Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Huntingdon County landowners brace for tree cutting along pipeline route

Ellen Gerhart (L) with her daughter Elise on their land in Huntingdon County. Common Pleas Court Judge George Zanic has given Sunoco permission to cut trees while the case is on appeal.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Ellen Gerhart (L) with her daughter Elise on their land in Huntingdon County. Common Pleas Court Judge George Zanic has given Sunoco permission to cut trees while the case is on appeal.

A Huntingdon County family has lost their battle to put off tree-clearing for Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 pipeline while their case is still on appeal. Huntingdon County Common Pleas Judge George Zanic has ordered Ellen Gerhart to allow tree clearing on about three acres of her property to make way for two 24-inch natural gas liquids pipelines that will carry ethane, propane and butane from the Marcellus Shale fields in Ohio and Pennsylvania to Marcus Hook, Delaware County. Most of the ethane will be for export to make plastics. The tree-cutting is set to begin Tuesday morning. Judge Zanic went so far as to threaten a potential six month prison sentence to anyone who disobeyed his order.

The Gerharts are among dozens of landowners across the state who are fighting eminent domain battles with Sunoco over the Mariner East 2. So far most have lost their cases at the county level.

“It’s totally insane, what’s happening,” said Elise Gerhart, daughter of Ellen. “Nothing is sacred, no conservation area, no business, no school. They’ll put these pipelines anywhere they want.”

The Gerharts say the pipeline will destroy their forested wetland, and have turned down a $100,000 offer from Sunoco. When they bought the land in 1982, they agreed to make it a part of the state’s Forest Stewardship program, which gives tax breaks in exchange for not developing the land.

“It’s a horrible feeling to have people come in and act like they own the place and trample on places you’ve been trying to preserve your whole life,” said Elise Gerhart.

Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields said it was within the company’s right to clear the trees. Shields says the company’s plans are guided in part by the hibernation schedule of the Indiana bat, an endangered species that emerges at the end of March. He says the company would be libel for any damages to the Gerhart’s property.

A sign marks a water crossing on the Gerhart's land. Sunoco will be cutting trees along the pipeline path while the case is still on appeal.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A sign marks a water crossing on the Gerhart's land. Sunoco will be cutting trees along the pipeline path while the case is still on appeal.

“Landowners can and should be protected from any damage that we could cause,” said Shields. “That can be outlined in the easement agreement.”

But since the case is still in litigation, there is no easement agreement. Sunoco did deposit $6,000 with the Huntingdon County courts.

The Gerharts say that would not even cover the value of the timber, let alone the easement or any potential damage.

Sunoco argues the pipeline is both an interstate and an intrastate line, and that the Public Utility Commission has granted it public utility status for intrastate transmission.

But the Clean Air Council, which filed a challenge in Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, say the PUC issued public utility status for a separate project. Attorneys defending landowners say the issue will have to be settled by an appeals court.  In the meantime, Shields says Sunoco plans to start pipeline construction this summer.

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