One Rural County’s Battle to Stop a Pipeline From Slicing Through Pennsylvania

Lancaster County, Penn. is rising up against the $3 billion Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline.

Michael Deibert

Dedication of the Lancaster Stand in Lancaster County on October 22, 2016. (Photo: David Jones)

LAN­CAST­ER COUN­TY, Penn. — Under the ban­ner of a pierc­ing blue sky at the edge of a corn­field, hun­dreds gath­ered on July 9 to pray and raise their voic­es in song. 

"We’ve come to understand that this problem is larger than just protecting Lancaster and what’s beautiful in Lancaster. No one stands alone."

Drawn from a diverse group of mul­ti-faith actors, local activists and con­cerned res­i­dents, the assem­blage had arrived at this spot to con­se­crate a prayer chapel they hope will stand in the way of the $3 bil­lion Atlantic Sun­rise Pipeline, slat­ed to be built through 37 miles of this coun­ty in south­east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia by the Okla­homa-based Williams Partners.

In this large­ly rur­al coun­ty of near­ly 600,000, encom­pass­ing rolling farm­land and the hard­scrab­ble city of the same name, Williams and its sub­sidiary — the Transcon­ti­nen­tal Pipeline (Transco) — have already gained per­mis­sion from the Fed­er­al Ener­gy Reg­u­la­to­ry Com­mis­sion (FERC) to seize pri­vate prop­er­ty via emi­nent domain along the route. Com­ing on the heels of the 2016 to 2017 protests against the con­struc­tion of Ener­gy Trans­fer Part­ners’ Dako­ta Access Pipeline on the Stand­ing Rock Indi­an Reser­va­tion in North Dako­ta, some believe this may be the new front in the bat­tle between the fos­sil fuel indus­try and its enemies.

The sis­ters of the Ador­ers of the Blood of Christ are the Catholic reli­gious order that owns the land on which the prayer chapel — lit­tle more than a pul­pit and sev­er­al rough wood­en bench­es — stands in the pipeline’s path. They don’t intend to go with­out a fight.

We have a land eth­ic: We con­sid­er all cre­ation to be inter­con­nect­ed, and the land is holy,” says Sis­ter Janet McCann, who is on the lead­er­ship coun­cil of the Ador­ers at their mis­sion cen­ter based in St. Louis, Mo. To have some­thing come through that could endan­ger the lives of human beings and the ecosys­tem, that’s some­thing we need to stand up against. We don’t want to be part of that.”

Her fel­low sis­ters echo this call.

We are women of faith, and we see this as part of the gospel,” says Sis­ter Sara Dwyer, the social jus­tice coor­di­na­tor for the nuns. We are here to be respon­si­ble stew­ards of the earth, and to pre­serve it for gen­er­a­tions to come.”

The chapel is the lat­est chap­ter in a years-long bat­tle that has placed hun­dreds of local res­i­dents against the pow­er of the nat­ur­al gas indus­try and its enablers in both local and fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. With echoes of the face-off at Stand­ing Rock and oth­er move­ments around the coun­try, the bat­tle in Lan­cast­er is one that has politi­cized many res­i­dents who nev­er thought of them­selves as activists before.

For Malin­da Clat­ter­buck, her involve­ment began with a knock on the door of her home in the heav­i­ly-rur­al south­ern part of the coun­ty one after­noon in March 2014

There, she found a sur­vey­or con­tract­ed by Williams stand­ing on her front porch ask­ing for her and her hus­band, Mark, to sign a form per­mit­ting their prop­er­ty — acres of woods she had grown up on — to be sur­veyed for the pipeline. The sur­vey­or said the Clat­ter­bucks should have already received the paper­work, and that the new project was to be built using already exist­ing pipelines (of which there were none). Clat­ter­buck told the sur­vey­or she would have to do more research before she signed anything.

