Pipeline foe must post $25K for release
Gerhart, 63, accused of harassing workers
HUNTINGDON — A longtime opponent of the Mariner East 2 pipeline must post $25,000 to get out of jail, a Huntingdon County judge ordered Monday.
Ellen Gerhart, 63, of Trough Creek Valley Pike, appeared on a video screen to contest a petition filed by an attorney representing Sunoco Pipeline LP.
The petition was filed as a supplement to an existing criminal contempt case against Gerhart, and the new document alleges that she repeatedly harassed pipeline workers, including by baiting bears with meat, wafting smoke from small fires and smearing rotten eggs and cat feces on trees.
Gerhart, at a Monday hearing, admitted to some of those allegations.
“My intention was to annoy and harass them,” Gerhart said, answering questions posed by Sunoco’s attorney, Alan Boynton.
Sunoco Pipeline, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, is working to construct a cross-state pipeline that will be used to transport natural gas liquids.
The pipeline will pass through Blair, Cambria and Huntingdon counties, including the Gerhart’s property. The company used eminent domain to seize a portion of the Gerhart’s land, gaining an easement, where contractors continue pipeline construction.
In June 2017, Sunoco was awarded an injunction, barring Gerhart or her companions from entering the easement or interfering with construction.
In April, Sunoco alleged that Gerhart violated that injunction and petitioned the court to find her in criminal contempt and to revoke her bail.
That bail had been set at $25,000 unsecured when Gerhart was granted a case continuance on the condition that she’d adhere to the previous injunction.
On Monday, Boynton argued that she did not adhere.
He did that by calling upon John Bricker, who oversees security on the pipeline’s path across Gerhart’s property.
Answering a series of questions asked by Boynton, Bricker said Gerhart “interfered” at the construction site by setting raw meat and small animal carcasses near the easement in an effort to attract bears.
Since then, bears have been seen along the easement repeatedly and “frequently,” Bricker said. Supporting his claim were photos attached to the filing document, showing a bear or bears near an orange construction fence.
The photos also showed Gerhart allegedly near the easement on at least two dates.
Gerhart had a chance to offer testimony, too. She appeared, shackled at her wrists and waist, on a video screen hung in the courtroom.
On Friday, Gerhart was arrested on a bench warrant in the case, and she spent the weekend in a Centre County jail because Huntingdon County Prison does not house women, a Huntingdon criminal case manager said.
Gerhart remained in Centre County jail Monday, participating in the hearing via video.
Litter, such as food wrappers left by pipeline construction workers along the easement, would be enough to draw bears to the site, she contended.
“There are bears in the area,” she said.
However, Gerhart also admitted that she had placed meat near the site but insisted she stopped when she was told to by state Game Commission officers.
And she also attacked the credibility of accusations made by pipeline officials, calling attention to a time that she “was told by one of the security guards that they had a video of a mountain lion.”
Boynton did not mention a mountain lion Monday, but the supplemental document that he filed with the court does.
“Mrs. Gerhart’s efforts to bait the property was successful, and, on June 24, 2018, a mountain lion was spotted on the edge of the easement,” it reads.
Even the presiding judge, George Zanic, seemed to suggest that claim is unlikely.
“Yeah, I think mountain lions are extinct,” he said.
In addition to the baiting accusations, Bricker said a number of fires started by Gerhart on her property have hindered contractors’ work.
Specifically, he mentioned a time when a half-gallon jug with an “improvised wick” was lit near the easement. Bricker said he thought the device was a “Molotov” style bomb. He said Gerhart made a comment that indicated the same.
She said: “How does it feel to be next to something you feel might explode,” Bricker claimed.
Gerhart, who has historically said she feels an active pipeline is an explosive risk to safety and the environment, said on Monday that she could not remember that exchange.
But she admitted that response sounded like something that she would or could have said.
Gerhart also admitted to lighting a piece of notebook paper stuffed into the top of a Mountain Dew bottle.
“I stepped away; the bottle melted; that was all,” she said, also contesting the argument that small fires on her property could have damaged Sunoco property.
“It was far enough away that it was not going to cause any kind of problem … because that would be vandalism, and I don’t believe in vandalism,” she said.
The fires, Gerhart said, were built with the hope that smoke would waft over the easement to annoy workers.
In her efforts to annoy, Gerhart also said she smeared cat feces and rotten eggs near the easement to cause a bad odor.
But she denied allegations that she had thrown rancid milk at Bricker and rocks at equipment.
“I never threw anything at anyone,” Gerhart said.
Gerhart, her supporters and her family have been part of a public feud with pipeline officials that has become contentious at times.
Gerhart now faces a citation and misdemeanor charge in two separate cases, alleging she stole a bundle of wooden stakes from the easement in April and threw a stick toward a pipeline employee in May.
Contention continued Monday during a break in proceedings, when Gerhart’s husband, Stephen, and their daughter, Elise, confronted Boynton and Bricker.
“You’re a real big man to come up in here and lie about a woman,” Elise said.
“You’re a lying son of a bitch,” Stephen Gerhart said.
Gerhart’s attorney, Scott Pletcher, later urged Zanic to see his client’s actions as typical protest of pipeline construction.
“Anything that happened is normal protest of somebody on their own property,” Pletcher said.
Ultimately, Zanic ordered that Gerhart’s previous $25,000 unsecured bail be vacated. He then set a new bail at a monetary $25,000, meaning Gerhart will remain in jail until that full amount is paid.
A hearing on the original criminal contempt charge is expected to be held soon, officials said.
Mirror Staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.