SCRANTON, Pa. (CN) - Four people arrested at a Pennsylvania pipeline protest in 2016 claim the backers of the project and local law enforcement violated their constitutional rights by fabricating evidence against them and later trying to intimidate them through ongoing aerial surveillance and other means.
In a federal complaint filed by Williams Cedar attorney Christopher Markos on Sept. 25, the four plaintiffs claim the Mariner East 2 pipeline project is unlawful on its face because required tree removal would endanger migratory birds and the Indiana bat, which is listed as an endangered species.
However, their complaint focuses on events the plaintiffs say transpired when they tried to block the tree removal with a peaceful protest staged on March 29, 2016.
Two of the plaintiffs, mother and daughter Ellen and Elise Gerhart, live on a 27-acre property in Huntington County, Pennsylvania. The land and home are owned by Ellen and her husband, Stephen Gerhart.
On July 21, 2015, Sunoco Logistics filed a declaration of taking in the Huntington County Court of Common Pleas for a portion of the Gerharts property. The Gerharts are challenging that taking in a separate lawsuit.
Despite the Gerharts' filing, on March 26, 2016, a Huntington County judge issued an order allowing Sunoco to begin clearing trees, and enjoining the property owners from trying to stop them.
Two days later, a group called the Clean Air Council took to Facebook, inviting encouraging people to oppose the pipeline and stop the cutting.
As a result of the Facebook post, dozens of people converged on the scene, the complaint says.
The next day, Sunoco Pipeline arrived at the Gerhart property, accompanied by members of the Huntingdon County Sheriff’s Office and State Police troopers, to cut and clear trees.
The Gerharts claim Sunoco did not have a permit at this time, and wouldn't secure one until Feb. 13, 2017.
“The Energy Transfer/Sunoco defendants failed to properly survey and mark the boundaries of the easement over the Gerhart property with anything other than temporary, preliminary markers, which plaintiffs nevertheless respected and abided by,” the complaint says.
During the tree cutting, Ellen and Elise Gerhart, along with fellow protesters Alex Lortorto and Elizabeth Glunt, were arrested on a variety of charges, including disorderly conduct and criminal contempt.
Despite the charges eventually being dismissed, the plaintiffs say co-defendant Energy Transfer Partners hired a firm called Tigerswan to perform “surveillance, monitoring, social media engagement, and counter-intelligence – in connection with the construction of the Mariner East 2 Pipeline in Pennsylvania.”
Tigerswan, a “risk mitigation and security and stability operations” company based in North Carolina, is run by former members of Delta Force, one of the U.S. military’s most secretive special missions units, the complaint says.
The Gerharts claim that in recent months, Tigerswan has flown helicopters and drones over their property and parked unmarked cars outside their home as part of a deliberate campaign to intimidate them.
“While on the property without authorization, license, or privilege, the infiltrator took photographs that were later included on flyers posted on the page of a Facebook group called PA Progress to publicize (among other things) the images of Elise and Ellen Gerhart and their supporters, and identifying where Elise works, her car, and the Gerharts’ driveway,” the complaint states.
The plaintiffs seek compensatory, general and punitive damages, as well as an order enjoining the alleged invasion of their privacy, on claims their First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights have been violated.
Jeff Shields, a spokesman for the defendant Energy Transfer Partners, told Courthouse News "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."