At the edge of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, near the Susquehanna River, stands a trellis in a clearing in a cornfield. The trellis serves as an altar in a recently dedicated open-air chapel on land owned by the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, an order of Catholic nuns that has considered this “sacred ground” for nearly a century.
And it may soon be torn up to install part of a $3 billion natural gas pipeline.
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey L. Schmehl is currently hearing arguments regarding the use of eminent domain to build the 37-mile Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, which will connect natural gas production in northeast Pennsylvania to the existing Transco natural gas pipeline near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border. Williams Corporation, the Tulsa-based energy company building the pipeline, spent nearly three years lobbying residents and business owners along the proposed path to lease or sell their land to the company so it could build and maintain the pipeline.
And it’s now hoping to win eminent domain over the remaining land owned by people who have refused to cooperate with the construction. Schmehl’s decision is expected later this week.
“Once complete, this project will create a crucial connection between Pennsylvania and consuming markets all along the East Coast, delivering enough natural gas to fuel more than 7 million homes,” Williams spokesperson Christopher Stockton said in an email.
Several Amish and Mennonite families would be impacted by the proposed pipeline, which would run under their property. Even though many of the families have either sold or agreed to lease portions of their land to Williams, there is growing concern over the logistics of maintaining the farmland during and after construction.
“Who’s taking care of the pigs and taking care of the cows?” said Mark Clatterbuck, a co-founder of Lancaster Against Pipelines, a local nonprofit comprised of local residents who are “unwilling to believe Williams Corporation’s insistence that the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline would benefit their community,” per the group’s website.
For its part, Williams says it has tried to accommodate local residents unhappy with construction plans.
“We have made more than 400 route adjustments to more than 60 percent of the total route as a result of stakeholder feedback,” Stockton said.
But the Adorers of the Blood of Christ has refused to so much as meet with Williams, according to Stockton.
“We believe that all land is sacred because it was created by God, and we do not want something like a pipeline that will be carrying fossil fuels to go through on our property,” says Sister Janet McCann, who has been with the order for 38 years. “It goes against what our values are.”
The Adorers’ land is managed by a tenant farmer, whose farming — the crops provide a source of revenue for the nuns — will be only temporarily affected, according to Williams, which says it has provided others with compensation for any anticipated impact on crops.
“Use of the property will not change once the pipeline is installed, since the pipe will be installed three to five feet underground,” Stockton said. “In other words, the property can continue to be farmed.”
Even if Schmehl rules in favor of Williams this week, the dispute will be far from over. Clatterbuck says that more than 1,000 people have pledged to engage in nonviolent direct action should eminent domain be granted. Lancaster Against Pipelines has been hosting weekly training sessions in coordination with Greenpeace over the last few months to prepare local residents.
The community is bracing for a demonstration of “peaceful, nonviolent, direct action” Clatterbuck says.
The training was inspired in part by his own experience in North Dakota last summer. Clatterbuck, a professor of Native American religion at Montclair State University, participated in the nonviolent protests against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline there with one of his children and says that the protests gave him insight into organizing the effort in his own town.
“The power that local communities hold in their hands to stop projects like this… the sheer sort of power and effectiveness of a grassroots movement that became so huge, was inspiring,” he said.
Even the nuns are preparing for immediate seizure of their property if eminent domain is granted.
“We believe that it’s our responsibility to continue to provide great stewardship [of the land],” Sister Janet said. “We want to provide that for the future generations to come.”