When she looked into it, she found that the pipeline was slat­ed to tra­verse her prop­er­ty (the route has since been moved). Fur­ther­more, it was to cut through oth­er farm­land and run direct­ly under the Con­esto­ga Riv­er, an umber-hued trib­u­tary of the larg­er Susque­han­na Riv­er which snakes along for about 65 miles, spanned by cov­ered bridge and abut­ting local Amish and Men­non­ite farms.

The expe­ri­ence, and what they viewed as the pre­var­i­ca­tion on the part of Williams and its ancil­lar­ies, led the Clat­ter­bucks to form Lan­cast­er Against Pipelines (LAP), a local advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion com­mit­ted to oppos­ing the Williams project through non-vio­lent civ­il dis­obe­di­ence. Among oth­er actions, LAP built an out­fit­ted tree­house on the prop­er­ty of local landown­ers sym­pa­thet­ic to their cause at the point where Williams was to drill under the Con­esto­ga. They dubbed the struc­ture The Lan­cast­er Stand. 

We’re an agri­cul­tur­al com­mu­ni­ty in many ways, and we depend on the earth for our liveli­hood,” says Malin­da Clat­ter­buck. In a way, I think Lan­cas­tri­ans have a bet­ter under­stand­ing of human­i­ty depend­ing on earth for life than some oth­er places. But this is also the rights of com­mu­ni­ties to pro­tect their own health and safe­ty, rights that have been tak­en away from us. This inci­dent has giv­en us an unwant­ed edu­ca­tion about our gov­ern­ment not being about peo­ple hav­ing pow­er, but about indus­try dic­tat­ing what hap­pens to every­body else.”

For its part, Williams has been quick to point out what it says are the finan­cial ben­e­fits of the project.

The exist­ing Transco pipeline cur­rent­ly deliv­ers about 40 per­cent of the nat­ur­al gas con­sumed in Penn­syl­va­nia, oper­at­ing more than 1,000 miles of pipe and serv­ing major local dis­tri­b­u­tion com­pa­nies such as Philadel­phia Gas Works, PECO Ener­gy, Colum­bia Gas and UGI in Lan­cast­er Coun­ty,” Christo­pher Stock­ton, a spokesman for Williams, wrote in an email. Any one of those exist­ing Transco pipeline cus­tomers will be able to take advan­tage of new gas sup­ply access made pos­si­ble by the Atlantic Sun­rise project.”

Stock­ton also point­ed to a com­mit­ment by Williams to invest $2.5 mil­lion in envi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship in the project areas and the eco­nom­ic relief” that the firm says will come to local com­mu­ni­ties from nat­ur­al gas impact fees in Lan­cast­er County.

The response from local and nation­al offi­cial­dom to the locals’ con­cerns has large­ly not been sup­port­ive. A new bill, H.R. 2910, the Pro­mot­ing Inter­a­gency Coor­di­na­tion for Review of Nat­ur­al Gas Pipelines Act,” passed the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in July. It seeks to stream­line the per­mis­sions need­ed to com­mence work on fos­sil fuel infrastructure. 

I’ve always want­ed to see Penn­syl­va­nia grow its ener­gy infra­struc­ture,” says Scott Mar­tin, the state sen­a­tor for Pennsylvania’s 13th Dis­trict, of which Lan­cast­er is a part. Mar­tin, a Repub­li­can, has been a strong pro­po­nent of the pipeline. We’ve tried to bridge the gap between the com­pa­ny and the landown­ers, but, in the end, if we don’t have these things, how do we expect to have ener­gy for the future?”

In a move that made nation­al news, this past sum­mer, Mar­tin co-spon­sored leg­is­la­tion in Pennsylvania’s sen­ate to make any pro­test­ers con­vict­ed of riot­ing” or pub­lic nui­sance” liable for the costs relat­ed to any protest or demon­stra­tion. Those lead­ing the ini­tia­tive explic­it­ly ref­er­enced the Dako­ta Access Pipeline protests. State Sen­a­tor Scott Mar­tin not­ed that, while the local pro­test­ers had been peace­ful, if the sit­u­a­tion dete­ri­o­rates … pro­test­ers should not be able to walk away from the dam­age they cause with­out con­se­quence and expect first respon­ders and tax­pay­ers to deal with the fallout.”

