On Friday afternoon, a Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas judge sentenced a 63-year old grandmother, Ellen Sue Gerhart, with a 2 to 6 month jail sentence and a $2,000 fine for allegedly violating a court-ordered injunction against her and monitoring construction work for a pipeline on her own land.
The case against her is very likely in retaliation for her tireless work to protect her family’s land and Pennsylvania’s waterways from Energy Transfer Partners’ Mariner East 2 pipeline. Ellen was arrested on Friday, July 27 and was held in solitary confinement while on hunger strike all week leading up to her court hearing. She has taken every opportunity possible, even while incarcerated, to draw attention back to the dangers of the Mariner East pipeline project.
Gerhart is a retired special ed teacher and longtime Huntingdon County resident who has lived on her family’s land for 35 years in peace. Over three years ago, her tranquil retirement was abruptly disturbed with a notice that pipeline builder Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) planned to build a polluting, volatile natural gas liquids pipeline straight through her land in order to supply raw materials for plastics manufacturers in Europe.
The Mariner East 2 pipeline crosses the state of Pennsylvania, connecting Marcellus Shale fracked natural gas liquids to the coast for export. Natural gas liquids are highly hazardous petrochemicals, and include the chemicals butane, pentane, propane and ethane. The Marcellus Shale is particularly rich in ethane, the largest natural gas liquid by volume; ethane is the chemical building block for the most common types of plastic, including polyethylene and polystyrene. As consumer, corporate and government action against plastic pollution is increasing, more attention is focused on the dramatic planned expansion of petrochemicals in the U.S. fed by the fracking boom. Mariner East 2 is an example of one of these petrochemical projects; over 264 more are proposed in the next five years.
Gerhart’s family never gave ETP permission to build a pipeline through their land, but ETP seized it anyway using eminent domain law. This application of eminent domain has been controversial, as the law is meant to be used for taking private property for public use, whereas Mariner East 2 is going to be a pipeline for private profit, in order for ETP to sell chemicals to make plastics.
For the past three years, Gerhart has been an outspoken, compassionate, and selfless leader in her advocacy against the pipeline. She helped host Camp White Pine on her land, a longstanding tree sit that effectively prevented pipeline construction on the family property for 741 days. She’s known at Camp White Pine as “Mama Bear,” and is known across Pennsylvania as a powerful and loving voice for justice.
In my visits to Camp White Pine over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing Gerhart in action — as a mother and grandmother, and a creative, witty, tireless, and grounded advocate. After meeting Gerhart, it doesn’t take long to understand that she is a force of nature. It’s remarkable what she’s been able to accomplish under the most dire of circumstances: since deciding to oppose ETP, Gerhart and her family have been subjected to harassment, intimidation, surveillance, and violence, but continue to persist in their work.
Gerhart’s family is currently using all legal avenues to oppose the project, including contesting the permits granted to ETP and the abuse of eminent domain. They have also levied a federal civil rights lawsuit against Energy Transfer Partners, private security contractor TigerSwan, the Pennsylvania State Police, the Huntingdon County Sheriff Department, and a creator of a fake grassroots Facebook page called PA Progress over continuous harassment the family has faced since deciding to oppose the pipeline project.
As has been widely reported, the damage from the Mariner East pipeline project extends well beyond the boundaries of the Gerhart’s property. Since construction of Mariner East began, ETP has reported an astounding 111 spills along the pipeline route, with more occurring each week. Over two dozen residential water wells have been contaminated due to pollution related to the pipeline’s construction.
We are living in a precarious moment in American history. With democracy, human rights, and our environment under attack on all fronts at the federal level, it is more important than ever to stand beside those directly targeted for standing up for justice. Ellen Sue Gerhart needs our support. Let’s make sure she gets home.
Earthworks and its allies are working to raise $25,000 for the Gerhart’s legal fund and are grateful for any and all support. Visit standwithellen to donate
Gerhart is currently being held at Centre County Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania. Write her a letter of support at:
Ellen Sue Gerhart (160452)
Centre County Correctional Facility
700 Tishel Rd
Bellefonte PA 16823