shields said it won’t slow down the project.
“We have been able to remove the vast majority of the trees on the right-of-way, and we don’t expect this to affect our overall construction timeline,” Shields said in an email.
Construction is expected to begin this summer, and the pipeline is slated to come online in early 2017.