Rural America Hates Pipelines Too

It’s the first day of spring, and the remnants of the last big snowfall are quickly melting into a muddy cornfield in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Lancaster is a semi-rural county in southern Pennsylvania about 60 miles west of Philadelphia, famous for its picturesque farmland and the Amish community that lives there. A man named Tom Ward looks out over the 300-yard clearing, on a hill above the Conestoga River, and smiles. “We can fit more than a thousand people in this field,” he says. Behind Tom stands an old tobacco barn, repurposed as a meeting space and painted with the words “WELCOME TO THE STAND.”

The Lancaster Stand is the latest phase in a three-year effort to halt the construction of Transcontinental’s Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline project (ASP), a natural gas pipeline extension that would carry fracked gas from the Marcellus Shale region of northeastern Pennsylvania to markets in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast and to export terminals in Maryland and Alabama. The Stand is organized by Lancaster Against Pipelines (LAP), a community group building grassroots resistance to the pipeline. But as LAP members are quick to point out, they don’t see themselves as activists.

“We’re construction workers and pastors and school teachers and students,” says Nick Martin, an organizer with Lancaster Against Pipelines. Organizers are careful to ensure the campaign reflects the values of the local community – which can mean avoiding a term like activist, which for some residents carries a stigma associated with more confrontational tactics.

Photos via Melissa Smyth.

At Lancaster Stand, participants agree not to cover their faces, alcohol and drugs are banned, and everyone must commit to nonviolence. Organizers say it’s rules like these that have helped Lancaster Against Pipelines earn the community’s respect. The non-violence principle is particularly important, as it’s also a core tenet of the Anabaptist faiths many Lancaster residents share.


Residents are concerned about the risk of a leak in a high-pressure gas pipeline with a quarter-mile blast radius. Opponents also say the pipeline will destroy indigenous burial sites, reduce crop yields, and disturb hundreds of acres of pristine forest.

The Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline is widely opposed in Lancaster County, and the campaign to stop it is uniting large swaths of the community – including landowners, environmentalists, and farmers. Resistance cuts across political lines; one house down the road from the Stand had signs both supporting Trump and opposing the pipeline in the yard. The encroachment of the natural gas industry into this rural community has tied traditional conservative interests like property rights to the concerns over climate change, indigenous rights, and environmental protection that typically motivate anti-pipeline work. Organizers say more than 500 people, mostly local residents, have pledged to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience to resist the pipeline.

Residents are concerned about the risk of a leak in a high-pressure gas pipeline with a quarter-mile blast radius. Opponents also say the pipeline will destroy indigenous burial sites, reduce crop yields, and disturb hundreds of acres of pristine forest.

But Chris Stockton, a spokesperson for the Atlantic Sunrise Project, says this pipeline simply builds on existing infrastructure.

“We have already been operating in Lancaster County for decades. The company operates more than 60 miles of pipe in the county – pipe that has been largely out of sight and out of mind – just as this expansion will be once it is complete.”

Most of all, the residents are indignant that the federal government granted Williams Partners, the Oklahoma-based corporation undertaking the project, a certificate to use eminent domain to utilize private land along the pipeline’s route.

While eminent domain is traditionally reserved by the government for public works like roads, and national parks, a provision of the Natural Gas Act of 1938 extends the right to private corporations for interstate pipelines. Under the act, natural gas pipelines are presumed to be for “public use” and can obtain the right of eminent domain through a “certificate of public convenience and necessity.”

A portion of the gas traveling through the ASP is slated for export. Lancaster residents, who stand to see portions of dozens of local properties seized through eminent domain, question how a pipeline transporting gas for export markets in Europe and Asia for private profit serves the public interest.

Stockton says the ASP extension of Transcontinental’s existing pipeline would benefit US consumers.

“The Transco pipeline already provides the majority of natural gas consumed on the East Coast, including about 40% of the natural gas consumed in Pennsylvania…once the Atlantic Sunrise project is placed into service, it will even further extend the reach of our existing Transco infrastructure so that those existing Transco customers in Pennsylvania and other parts of the country will have direct access to Marcellus supply originating in northeastern Pennsylvania.”

Since extractive industry has long been central to the region’s economy, many Pennsylvania residents are supportive of fracking. But unlike the mountainous, wooded regions where shale gas is harvested, Lancaster County has never relied on fossil fuel industry. In fact, the opposite is true – Lancaster’s crops and livestock feed much of the mid-Atlantic. Its famous dairy products are sold up and down the East Coast, from New York City to Washington DC. More than perhaps anywhere else in the state, Lancaster profits from what’s on top of its land, not beneath it.

