It would be hard to find a state that smiles more favorably on the fossil fuel industry than Pennsylvania. Oklahoma, perhaps, which has never met an opportunity to pollute its land, waterways, and skies that it didn’t like, but Pennsylvania — home to a large portion of the Marcellus Shale formation — is a close second. But on January 3, Pennsylvania officials had finally had enough of Sunoco Pipeline LP, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners. On that date, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection ordered Sunoco to stop work immediately on the Mariner East 2 pipeline. Its order was based on what officials called “egregious and willful violations” of safety and environmental laws, according to a report by Think Progress.
You may have heard of Energy Transfer Partners. That’s the same bunch building the Dakota Access pipeline. It has contracted with Tiger Swan, a private security firm, to conduct aggressive surveillance of anyone who dares oppose its plans. Last fall, it filed a $300 million suit against Greenpeace, Earth First, and Bank Track, accusing them of “eco-terrorism” because they had the nerve to assist those opposed to the Dakota Access pipeline. Like most fossil fuel companies, Energy Transfer Partners believes it has the right to operate its business in any manner it deems appropriate and that any opponents belong in jail.
The state of Pennsylvania was so delighted to welcome fracking operations and to get the Mariner East 2 pipeline built, it bludgeoned the opposition from its own citizens by declaring the pipeline to be a public utility. That gave the pipeline the power to seize private property by eminent domain. The state couldn’t wait to get its hands on all the lovely money it believed fracking would produce. Whether any of those dollars also found their way into pockets of government officials one can only speculate about.
The power of eminent domain meant there was no need to deal with recalcitrant landowners. Simply expropriate their land legally then tell them to shut up or be arrested. Local residents, led by Elise Gerhart, established Camp White Pine to oppose the completion of the pipeline. Gerhart and her family own property the pipeline crosses. Tiger Swan was again brought in to spy on those who expressed displeasure with the project, using the information gleaned to intimidate and harass them.
After the announcement on January 3, Joanne Kilgour, director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club, said “DEP’s decision to suspend the permits required for construction affirms that the concerns raised by these community members were valid, and that the pipeline should never have been approved in the first place.” Last September, Gerhart and her family filed suit against Sunoco, Tiger Swan, and more than two dozen state and local police officers for violating their rights under state and federal law after members of the family and their supporters were arrested on property owned by the Gerhart family in March 2016.
The $2.5 billion Mariner East 2 pipeline is intended to transport propane, ethane, and butane derived from fracking operations in the Marcellus Shale region in the southwestern part of the state 350 miles to an export terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia. Gerhart and her organization have warned repeatedly about the environmental and health risk associated with fracking, but state officials have turned a deaf ear to their complaints and a blind eye to Sunoco’s cavalier approach to construction.
Now, even the pipeline’s benevolent patrons in state government have had enough. In its stop work order of January 3, the DEP emphasized that Sunoco’s “unlawful conduct” demonstrates “a lack of ability or intention” by the company to comply with the Clean Streams Law, the Dam Safety and Encroachments Act, and other conditions in its pipeline construction permit. It went on to say the stop work order was necessary because, as Think Progress reports, “other enforcement procedures, penalties, or remedies ‘would not be adequate’ to get Sunoco to follow the rules, given the company’s history of noncompliance with the law.”
For its part, Sunoco was quick to suggest it was all a simple misunderstanding, one that would be cleared up soon. Jeff Shields, a spokesperson for the company issued a statement emphasizing Sunoco’s “dedication to preserving and protecting the environment in which we conduct our work. The order requires us to submit various reports related to current and future construction activities. We intend to expeditiously submit these reports.” Just a matter of a few reports, folks. Nothing to see here, move along.
The order has done nothing to mollify Elise Gerhart and her supporters. “It does not bring clean water to those who have already lost it. It does not bring justice to those whose rights have been violated, including our environment,” she said in a statement after the stop work order was announced. “Now is not the time to sit back and bask in a false sense of relief. It’s a time to push back with everything we have left.”
This is not a story about some local issue. It is a story about how the fossil fuel industry has used its enormous financial resources to capture federal, state, and local governments and forced them to bend to its will, the best interests of the citizenry be damned. Feckless politicians, who often get elected thanks to generous campaign contributions from the industry, are more than willing to abdicate their responsibilities to the voters and violate their oath of office in order to please their corporate masters.
This is government gone mad. It is a wonder that people like Elise Gerhart can find the strength to oppose the outrageous sell out to fossil fuel interests that has occurred at all levels of government all across the United States. She deserves a medal and maybe a tiny slice of justice for herself and her supporters.
Top image by USGS