Three people, including the property owner, face charges related to protesting Sunoco’s tree-clearing activities in Huntingdon County last week. The three will appear in Huntingdon County Court of Common Pleas next month.* Ellen Gerhart was arrested while workers were cutting trees on her property to prepare for construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline. Gerhart, along with her husband Stephen, have resisted leasing any land for the pipeline and are challenging Sunoco’s right to eminent domain in court.
Ellen Gerhart, along with supporters Alex Lotorto and Elizabeth Glunt, face charges of disorderly conduct. Gerhart also faces the charge of “indirect criminal contempt,” which carries a potential fine of $300 and up to six months of jail time.
“It’s a shame that it had to get to this point,” said Gerhart in a release. “There’s no recourse for property owners but to try to protect themselves and the environment because of the government’s failure to do so. The whole thing is a gross violation of our constitutional rights.”
Gerhart says she and Glunt were arrested when they tried to warn work crews that they were cutting too close to Gerhart’s daughter Elise, who had occupied a large white pine tree on their property. Lotorto says he was arrested after law enforcement saw his walkie talkie and assumed he had organized the tree-sit. Although Gerhart and Glunt were released soon after their arrests, Lotorto was held for three days on $200,000 bail.
The Gerharts attorney Rich Raiders, who represents them in the civil proceedings against Sunoco, said the company wanted to clear the trees before March 31, which is when the endangered Indiana Bat begins its migration. Raiders said the company planned to cut the trees but leave the stumps, preventing any need to gain permits from the Department of Environmental Protection.
The Gerharts had asked Sunoco to hold off on tree cutting until the eminent domain case was settled. But the company asked for an emergency injunction from the court and Huntingdon County Court of Common Pleas Judge George Zanic granted it.
Raiders said judge Zanic was adamant about making sure the protesters didn’t interrupt the tree-clearing.
“When the judge issued his order he emphasized the penalties could be substantial,” said Raiders.
The Gerharts say Sunoco has no legitimate right to eminent domain because the company plans to export the ethane that will flow through the Mariner East 2. A spokesman for Sunoco says the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has made clear that the project is in the public interest. The case is now tied up in court as different counties along the pipeline’s path have ruled differently. Sunoco says it plans to start construction this summer.
*This story has been updated to reflect a change in court dates. The hearing originally scheduled for April 6 was cancelled and has been continued.