Ax looms over Pennsylvanian maple-sugaring family's natgas line protest

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 19, 2016 7:06 AM

By David DeKok

HARRISBURG, Pa. (Reuters) - A federal judge could hold a Pennsylvania family that runs a maple syrup business in contempt of court on Friday if it persists in blocking crews from felling a grove of trees to make way for a new shale gas pipeline that would cross its property. 

    The defendants and their supporters, who first confronted chainsaw crews on Feb. 10, face arrest if they again interfere, U.S. District Court Judge Malachy Mannion in Scranton warned earlier this week.

The $875 million Continental Pipeline, due to be operational this autumn, would run 124 miles (200 km) from Montrose, Pennsylvania, to Albany, New York, and bring gas from Pennsylvania fracking wells to the New York and New England markets.

   “We’re trying to keep them from cutting trees before they have all the permits they need to build in New York state,” said Megan Holleran, spokeswoman for North Harford Maple, a family-run syrup business in New Milford, Pennsylvania.

   Christopher Stockton, a Constitution spokesman, acknowledged the company does not have all the permits needed to finish the New York portion of the pipeline but said it expected to receive them.

    “All the pipe is in New York waiting,” he said. “The crews are hired and mobilized and ready to go.”

    Family members and their supporters in recent weeks have stood in the proposed right-of-way to prevent cutting of the trees. 

    The protesters include co-owners Catherine Holleran, Michael Zeffer, Maryann Zeffer, and Patricia Glover, all siblings, and Dustin Webster, their nephew.

Protests against fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, to extract gas from subterranean shale rock formations have grown across the state, where the industry has flourished in recent years.

In Pennsylvania's Susquehanna County, home of North Harford Maple, Cabot has frequently tangled with anti-fracking activists, who say the process can pollute water, create noise and trigger earthquakes.

The 120-foot (37-m) wide pipeline right-of-way would force the felling of up to 200 maples, or about 80 percent of the trees.

At this point, the family is more concerned with getting paid what it considers a fair value for the land, rather than stopping the pipeline outright.

    “We want to be fairly compensated,” she said. 

    Houston-based Constitution Pipeline Co requested the hearing because it faces a March 31 deadline for tree- cutting imposed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to protect the endangered Northern Long-Eared Bat and certain migratory bird species, according to court papers.

    If the deadline passes, FERC rules would force the Houston-based joint venture, which involves involving Cabot Oil & Gas Corp, Williams Cos and other partners, to delay the work until autumn at the earliest.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Marguerita Choy)