A federal judge has set rules for the resumption of tree-felling to make way for a natural gas pipeline to be built from Susquehanna County into New York State.
Judge Malachy Mannion of the Middle District of Pennsylvania said the builders of the proposed Constitution Pipeline could return to a property in New Milford Township where a crew arrived on Feb. 10 to begin cutting trees but then backed off after confronting protesters and local police.
In an order issued Monday, the judge said protesters had to stay at least 150 feet away from tree cutting, and authorized U.S. Marshals or other law-enforcement officers to arrest anyone violating the order. He also said that anyone who instigates protests that violate the order can be held in contempt of court even if they are not physically present.
The judge denied a motion by the pipeline’s builders, the Williams Companies and Cabot Oil & Gas, to find the pipeline’s opponents in contempt of court on the grounds that they had “continuously violated” a March 2015 order to stay away from the tree-cutting crew.
He said he had found no evidence at a hearing on Feb. 19 that any of the opponents had personally violated the earlier order but that anyone interfering with the order in future can be held in contempt of court.
The judge said a group of pipeline opponents had “prevented safe tree felling” on the site and that Pennsylvania state troopers were called but said they did not have the authority to remove the protesters.
“Even though the court did not find defendants personally in contempt of its March 17, 2015 order, it did find interference with the order and that it required an enforcement mechanism to prevent any future problems at the subject property,” the judge wrote in the order.
Williams and Cabot want to clear about five acres of the 23-acre property that has been owned by Catherine Holleran and her family since the 1950s. They use the woodland there to harvest maple syrup.
The family lost a battle against the companies’ plan when the court ruled at last year’s hearing to condemn the land under Pennsylvania’s eminent domain law.
The tree-clearance would make way for part of the 124-mile pipeline that is planned to pump natural gas from the Marcellus Shale of northeastern Pennsylvania into New York State.
The tree clearance has been authorized by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates interstate pipelines, but critics argue that FERC’s approval is premature because the pipeline hasn’t yet received all its necessary permits in New York. FERC has ordered that tree clearance must be completed by March 31 to protect migratory birds and endangered bats.
Christopher Stockton, a Williams spokesman, said the company is confident New York will approve the project, which he said will help to ease the shortage of pipelines to take Pennsylvania’s abundant Marcellus Shale gas to market.
“We have been working with NYSDEC for years now and have made numerous changes to the project to incorporate the agency’s input,” Stockton told StateImpact, referring to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “We are very confident we will receive the outstanding clearance from NYSDEC so that we can begin construction of this important piece of energy infrastructure.”
He said the Constitution Pipeline would be the first “direct highway” linking the Marcellus in Pennsylvania with markets in New York and New England.
Stockton said the tree cutters approached the property on Feb. 10 but were “denied access” so decided to clear another parcel along the pipeline route and return to the Holleran property later. He said the company has not yet scheduled its return.
In New York State, environmentalists urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo to deny the companies a water-quality certificate and so prevent construction of the pipeline.
“There is no possible way to tear through the sensitive hills, forests, wetlands and streams where this pipeline is proposed without threatening water quality and habitat,” said Catskill Mountainkeeper, an environmental group.
In Susquehanna County, Holleran’s daughter, Megan Holleran, said the family and its supporters are now waiting for tree cutting to resume, but continued to argue that the operation would represent criminal damage. She said about two dozen supporters had come to the property to resist the scheduled tree cutting on Feb. 10.
A week later, tree cutters arrived on nearby land owned by another local resident, Denis McNamee, but they left the property at his request before cutting any trees, Holleran said.
“This is our land and family business and we just staged our equipment to set up for this year’s syrup production,” she said in a statement. “If they cut the trees now they would destroy our equipment and that’s criminal. That’s property destruction. We asked them to leave and they did, even the State Police agreed.”