Group files pipeline lawsuit

Huntingdon County residents accuse company, police of violating rights

A mother and daughter from Huntingdon County and two others filed a federal lawsuit Monday, accusing a large-scale pipeline developer and local law enforcement officers of violating their constitutional rights.

In a 36-page complaint filed with the U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Ellen and Elise Gerhart, as well as Alex Lotorto and Elizabeth Glunt, asked to be compensated for hardships they suffered when arrested in 2016 and due to alleged ongoing harassment from pipeline-related groups.

“We’ve been needlessly harassed by agencies and violently threatened by individuals who’ve been intentionally incited and mobilized,” Elise Gerhart said in a statement. “I shouldn’t have to walk around with a target on my back simply because I love my family, care about the environment and choose to exercise my rights.”

Sunoco Pipeline LP — a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners — is building a 300-plus-mile pipeline, the Mariner East 2, to transport natural gas liquids from beyond the state’s western border to a processing facility in Delaware County’s Marcus Hook area. Along the way, it will pass through Blair, Cambria and Huntingdon counties.

In Huntingdon County, it also will pass across a portion of a 27-acre property along Trough Creek Valley Pike owned by Ellen Gerhart and her husband, Stephen.

Pipeline contractors have access to the Gerhart land through eminent domain, which established a construction easement.

Protesters have occupied the site and at times climbed trees to thwart pipeline-related work, mostly the clearing of foliage.

Ellen and Elise Gerhart, as well as Lotorto and Glunt, were arrested in the spring of 2016 because of their presence on the land. Criminal charges against all four pipeline opponents were later dismissed.

Those arrests are referenced in Monday’s complaint filed against Energy Transfer Partners, Sunoco Pipeline LP, Pennsylvania State Police officers and Huntingdon County Sheriff’s Office officials, as well as others.

Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields offered the following statement on the Gerharts’ federal lawsuit: “We respect everyone’s right to peacefully and lawfully express their opinion. We will continue to do so, and to abide by the law, as we complete construction of the Mariner East 2 project. As a policy we don’t comment on pending litigation.”

Messages left for state police and the Huntingdon County Sheriff’s Office were not returned by early Monday evening.

Last year, dozens of protesters visited the Gerhart property to oppose the clearing of trees by pipeline contractors, according to the lawsuit.

Those protests eventually resulted in the arrests — led by the sheriff’s office and state police — listed in the lawsuit. The lawsuit accuses local authorities of “fabricating evidence against arrestees to support more serious charges and targeting members of the Gerhart family for the specific purpose of quieting and chilling the opposition to the pipeline.”

Those alleged actions have caused emotional hardships, the lawsuit claims, providing examples.

“While she was detained, Glunt was strip searched and otherwise suffered emotional distress and humiliation,” the lawsuit reads, later focusing on Ellen Gerhart’s arrest. “While in jail, Ellen suffered mental and emotional distress and humiliation.”

Ellen Gerhart later spoke out against local law enforcement in a statement.

“The role of law enforcement should be to enforce the law and protect citizens,” Ellen Gerhart said. “Unfortunately, what we experienced last year was the arrest of peaceful protesters, and the pursuit of charges which could not be prosecuted. Our right to peacefully object to an unconstitutional and dangerous pipeline should be protected over the profit margin of these corporations.”

The lawsuit also takes aim at the private security firm, TigerSwan.

Pipeline opponents claim TigerSwan — a company with connections to Energy Transfer Partners — has used helicopters and drones to surveil the Gerhart property and has employed a spy-like “infiltrator” to join protesters “under the false pretense that they are allied with the Gerhart’s interests.”

Photographs taken by the alleged infiltrator were later used in materials that identified protesters and branded them as anarchists, according to the lawsuit.

That agenda was furthered by internet posts made by Nick Johnson, a social media consultant, the lawsuit said, including Johnson as a defendant.

In all, the Gerharts, Lotorto and Glunt are claiming eight counts of wrongdoing against pipeline developers and their cohorts.

In the lawsuit, they ask the court to issue a ruling that defines legal rights, orders compensation and punitive damages, alleviates any nuisance and compensates attorneys.

“Energy Transfer Partners and its collaborators are directing a campaign against the Gerhart family and their allies,” said Christopher Markos, attorney for the pipeline opponents. “They’ve sought to discredit them, use the power of government against them, and incite violence against them. The Constitution shields their most basic rights to protect and enjoy their property and to protest.”

Pipeline opponents named in the complaint are represented jointly by Markos of Williams Cedar LLC and attorney Rich Raiders of Lengert & Raiders LLC.

The federal lawsuit is separate from ongoing litigation in state courts, where pipeline opponents are challenging Sunoco’s use of eminent domain to access the Gerhart land.

Mirror Staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.