Did $200,000 Bail Keep Pipeline Activist Out of Sunoco’s Way?

Photo credit: screen show from "The Great Land Grab," Tom jefferson, YouTube.

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The Sheriff, District Attorney and a judge in Huntingdon County, PA may have stretched the law and infringed on individual civil rights in assisting a gas transmission company to get a wildlife sanctuary cleared for pipeline construction.

Sunoco Logistics Partners is in the midst of eminent domain proceedings in Central Pennsylvania to construct the Mariner East 2 pipeline. A court order favorable to the company, punitive bail set for activists resisting the clear-cut for the pipeline, plus allegations of endangerment and arbitrary arrests–one allegedly ordered by the District Attorney–point to local courts and law enforcement looking out for Sunoco’s interests.

A judge issued an emergency injunction on March 28 to allow Sunoco to proceed with clear-cutting three acres of the Gerhart family’s land, even though they are still pursuing litigation. Their supporters took to the trees on March 29-31 in an attempt to stop or delay the chainsaw crew. Three tree-sitters were backed up by a support team in a civil disobedience action “of last resort.”

Sheriff’s deputies arrested one of the property owners and two of the liaisons between the tree-sitters and law enforcement officers. For the activists, the judge set bail out of proportion to the misdemeanor charges. In one case, bail was set at $200,000.

The pipeline resisters say that the safety of the three tree-sitters was threatened, and law enforcement officers refused to stop crews from cutting down trees near them. With high wind speeds, there was danger of creating a wind tunnel by clearing a long path for the pipeline. “They told us the people should get down if they didn’t want to be cut down,” said Megan Holleran.

Liz Glunt was arrested when she crossed into the right-of-way to warn tree-cutters that they were getting too close. She met the $100,000 bond and was released the next day.

Property owner Ellen Gerhart says she wasn’t near the right-of-way when she was arrested, although she was alarmed that a tree had been felled so close to the one her daughter perched on that it brushed it on the way down. The deputies said she had been arrested because she was “in the danger zone.”

Alex Lotorto said he had been asked to come to the Gerharts’ and take on the role of police liaison. He assists landowners around the state who are facing pipeline easements with things such as getting attorneys to negotiate for them. He called a civil disobedience action like this one a last resort for landowners to consider only when nothing else has worked. “It’s a piece of leverage they have in these one-sided negotiations,” he said.

At the Gerharts’, he said he spent 3 1/2 hours discussing everyone’s intentions with police officers and rules and regulations pertaining to the right-of-way and wetland boundaries. His aim, he said, was to make sure that everyone remained safe. The state police, however, ran a background check on him and discovered that he had participated in protests like this one before.

Deputies lead Liz Glunt away after her arrest./Photo by Tom Jefferson
Deputies lead Liz Glunt away after her arrest./Photo by Tom Jefferson

Sheriff’s deputies arrested him and said they did so on the orders of the Huntingdon County District Attorney, according to Lotorto. (The District Attorney had not returned calls by press time.) Lotorto maintains that he never stood in the right-of-way, raised his voice or refused to answer a question.The official grounds for the arrest were that he was carrying a two-way radio. Lotorto says he used it only to communicate with others on the ground, and he was not involved in the tree-sit.

Lotorto spent a total of three days in jail, during which he refused to eat. On the day he was arrested, he was charged with indirect contempt of court. Huntingdon County Judge George N. Zanic wrote the court order so that any violation would result in a mandatory sentence of six months. At arraignment, the same judge set bail at $100,000. Lotorto did not have representation, although he requested a public defender.

After sleeping an hour in his cell, he was woken up and told he was being taken somewhere but they wouldn’t tell him where. Aware of such things as police black sites, he described being taken somewhere at night without knowing where he was going as a “terrifying experience.” Ultimately, he was escorted to the courthouse for a second arraignment with a different judge. He was charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct and bail was doubled to $200,000. He again did not have access to legal counsel, and he wasn’t allowed to change into street clothes for the hearing. With the additional charge, he faced up to 18 months in jail plus fines.

His bail was so high with respect to the charges that, Lotorto says, a man held in the jail with him who had been charged with child molestation had his bail set much lower at $75,000.  He speculates that bail was meant to keep him in jail until the court order allowing Sunoco to clear-cut on the Gerharts’ property expired on March 31.

He believes that he and the protesters had taken adequate precautions to ensure safety and make sure everyone was familiar with rules and regulations, including handing out leaflets to workers, having a safety plan and medics on site. In spite of his arrest, in the end no was hurt and no one lost their job, he said.

Elise Gerhart on a tree-sitting platform./Photo by Tom Jefferson
Elise Gerhart on a tree-sitting platform./Photo by Tom Jefferson

However, he was critical of law enforcement on the scene. “They didn’t want to understand what was going on,” he said. “They were there as security for the company, you know. They were serving the company’s interest, not the landowners’. And the company doesn’t pay them, the taxpayers do.”

With companies continuing to build pipelines all across Pennsylvania, Lotorto believes that strategic, nonviolent approaches to resist eminent domain ought to be respected, else the situation could deteriorate. “The danger is that there are people out there who won’t be as nice as us. And I don’t want people to get hurt doing this stuff,” he said.

“There are a lot of military families in the state, people who won’t come to protests or community meetings, and they only know violence in a lot of situations. That’s how people settle things.”

Lotorto was released on March 31 and has a hearing scheduled on April 6.

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