Pipeline advo­cates fre­quent­ly accuse pro­test­ers of hav­ing been infil­trat­ed or in thrall to out­side forces and even of being home­grown ter­ror­ists.’ The local pro­test­ers bris­tle at the sug­ges­tion that they are moti­vat­ed by any­thing oth­er than the desire to pro­tect the coun­ty where many have made their homes for generations. 

We have been accused of being out­side, paid agi­ta­tors, but most of us here are from com­mu­ni­ty church­es — Uni­tar­i­an, Luther­an, Men­non­ite — and some of us here are from some of the old­est fam­i­lies in Lan­cast­er Coun­ty,” says Joanne Mus­sel­man, whose fam­i­ly helped found the near­by town of New Hol­land in the ear­ly 1700s. It’s a sacred covenant between the farm­ers and the land to be passed onto our grand­chil­dren. And now the big oil and gas boys from Texas and Okla­homa are here to ruin our farm­land and sacred places. It’s crim­i­nal, and it’s crim­i­nal that our elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives don’t rep­re­sent us on this issue.”

Such activism in Lan­cast­er is hard­ly new. Before, dur­ing and after the Civ­il War, the coun­ty served as the polit­i­cal base for the fierce abo­li­tion­ist Thad­deus Stevens, whose grave in Shrein­er-Con­cord Ceme­tery in the city of Lan­cast­er remains a place of pilgrimage. 

Since the elec­toral col­lege vic­to­ry of Don­ald Trump, direct action groups such as Lan­cast­er Stands Up have also emerged in the coun­ty, stag­ing demon­stra­tions and advo­cat­ing for pro­gres­sive polit­i­cal goals.

The bat­tle, how­ev­er, remains an uphill one. In late July, pipeline oppo­nents were informed that the landown­er on whose land the Lan­cast­er Stand had been built had final­ly caved and sold the prop­er­ty to Williams for $2.8 mil­lion. In recog­ni­tion of this, the local pro­test­ers dis­man­tled the Lan­cast­er Stand rather than allow it to fall into the hands of Williams.

The indus­try has a hell of a lot of pow­er in insti­tu­tions that should be pro­tect­ing the rights of peo­ple,” says Malin­da Clat­ter­buck, with LAP and its allies vow­ing to fight on. This is a sys­temic prob­lem in our coun­try right now. We’ve come to under­stand that this prob­lem is larg­er than just pro­tect­ing Lan­cast­er and what’s beau­ti­ful in Lan­cast­er. No one stands alone. We live in com­mu­ni­ty. We have to depend on one anoth­er and we have to pro­tect one another.”

Michael Deib­ert is an author and jour­nal­ist whose work has appeared in the Guardian, the Wash­ing­ton Post, the Wall Street Jour­nal, the Mia­mi Her­ald, Le Monde diplo­ma­tique, Fol­ha de Sao Paulo and the World Pol­i­cy Jour­nal, among oth­er venues. He has been a fea­tured com­men­ta­tor on inter­na­tion­al affairs on the BBC, Al Jazeera, Chan­nel 4, France 24, Nation­al Pub­lic Radio, WNYC New York Pub­lic Radio and KPFK Paci­fi­ca Radio. He is the author of Haiti Will Not Per­ish: A Recent His­to­ry (Zed Books, 2017), In the Shad­ow of Saint Death: The Gulf Car­tel and the Price of Amer­i­ca’s Drug War in Mex­i­co (Lyons Press, 2014), The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of Con­go: Between Hope and Despair (Zed Books, 2013) and Notes from the Last Tes­ta­ment: The Strug­gle for Haiti (Sev­en Sto­ries Press, 2005). Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @michaelcdeibert.
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