Sunoco pipeline creates a divide across Pennsylvania

Ellen Gerhart, of Huntingdon County, surveys felled trees on her property left by a Sunoco Logistics timbering crew in March and April in preparation for the Mariner East 2 pipeline, despite her family’s opposition.

HUNTINGDON COUNTY, Pa. - The fallen pines and oaks lie in jumbled heaps as though a tornado ripped up the forest. But it was no force of nature that cut a 50-foot-wide gash through the Gerhart family's property four months ago.

Over the family's protests, timber crews hired by Sunoco Logistics Partners L.P. cut down trees on three of the Gerharts' 27 acres. Protected by sheriff's deputies, the loggers came bearing a court order to clear a path for the Mariner East 2 pipeline project, a 350-mile conduit to deliver natural gas liquids such as propane to a terminal south of Philadelphia.

The company, based in Newtown Square, needed to remove the trees before the end of March to avoid harm to nesting birds. But it does not yet have all the permits to build the pipeline, so it left the timber behind. The workers also left a sleeping bag, a banner, and the discarded ropes of the activists who climbed into trees to protest the action.

The Gerharts are appealing a lower court's decision to give Sunoco permission to take a pipeline easement by eminent domain. Ellen Gerhart and daughter Elise are also fighting criminal charges of disorderly conduct stemming from the protests.

On Monday, the Gerharts took another approach to try to block the project. At a hearing in Altoona attended by about 100 people, they pleaded with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to reject Sunoco's applications for permits to cross streams and to encroach upon wetlands.

"Please fight for and support the environmental rights of Pennsylvania citizens against the corporate pillaging of pipeline companies such as Sunoco Logistics," said Ellen Gerhart, 61, a retired special-education teacher. She and her husband, Stephen, 85, bought their land in 1983.

The Altoona hearing, where labor union supporters of the project outnumbered environmental activists, was the first of five formal sessions the DEP has scheduled across the state on Sunoco's applications to encroach on waterways and to disturb the earth. A hearing is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Sykes Student Union at West Chester University to address the project's route through Delaware and Chester Counties.

Though DEP officials asked speakers to stay on the narrow topic of permit applications, few did. In the absence of other public sessions examining the larger role of the pipeline, the DEP's hearings have become outlets for a divided state to sound off on the environmental harm, or the economic benefits, of this and other pipelines being built as part of the drilling boom that has transformed Pennsylvania into the nation's second-largest natural gas producer.

The Mariner East 2 project is different from other shale-inspired pipelines because it delivers liquid fuels such as propane, butane, and ethane, not natural gas itself. Most of the material is destined to be exported by ships from Sunoco's terminal in Marcus Hook, but some propane is distributed to local markets. And Sunoco is working on plans to build a propane dehydrogenation plant in Marcus Hook to produce propylene, which is used by plastics manufacturers.

Unlike natural gas pipelines, which are reviewed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in a formal public process, the liquid fuels that are already moving through the first Mariner East pipeline are petroleum products, whose transportation involves a less clear-cut framework.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has declared the Mariner East project a public utility, which Sunoco has argued successfully in courts allows it to take easements when landowners decline to negotiate an agreement. Other legal challenges are still pending along the pipeline route, including one in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court led by the Clean Air Council.

"My family and others will continue to fight eminent-domain abuse," Elise Gerhart, 28, testified at the Altoona hearing in urging the DEP to go slow. The Sunoco cases are likely to land before the state Supreme Court.

The Monday hearing, attended by uniformed deputies, was conducted politely, but the younger Gerhart became emotional when she turned to about three dozen orange-shirted members of the Laborers' union and bemoaned the "undue hatred" shown by the loggers who went to her family's property in Union Township.

"To the labor folks here, I just want to ask you to stop treating people like me and my family as the enemy," she said. "It is not our right vs. yours. It is not our right to protect our property vs. your job, OK?" She suggested there would be just as many jobs created if pipeline companies repaired and maintained existing infrastructure.

She was followed by Dave Weber, a representative of the Laborers' District Council of Western Pennsylvania, who extolled the $2.5 billion pipeline's effect on jobs, tax revenue, and growth.

"We live here, work here, hunt, fish, shop, raise our families here," he said. "We must be respectful of our land, and our neighbors' lands, but we must also make sure pipeline infrastructure is developed for the safe and efficient transportation of those resources as well."

The Mariner East 2 project enjoys strong support from business, labor, and many political leaders, including the Wolf administration.

The project would expand the capacity of the existing pipeline, which was repurposed from a previous life delivering motor fuels, from 70,000 barrels a day to 345,000. Sunoco is still exploring a second new pipeline, which would increase the total capacity to as much as 570,000 barrels a day. A barrel contains 42 gallons.

Ellen Gerhart said only one other property owner in Huntingdon County was fighting Sunoco's offers. She views her resistance as part of a larger effort.

"We figure we're almost like in the middle of things, and we can throw up enough of a brake to give other people in more populated areas more time to organize," she said. "It doesn't matter where the pipeline stops, as long as it stops."

amaykuth@phillynews.com

215-854-2947@maykuth