Land, livelihoods and trees are not sacred within our system of questionable laws concerning the use of eminent domain and gas pipelines. The only way eminent domain might be “justifiably” applied along the proposed Constitution pipeline in northeast Pennsylvania is to assert that trees and people are commodities for corporate profit, no matter who gets in the way.
That is, unless citizens stand up and stop it.
With my video partner Bob Nilsson, I’ve witnessed the misuse of eminent domain from a maple tree farm (sugar bush) in New Milford, Pennsylvania. We have been documenting the ongoing efforts by Megan Holleran and her family, with scores of allies, to save their maple trees from being cut down by the Constitution Pipeline Company to make way for an interstate pipeline project. The proposed pipeline route starts in Pennsylvania near the Holleran/Zeffer property and is supposed to run through New York, but it has not been approved for New York.
It may seem a complex issue, but it’s actually a simple story of abusive powers.
At the federal courthouse in Scranton on February 19, 2016, the owners of this property were ordered to appear to answer charges of blocking tree cutting ordered by eminent domain. The federal judge was clear that he would find the Hollerans or anyone else on their property in contempt if they try to prevent tree cutting in the future.
Megan Holleran, the 29-year-old family spokesperson, who grew up on the property, as did her mother, clarified the next day that guests would still be able to visit the property if they abided by the court ruling on what distance they had to stay from the pipeline right of way.
On Feb 10 there had been a standoff when chainsaw crews assembled along the road and tried to gain access to the property to begin cutting. They were denied access, and the pipeline representatives called state police to intervene. State police officers arrived, listened to each side and then told the workers that they would not intervene that day; the pipeline company would have to get a court order for future entry to the property. The workers left.
On Feb 12 the Constitution Pipeline Company filed a motion declaring that the defendants have continuously and deliberately prevented the tree felling that is required to be finished by March 31, to comply with an environmental deadline. But Megan Holleran and her family have never given their consent to cut their trees, nor have they received any compensation for the condemnation of the part of their property that accounts for 80 percent of their maple syrup production.
After the court proceedings, the Holleran family said it would abide by the court’s decision and not impede the chainsaw crew’s work, although Tom Holleran, Megan’s father, does not think the tree cutters will be back immediately. He does feel that they will be back before the end of the cutting deadline. Trees are now undoubtedly on the sacrificial chopping block. Protest on the property may continue, but just how is yet to be defined, according to a statement made on the family’s FaceBook page.
Megan Holleran has befriended some of the tree cutting crews and gained sympathy for the family’s plight on this now symbolic small parcel of sugar bush. Tom Holleran says this is a remarkable skill she has developed doing archaeological work in the area. His fatherly pride is apparent; he is impressed with his daughter’s diplomacy.
But there is no comfort when the family knows these workers might soon blaze through this property with chainsaws on a tree-killing detail that also brings death to the family’s maple syrup livelihood.
Federal Judge Malachy Mannion and pipeline lawyers attempted to appease the family by informing them that Williams is losing money big time: $2,000 an hour for each tree cutting crew plus astronomical expenses incurred within the legal system. Tens of thousands of dollars.
Judge Mannion found the Hollerans not guilty of contempt for now, but if in the future they violate the court order and are not in compliance they will be facing major penalties including the cost of expenses incurred by the pipeline company, and immediate jail time. If invited guests on their property violate this order, it can mean the same for them as well.
This seems to be an unjustified use of eminent domain and makes little sense. Case law for pipelines dates back to the 1860s and remains virtually unchallenged. Many neighbors seem content to allow this form of eminent domain cutting through a once peaceful landscape. Some locals are very leery of all the out-of-state plates on visitors’ cars. This pipeline has pitted neighbor against neighbor and government dictates against citizen’s sovereign rights.
My film partner was physically attacked by a hired firewood cutter working alongside the road as we were filming from my car. We got all the ugliness on video. The guy became incensed that we were filming, ran at our slowly moving vehicle and tried to pull the camera from Bob’s hands as we passed him. He then fell and rolled on the road as we kept moving. It was clearly assault on two filmmakers.
The worker was being paid by the landowner to salvage firewood from trees laid waste in the pipeline’s path. Why he was so averse to be video recorded is beyond me. This is a tension point in a land being changed by eminent domain.
This pipeline work is private enterprise claiming to be a public utility. It is following a similar route of existing lines, all heading toward a gathering point near Albany, New York, where three other pipelines have already converged. The huge fossil-fuel corporations Williams and Cabot, partners in the pipeline, are in financial distress with a glutted natural gas market.
What do their stockholders think of all this planning? Do they really believe this is for the good of people and communities along the pipeline’s path? Have there been economic threats? Extortion to gain land on a grand scale?
This is an ill-planned interstate pipeline project. New York State has not allowed tree cutting, while Pennsylvania has given permission to lay waste to trees that stand in the line of construction slated for later this year. The question is why is there no apparent coordination on an interstate project between two states within the same union? Pennsylvania cuts and New York holds back.
What if New York State does not approve the pipeline? Thousands of trees will die by a thousand cuts. Trees will be sacrificed . . . for what?
We are left to question what our very freedoms are, who “owns” the soil between our toes and under our feet? Who has the right to take our peace of mind and our place of living?
There are more questions than answers as this saga develops.
As I swim through the turbulent climate crisis in Northeast Pennsylvania, a song of Woody Guthrie runs through my mind:
As I went walking, I saw a sign there
On the sign it said “NO TRESPASSING”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing
That side was made for you and me!
Nobody living can ever stop me
As I go walking that freedom highway
Nobody living can make me turn back
This land is your land, this land is my land . . .