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.
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.”