“We’re tired of big corporations trying to take what’s not theirs,” says Stephanie Kraybill, a Stand participant who cooks for the encampment in her food truck. “It’s not Williams Partners’ land to take. It belongs to the Kings and it belongs to the Cappiellos and the Jeffries and the Lakes, and it’s not for a big corporation that’s coming out of Oklahoma.”

One man, who prefers not to be named for religious reasons, recalls when Williams placed ads in the local newspaper promising to work with the community in planning the pipeline route. He pulls out the thick Environmental Impact Statement they left at his supply store and shakes his head. The approved route would cut a right angle through his property, which is already bound on two sides by roads, blocking the area where he had been planning to build a new structure; the pipeline would also sit just a few feet from his home. When he explained to a representative that this would hinder his business’s future growth, he says the representative told him to estimate damages for the next five years.

“Do they think I’m only going to be in business for five years?” he asks, exasperated.

In March, LAP organizers opted to pause the ongoing encampment at the Stand, limiting activity to weekends. With the pipeline’s construction date pushed back to July, organizers have focused on building capacity and community, ensuring that their nascent movement peaks at just the right time.

In the meantime, the Stand brings the residents and guests together each weekend for campfire sing-alongs, wildflower planting, and building an interfaith chapel blockade right in the pipeline’s path. At this year’s People’s Climate March in Washington DC, Lancaster Against Pipeline participants marched with a quilted banner created by local residents. Quilting is a traditional craft in Lancaster County. These events are part of LAP’s efforts to build an intentional community ahead of the coming storm once they transition into an encampment and face what could be protracted struggle against construction.

Since the encampment began, many observers have naturally drawn connections with the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline led by the Standing Rock Sioux and other indigenous nations. But organizers are adamant that this is not “Pennsylvania’s Standing Rock,” acknowledging, for one thing, that the movement formed initially around private property rights, and maintains a primarily white base. But they also recognize the path that water protectors have paved.

“Without Standing Rock, there would not be the nationwide energy and enthusiasm for encampments like this one,” says Nick, “and I think that the bravery and courage and commitment to nonviolence by the brave people at Standing Rock are an inspiration to what we’re doing.”

The Trump administration often invokes the image of rural white voters when introducing its environmental policies – from the coal miners employed by the mining projects it idealizes to the construction workers whose income depends on the expansion natural gas pipelines from fracking wells.

Trump recently announced his intention to nominate Robert Powelson and Neil Chatterjee to FERC, which would restore the Commission’s quorum and enable it to resume making decisions about pending pipeline projects after months of delay. These additions are likely to make the already industry-friendly commission even more hostile to anti-pipeline organizers. Powelson, as Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner, has accused pipeline opponents of engaging in “jihad.” But the image of white, rural farmers opposing a gas pipeline provides powerful optics to counter Trump’s narrative on the national level.

“This isn’t a fight I would’ve chosen – to be fighting the millionaires and billionaires and the government at the same time, with almost no resources,” Nick Martin explains. “Doing it with no representation – no local politicians on our side – it’s scary, and it feels very personal. But it’s not a fight I can leave – I live here, I feel like it’s an obligation for me. For me, it shows that politics isn’t separate from life.”

With more pipelines on the way, and the specter of a border wall, more and more communities will be subject to eminent domain for federal projects carried out by private companies – especially rural, white voters. In the coming years, the growing opposition to pipelines across the US and movements like Lancaster Stand could push the environmental movement even further into the mainstream.

“It’s not a fight I can leave – I live here, I feel like it’s an obligation for me. For me, it shows that politics isn’t separate from life.”

“I think that the stronger we make these communities that are focused around mass action that are in resistance to business as usual… and make them safe spaces for anyone to come over to, that’s the only way we can win the whole thing,” says James Hanika, a Lancaster Stand participant.

As the spring rain gives way to sunshine in Lancaster County, the cornfield where the Stand sits is filled with bright green grass; the muddy ground is getting firmer. Organizers are running orientation sessions for newcomers, nonviolent mass action trainings, and legal trainings. Volunteers are busy building water stations, cooking facilities and gathering spaces, including an interfaith “chapel blockade” in the pipeline’s slated path. Everyone is preparing for the day when the field is filled with students, construction workers, doctors, veterans, indigenous leaders, teachers, pastors, mothers, grandmothers.

Organizers believe that their commitment to strategic, intentional community building will create the right conditions for powerful, sustained mass mobilization when the time comes.

“We’re at a point in our country where the injustice of corporate power is so ridiculous, and there has to be a huge shift,” says Malinda Clatterbuck, a LAP organizer. She describes the Stand as a necessary escalation of their struggle to protect the community from corporate exploitation.

“There have been no shifts in unjust laws in the history of our country without the rising of the people.”

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