By Michael Bagdes-Canning
Federal Marshals with automatic weapons and bullet proof vests, sheriff deputies dispatched to “keep people safe,” state troopers there in support. Something terrible must be happening in Pennsylvania’s forests. Something terrible is happening and it is not just in forests; large corporations are taking lands owned by Pennsylvanians and the federal marshals, the sheriff deputies, and the state troopers and our courts were dispatched to help them do it.
Who could blame Stephen Gerhart, 85, for thinking that the darker times he’d lived through were over when he moved to Pennsylvania in 1957; the Nazi occupation of his native Hungary, the Communist “liberation,” and the brutal Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 were evils he had to endure when he was young.
Who could blame Gerhart if he thought that he would quietly live out the rest of his days on the wooded hills in Huntingdon County that he and his wife Ellen had lived on for the last 34 years, in the forest they had pledged to protect when they bought the property in 1982 by signing up for the Forest Stewardship Program.
Who could blame him for thinking he was living a nightmare when, on March 28 of this year, Stephen had to endure one more brutality at the hands of the state – a chain saw crew ripping apart the woodlands he and Ellen 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.
The seizure of private lands so that pipelines can be constructed is a troubling phenomenon that has wracked several communities in Pennsylvania over the last several weeks.
In early March, Williams Partners, recently acquired by ETC, unleashed a chainsaw crew on North Harford Maple, a family-owned sugar bush near New Milford. U.S. District Court Judge Malachy E. Mannion had earlier ruled that Williams Partners was a public utility and allowed it to seize a 125-foot right of way through the heart of the producing trees to lay the Constitution pipeline. North Harford Maple is owned by Cathy Holleran, and the Holleran family had derived a significant income from maple products produced on the property.
Neither the Gerharts nor the Hollerans wanted the pipelines to pass through their properties. Both families were offered compensation. The Gerharts were offered $100,000 for the 3-acre right-of-way. In both cases, it was not about the money; there was a desire to retain something money cannot buy.
In the Holleran’s 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. For Williams Partners and Sunoco Logistics, it was all about taking what was not theirs.
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, and the public good for their projects is debatable. 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. A just compensation would take 34 years of nurturing into consideration. Of course, a pipeline presents a whole other wrinkle to eminent domain. With pipelines, you get compensated once but you continue to pay taxes on a piece of property that remains “yours” but you cannot develop. You may not be able to get homeowners insurance.
On March 2, with the sap flowing, seven federal marshals armed with automatic weapons and clad in bulletproof vests and state police arrived at the Holleran property in Susquehanna County to protect the chainsaw crew from the demonstrably nonviolent Holleran family and friends there to witness and document the destruction. The Constitution pipeline hasn’t been approved in New York, so it’s 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 chainsaw crew. Judge Zanik, ignoring that the pipeline isn’t permitted yet, that Sunoco misrepresented the character of the Gerharts’ property – the wetlands was more extensive, by a factor of 7, than indicated on Sunoco Logistics’ map – gave permission for cutting to begin.
The Gerharts, like the Hollerans, 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 trees, to act as a physical barrier to the crews and protectors for the trees. The sheriff, protesting all the time that he was there to protect the safety of all involved, nonetheless permitted the chainsaw 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.
The eminent domain process is broken. It allows wealthy interests to steal property from others. It may be legal, but it is not right. The courts may sanction it, but there is no justice.
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, Stephen 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.”