PINE GROVE, Pa. (WHTM) — When Tracey Ditzler received an unsolicited letter in the mail from an Oklahoma gas pipeline company in 2014, she ripped it up and threw it away.
“I thought that was the end of it, right then and there,” said Ditzler. “Now, here we are three years later, and we have a mess.”
Ditzler says the letter from Williams Partners LP was only the beginning of a frustrating process in which she and her husband Scott resisted Williams’ attempts to obtain a permanent easement on their 300-acre property for the purpose of constructing a natural gas pipeline. When it eventually became apparent that state and federal governments were going to support the obtainment of easements with or without landowner approval, the Ditzlers reluctantly accepted compensation from Williams.
“You feel helpless,” Ditzler said. “When Williams first approached us and asked us what it would take for us to allow them to come through our farm, I was very clear when I said there’s no amount of money that is okay. This property has been in our family since the 1930’s.”
The Ditzlers are among hundreds of affected property owners along a roughly 200-mile route that will connect natural gas-rich northeastern Pennsylvania with other Mid-Atlantic and southern states. On its website, Williams states “the Atlantic Sunrise Project is designed to supply enough natural gas to meet the daily needs of more than 7 million American homes.”
A landowner education section of the website explaining the obtainment of permanent easements describes compensating landowners with “a fair value, based upon market value and number of acres needed, for the privilege of establishing a permanent easement across their land. Williams will obtain a permanent easement, but the landowner retains ownership and use of the land.”
While Williams received final approval from federal regulators to begin construction of the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline in September, the Ditzlers say they have been given no specific timeframe for when construction will begin on their property. Recently, pre-construction access roads were cut into the land, leaving piles of mud and rocks. A pair of portable toilets were placed on the property along the road leading to the Ditzler’s farm and residence.
The group Schuylkill Pipeline Awareness opposes the construction of the pipeline and on Wednesday held a protest and candlelight vigil at the Ditzler farm.
“We are here to be with our farmer friends,” said organizer Faith Zerby. “Farmers and landowners have been bullied by the pipeline company.”
Holding signs reading “They Get Billions, We Get Cancer,” and “Pipelines: Delivering Pollution 24/7/365,” the group said while Williams has prevailed in legal battles, allowing them to proceed with construction, they will continue to join with other similar groups across the state to oppose the pipeline.
“People can choose to use their bodies to stand up and resist the pipeline,” said Zerby. “This may not be something that everyone does, but we have allies along the route in Lancaster County who are beginning to blockade pipeline construction.”
In August, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection approved water quality, erosion and sediment control permits. Zerby, a biologist with Delaware Riverkeeper Network, argues that the pipeline will pollute farmland, forests and waterways, in many cases causing irreversible damage.
“Right now, we are here and committed to a peaceful demonstration,” Zerby .said “At a certain point, the science tells us we have to do something. The system is rigged for the gas and pipeline companies. The system has failed us.”
Williams Spokesperson Chris Stockton responded to the protest with the following statement:
“We certainly respect the rights of people to peacefully protest the installation of new energy infrastructure. However, it is important to note that we safely operate hundreds of miles of pipe in agricultural areas across Pennsylvania. We have demonstrated a commitment to properly restore agricultural land using approved, modern mitigation techniques designed to ensure full productive reuse of the land. For the Atlantic Sunrise project, we have worked with soil scientists, agronomists and local agricultural experts to develop site specific agricultural construction and restoration plans which utilize construction techniques and restoration methods appropriate for the area’s soils, crops and farming practices.”