Pipeline critics say blog post seeks to discredit them with ‘fake news’

  • Jon Hurdle
Opponents of the Mariner East 2 pipeline, like those at this site in Huntingdon County, say a blog post is falsely linking them to the alleged sabotage of construction vehicles.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

Opponents of the Mariner East 2 pipeline, like those engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience at this site in Huntingdon County, say a blog post is falsely linking them to the alleged sabotage of construction vehicles. So far, no one has presented any evidence the sabotage actually took place.

Opponents of Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 and other pipelines have disavowed an anonymous blog post that linked them to a supposed attack on construction equipment used for the Pennsylvania pipeline. The post, with the headline “Action Against Mariner East 2 Pipeline” had originally claimed an act of sabotage was done in solidarity with groups opposing pipeline construction in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Representatives of Camp White Pine in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania, and the Split Rock Sweetwater Prayer Camp in northeastern New Jersey said they had nothing to do with the post on a website run by another anonymous group calling itself Philly Anti-Capitalist.

The post, dated Sept. 26, claimed someone, referred to in the post as “we,” poured sand and sugar into the fuel tanks and other ‘liquid receptors’ of several excavators and a flat-bed truck at a Mariner East 2 construction site in Media, Delaware County “on the eve of the fall equinox,” which would have been Thursday, Sept. 21.

But statements from the police, Sunoco, the Anti-Capitalist group, a pro-pipeline campaign, and the pipeline opponents themselves produced no evidence that the alleged sabotage actually took place, raising questions about whether the blog post was the latest example of fake news being used to attack opponents of the pipeline.

Construction on the Mariner East 2 pipeline has already begun in Delaware County.

Emily Cohen / StateImpact PA

Construction on the Mariner East 2 pipeline in Delaware County.

Trooper Timothy Greene, a spokesman for Pennsylvania State Police at Media, initially said he was unaware of any such attack but on Friday said police are investigating “incidents.” He declined to give any details, or say whether the incidents were related to the sabotage claimed in the blog, saying that releasing any more details could jeopardize the investigation.

“We are doing an investigation into several incidents that just recently happened, however we are not releasing any details at this time because it’s an active ongoing investigation,” Greene said after being asked whether police had received any reports of damage to construction vehicles.

But a man answering the phone at the police station in Media Borough said the department had no records of any damage to pipeline construction equipment over the last week. In fact, the Mariner East 2 pipeline does not run through Media. Media Police Chief Martin Wusinich confirmed that no incidents were reported in the Borough and that there are no active pipeline construction sites in the Borough.

Sunoco Pipeline spokesman Jeff Shields declined to say whether any of the company’s equipment, or that of its contractors, had been damaged, saying only that he would “defer to the State Police” on the matter.

The Philly Anti-Capitalist group, whose web site says it exists to “promote and spread anti-authoritarian events and ideas,” includes posts on political events in Philadelphia, discussions on how to combat fascism, and even a post about an alleged infiltrator at Camp White Pine. In an email response to questions from StateImpact, an unnamed member of the Philly Anti-Capitalist group said that the post was placed on the site anonymously. The group said it does not represent any of the organizations or individuals who contribute posts to the site, and does not write any of the posts except for those that refer to updates of the website itself.

Asked to confirm that the event described in the post actually took place, the group called itself a “news blog” and not the individual or group responsible for the post. The group did not answer questions about whether or not it was concerned that it may be disseminating false information.

“With that cleared up, we are not interested in communicating with media or journalists,” it wrote. It did not respond when asked to name the originator of the post.

The Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, a pro-pipeline group whose members include local chambers of commerce, unions, manufacturers and the Pennsylvania Society of Professional Engineers, issued a press release on Sept. 27, assuming the incident took place. The release said the incident shows that opponents have taken their campaign to a new “disturbing” level.

“There is no place in civil society for groups to take illegal and harmful action because they disagree with something on ideological grounds,” said the Alliance’s spokesman, Kurt Knaus, in a statement.

But Knaus said later that he had no evidence that the attack had actually happened as described in the blog. He argued that simply describing how to sabotage construction equipment should be brought to public attention, and said he stood by the original statement.

“When groups publish instructions about how to cause damage and illegal disruptions at pipeline construction sites, then it’s necessary to raise a red flag,” he wrote in an email.

The seven-line post said activists are fighting back against “ecological collapse,” and it claimed to support Camp White Pine and the Split Rock group, in addition to two individuals in Iowa, Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya. Reznicek and Montoya are members of the Catholic Worker, a leftist Catholic organization that has a tradition of nonviolent direct action. The women took responsibility for damaging Dakota Access pipeline construction sites in North Dakota as acts of civil disobedience.

On Thursday afternoon, the blog removed references to Camp White Pine and Split Rock, and said Philly Anti-Capitalist had been contacted by “several” groups that were concerned about being included in the post.

The updated blog continued to recommend that activists remove a filter below the fuel tank lid to cause “maximum damage to the whole machine.” Reznicek and Montoya’s names remain.

Elise Gerhart, a spokeswoman for the Huntingdon County group, said she had no previous knowledge of the alleged attack on construction machines, or of the Philly Anti-Capitalist group, and said the post appeared to be an attempt to attack her group and others by posting fake news on the internet.

“They really want to discredit the movement against the Mariner East 2 pipeline which has been completely nonviolent and has not engaged in any type of property destruction,” Gerhart said. “It sounds to me like somebody wants to associate property destruction with Camp White Pine.”

Gerhart argued that anyone deliberately damaging construction equipment is unlikely to advertise such an attack on the internet unless they want to insinuate that other groups such as hers are responsible.

Gerhart, her mother Ellen Gerhart, and their supporters have been protesting on her family’s 27-acre property since March 2016 in an attempt to prevent Sunoco contractors from clearing part of their land where the company has obtained an easement through eminent domain for construction of the pipeline.

On Monday, the Gerharts were among four plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against Sunoco and law enforcement agencies, claiming their constitutional rights were violated when they were arrested during tree-cutting on their property in March 2016.

Split Rock, a native American prayer group that supports the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota in its fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, issued a statement dissociating itself from the blog.

“We are disturbed that major media are now asking us to respond to blog posts describing actions we had no prior knowledge of regarding anonymous persons or groups that, by the nature of the post, are unnamed and to us unknown,” Split Rock said. “We are not connected to this matter.”

The cross-state pipeline, costing more than $2.5 billion, will carry natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale of southwestern Pennsylvania to an export terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia. It is scheduled for completion in the fourth quarter.

This post has been updated with a response from the Media Police Department.

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