Direct Action in Pennsylvania Blocks Destruction of Maple Trees for Proposed Gas Pipeline

Posted Feb. 17, 2016

MP3 Interview with Megan Holleran, organizer, conducted by Melinda Tuhus
Producer's note: The day after this interview was posted, the Williams Company went to court asking a judge to find the family in contempt for delaying the project, which would have exposed them to massive fines. On Feb. 19, Judge Malachy decided not to find the Holleran family defendants in contempt. However, he ruled that the tree-cutting can proceed and he expanded the distance that individuals need to be away from tree-cutters, who could be on the property as early as Feb. 22. He threatened heavy financial sanctions for people who violate that and are arrested by U.S. marshals or any other police agency they authorize. Megan Holleran declared a partial victory and invited supporters to continue to join the family to express their concerns.

pipeline

A family in rural New Milford Township in northeast Pennsylvania is taking a stand against the plan to build a gas pipeline that would destroy their maple trees, from which they get sap for their small commercial maple syrup operation.

The 124-mile Constitution pipeline is one of many gas pipelines being proposed or constructed throughout the eastern U.S. to transport fracked gas from the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania and other states. Partners in the project include Williams, a leading energy infrastructure company, and Cabot Oil & Gas, Piedmont Natural Gas and WGL Holdings. According to the Constitution.com website, the 30-inch diameter pipeline will move enough gas to power three million homes. Owners of the pipeline say the gas is going to New England states, but many climate activists and a growing number of state-elected officials say the new pipeline is not necessary, and the nation should instead be moving to develop 100 percent renewable energy sources. Critics say there is growing evidence that the gas would be exported to Canada, or used to fire up new gas-powered electricity plants in the region.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Megan Holleran, whose family called on local and regional supporters to stand with them, starting on Jan. 30, to keep out-of-state work crews from destroying their trees. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, granted the pipeline construction company permission last month to cut down the trees. Holleran describes the confrontation that occurred on Feb. 10 when supporters succeeded in defending the property. She says family members and supporters plan to stay on site until March 31, the deadline by which the company must complete tree-cutting before federal restrictions kick in – protecting birds and bats – until work can resume on Nov. 1. The Williams company filed a request on Feb. 15 seeking a court order authorizing state police to remove protesters from the site.

MEGAN HOLLERAN: They’ve been in the works for this pipeline for four or five years now, where they began approaching landowners for easement agreements. My family, which owns this property – we own a 23-acre property here in New Milford, including fields and forests and a home and our lake – they approached us to put an easement through about five acres of that. We said no. That should have been enough; unfortunately it wasn’t, and after a couple of years of legal conflict and continuing to say no, they seized the property by eminent domain and they are now planning to come through and begin clearing trees on the Pennsylvania portion of the line and on our property.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Talk a little bit about eminent domain and how it’s used and how it can be used by a private company for private gain, taking over another private entity’s property, like your family’s.

MEGAN HOLLERAN: The way that eminent domain works in this case is that, because the pipeline is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), they have the power to grant them a certificate of public convenience and necessity, which gives them public utility status, which then gives them the power to use eminent domain, the idea being that there’s a couple of conditions for eminent domain. One is that a project which is supposed to serve the public good – specifically, it is supposed to serve the good of the people being impacted by the project. They are also required to consider all available alternate routes before they choose to use a property for eminent domain. This is why it’s mostly used for things like roads that everyone drives on and that have some pretty logical restrictions for where they can and can’t put a road. In this case ,the pipeline says they have met those conditions because they claim to be transporting gas to New England and say the public good will be getting natural gas to New England, even though the landowners impacted by this are in New York and Pennsylvania will not receive any benefit from the pipeline. And they also didn’t consider all their viable routes in these cases, but because they’re considered to be a public utility, they’re allowed to seize our land to make a profit, basically.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, you’ve had people all around, sort of checking and making sure the company – the trucks and the tree cutters – don’t come on your land. What happened Wednesday morning – I guess that was Feb. 10?

MEGAN HOLLERAN: So, Wednesday morning around 9:30, about six pickup trucks pulled in, probably about 15 to 20 personnel. It’s the crews we’ve been seeing for the past week or so as we’ve been sitting out here. They’ve been kind of skipping around different areas to cut trees. We’ve met them multiple times at this point. They pulled in Wednesday morning. I wasn’t at the property; I arrived very shortly thereafter. They had two security agents with them, whom I had met on several occasions before and who are very nice. And they also had two Williams representatives with them whom I had not met before, and who chose to wait until ten minutes into our conversation to introduce themselves and then who I was able to speak with. They informed me that they planned to clear trees here on the property – yesterday – and I told them that we planned to try to stop them, without any specifics as to how, but that we did not intend to allow them to do that. I explained my position to them on why I thought they shouldn’t be clearing trees. I think I gave them some pretty good arguments as to why they should leave.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What did you tell them?

MEGAN HOLLERAN: Well, so, our argument here is that we don’t know that this pipeline is going to get built, and we certainly don’t know that these trees need to be cut right now. They can’t cut trees in New York state right now; FERC has only given Williams a partial notice to proceed in Pennsylvania only so they can only cut trees in Pennsylvania: no construction, no clearing trees, they can only cut them, and they can’t do any work in New York state yet. New York state hasn’t given all the permitting that would even allow for construction of the pipeline; if those permits get denied the pipeline won’t get built at all. It’s one project, even though it’s interstate, so without construction in New York they can’t build it in Pennsylvania; it would be a whole different project. They have some deadlines we don’t think they’re going to be able to meet. We have some legal issues still being worked out: There’s two appeals that have been filed. There’s an injunction that’s been filed. There’s a motion to stay that’s been filed with the FERC – some very legitimate legal issues that are pending that haven’t been denied yet, so if any of those go through, they could potentially stop the tree cutting and revoke the right of Williams to begin that tree cutting. And so we were asking Williams to not cut trees here. It’s a little premature; you can’t put ‘em back on once you’ve taken them down. I know they have other places they could be working and they don’t need to be here yet, or at all. So I told them I thought they should leave and find somewhere else to work for the day.

The police did come; it was three plainclothes officers, unmarked car. They were very low-key; they were very laid-back. Nobody came in with guns blazing. They spoke with the Williams representative without us present for about ten minutes or so, and then they came and spoke with me without the Williams representative present for awhile and I explained the whole situation to them again and told them what we are doing here and our reasons for why we think they shouldn’t start cutting trees. They understood, they listened and said they did not plan to take any action yesterday, that they did not plan to enforce anything. And so they said they were going to tell that to the Williams representative and they spoke to him again and a few minutes later I talked to him and he said they were going to leave. They packed up their chain saws. I think the crew seemed okay with that; most of the crew had been present for our conversations. They packed their things up and they went somewhere else. It was a pretty successful interaction; we asked them to leave and they did.

For more information on opposition to the proposed Constitution pipeline, visit Stop the Constitution Pipleline at stopthepipeline.org and the Facebook event page at facebook.com/events/1519906745006626/.

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