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Activists Describe Efforts To Stop Atlantic Sunrise Gas Pipeline In Pennsylvania

Months after thousands at Standing Rock stood up against the Dakota Access Pipeline, activists in Pennsylvania are ready to take a stand against a nearly $3 billion pipeline project called Atlantic Sunrise.

First proposed in 2014, it is an extension of the current Transco pipeline that transports natural gas throughout the eastern United States. Williams Partners proposed this nearly 200-mile long project to transfer natural gas from the Marcellus shale fields, one of the richest U.S. gas fields.

Last year, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which regulates interstate natural gas, accepted comments from the public to determine if Williams should receive a certificate for construction. Despite a vast majority writing against the pipeline, FERC gave its approval on February 3. On the same day, its chairman, Norman Bay, resigned and left the five-seat commission with two people.

While construction may happen this year depending on other permits, activists are not deterred. Shadowproof spoke with four people about their experiences with the project and their current efforts against it.

Skilled Deflectors

Michael Schroeder, Vice President of Lebanon Pipeline Awareness, first heard about the proposal in early 2014 and, along with other Lebanon County residents, met with Williams officials for more details. However, he noted the company’s representatives were “very skilled at deflecting and sort of pretending to listen.”

“Instead [of an open public meeting], they hold what they call open houses, which are sort of like high school science fairs with a bunch of tables spread out in the auditorium,” Schroeder told Shadowproof. “You go from table to table with different aspects of the pipelines and you might get different answers from different tables.”

Schroeder detailed serious concerns with the project, notably with the geology in Lebanon County. The pipeline will cross karst, terrain prone to sinkholes, and might cause pipeline ruptures if Williams has no definitive plan against it.

The company did create a mitigation plan, but Schroeder said it minimized risks. The report cited sources that were “not really relevant to the particular configuration forces.”

Schroeder and his colleagues in the group have used traditional methods to demonstrate against the pipeline, such as op-eds and interviews. They set up a booth at county events to talk with landowners. They even spoken to academics working in opposition to pipelines.

“We’ve been really successful in that regard. Before Lebanon Pipeline Awareness came on the scene, pipelines were not on anyone’s radar screen. People would just shrug their shoulders or be openly hostile,” he said.

While he expects the project will go through anyway, Schroeder noted he will persist in his activism against the project.

“Am I optimistic about the long term? No, but that doesn’t mean we should stop fighting,” he said. “If not for ourselves, then for the next generation.”

Eminent Domain

Eminent domain allows the government to seize private property for public use. Williams is able to use this power from FERC’s certificate that allows them to take advantage of such power. Last month, it filed eminent domain suits against 13 landowners in four Pennsylvania counties.

Kate Rouf, Conservation Chair of the Lancaster Group of the Sierra Club, explained that rural communities in Pennsylvania suffer the brunt of eminent domain suits.

“Land that has been farmed for generations will be taken through eminent domain, some of it from Amish families. The pipeline’s path cuts through communities indiscriminately, with some residents facing pipeline construction that will take place feet from their front doors,” she said.

Christopher Stockton, a spokesperson for Williams, noted that the company’s goal is “to treat all landowners fairly throughout this process.” Eminent domain is used only as a “last resort.”

“With receipt of the FERC certificate Feb. 3, we have reached a critical point in the project schedule where we need to access certain properties so we can wrap up the last remaining environmental surveys in order to maintain the project schedule,” Stockton said.

A number of groups, such as Clean Air Council and Delaware Riverkeeper Network, have requested FERC reconsider its decision to issue a certificate to Williams.

Among its efforts to mobilize citizens against the project, Ruof highlighted the Sierra Club Pennsylvania chapter’s request to FERC to reconsider its certificate, as well as their challenge to a separate certification decision by a state agency.

“Now that the project has been approved, legal strategies will become even more important,” she said.

FERC rarely denies certificates to companies with proposed pipeline plans. Alex Bomstein, senior litigation attorney at Clean Air Council which is also filing a request to FERC, said there exists a “low bar” for the commission when approving pipelines as they are biased for it.

“Pipelines are supposed to only be authorized, certificated they say, if there’s a need for it. But FERC considers any pipeline that has customers to be in the public interest even if that leads to overbuilding,” Bomstein explained.

Necessary Trouble

Malinda Clatterbuck is a founding member of Lancaster Against Pipelines, an organization that recently vowed non-violent direct action against the project. She first heard about the project from a land surveyor that wanted to survey her property for the pipeline.

After researching more about the project, she and other residents created Lancaster Against Pipelines.

“We [are] really concerned about protecting what’s sacred to us in our community. Lancaster county is known for its preserved farmland. We have the most preserved lands here than, I think, anywhere else in the nation,” she said.

Clatterbuck noted the group is involved in legal battles against Williams, but is also preparing other residents and civilians to set up camp near Conestoga River. Some folks preparing for mass action were even involved with Standing Rock in North Dakota.

She told Shadowproof she “lost and sacrificed so much” time and money with no glory given to the organization.

“I’m raising a 14 and 15-year-old whose lives have been changed because I’m constantly in meetings, going to meetings, [and] going to speak engagements. I’m doing this 40 hours per week for the past three years just to find justice for my community. I think it’s really shitty we need to be doing this in our democracy,” she said.

Nevertheless, she said the folks challenging the pipeline are “on the side of justice and we’re doing the right thing.”

“It was amazing how people I never met before, we had over 100 people who came out and spent hours looking or dropped off water and food and money, these people asking how can I help?” she said. “I feel that’s what being human is about.”

Brandon Jordan

Brandon Jordan

Brandon Jordan is a freelance journalist in Queens, NY and written for publications such as The Nation, In These Times, Truthout and more.