On the Front Lines of Mariner East Pipeline Fight: Violence Against Native Activists

Native people, who arguably have the most to lose with the construction of the pipelines, haven't been a priority at any stage of the permitting and construction process and, as such, their concerns are rarely heard in the media.

Activists here seem primarily interested in protecting white, land-owning lives. This mindset places a higher value on the lives of the most privileged while ignoring the environmental racism and land theft that Native people experience both within and outside Pennsylvania. Jason Connolly/AFP/Getty Images

Resistance to the Mariner East pipelines project across Pennsylvania has been ongoing since Sunoco Logistics, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), first began discussions with government agencies and nonprofits about three or four years ago. But how that resistance has taken shape and how individuals have been treated by the state and Sunoco have varied greatly across communities. At the same time, Native people, who arguably have the most to lose with the construction of the pipelines, haven’t been a priority at any stage of the permitting and construction process and, as such, their concerns are rarely heard in the media. These experiences serve as a reminder that the lives of those who suffer the most due to the oil and gas industry remain unimportant to people with privilege, including in some cases, their neighbors.

Mariner East 2 (ME2), the Sunoco/Energy Transfer Partners pipeline most known by residents and activists, was the first in a series of pipelines that caught national attention primarily due to the actions of those at Camp White Pine. What the public originally thought was only one natural gas liquids (NGL) pipeline has morphed into a system of four pipes.

The Mariner East 1 (ME1), built in 1937 to carry gasoline, is currently running the highly explosive NGL to the Marcus Hook refinery. Due to age and the fact that it wasn’t constructed to run NGL, ME1 is a particular source of danger and has already had several leaks. Similarly, the Mariner East 2 and now Mariner East 2X have been plagued with multiple leaks and other safety violations. Completing this project is the Point Breeze pipeline.

Approximately 80 percent of ME2 is located within Sunoco’s existing pipeline right of ways (meaning the surrounding area under its domain), which has left nearby landowners with little legal recourse. Renters have no legal right to fight the pipelines that are near their homes. Indigenous people in the United States have lower rates of homeownership than their non-Native counterparts and therefore have even fewer legal rights than property owners in the region, who are predominately white.

In Pennsylvania in particular, Native residents have no legal right to consultation with the United States and state governments or extraction companies for resource extraction projects. That is because the state is one of only more than a dozen U.S. states that don’t have any federally recognized tribes. It is an almost impossible task to gain such recognition. Despite this, indigenous people in Pennsylvania still pursue their sovereign rights to recognition.

Eve Miari, advocacy coordinator at the Clean Air Council, told me Sunoco is doing an open trench in Exton at what residents consider a Native cultural site. Sadly, any artifacts found there will not make their way back to the indigenous people of Pennsylvania because the lack of recognition means Native people “have no legitimate claim,” said Gene Thunderwolf Whistler (Tsalagi and Cree), director of the Lancaster chapter of the American Indian Movement, who linked the lack of recognition to the theft of Native lands.

“All we want is the state of Pennsylvania to recognize that we’re out here,” he said. “It’s our rivers and creeks that they’re digging under.”

Many non-Native residents have expressed concern about their property values, neighborhood aesthetics, other disruptions from the construction, and their so-called right to the land. In statements to me, there was a common theme of anger regarding the theft of their properties via eminent domain, but rarely any acknowledgement that they received this land through the theft of Native lands and genocide. The land was never theirs for the taking.

According to An Incomplete Indigenous History of the Susquehanna Valley, then-governor of the colony, Robert Morris, offered payments for the incarceration and murder of the Lenape people, one of the indigenous nations of the land: “For the scalp of every male Indian enemy above the age of twelve years produced as evidence of their being killed the sum of one hundred and thirty pieces of eight [Spanish dollar].” The scalps of “Indian women” were worth fifty pieces of eight.

Pennsylvania is also the site of the first Indian boarding school in the United States. The Carlisle Indian School was the site of brutalities so unspeakable that it has left Natives with a long legacy of intergenerational trauma. It’s now the site of the U.S. Army of War College. Sitting there is a small cemetery on the side of a highway that holds some of the children who didn’t make it out of the school alive.

Disparities in Treatment

While at the Mama Bear Brigade action on July 10 in Middletown Township, a predominantly white suburb, cis women were treated with respect and care by the Pennsylvania State Troopers, in a manner all too rare.

I later learned that the Mama Bear Brigade coordinated with local law enforcement before their action. Rebecca Britton of Chester County explained that she regularly speaks to her police chief. “I call him up on the phone and tell him what we’re doing,” she said.

There seemed to be very little awareness by these community members of the privilege they have in dealing with how law enforcement and how the police state is being used to brutalize Natives in pipeline fights. In fact, after factoring in population size, Natives are killed by police at the highest rates of any other ethnic group in the United States. According to Cherri Foytlin (Tsalagi and Diné), indigenous people, particularly women, who are fighting ETP’s Bayou Bridge Pipeline are receiving the harshest treatment by law enforcement.

At the July 10 action, only two of the women stayed for arrest while the handful of others left. Meghan Flynn and Fran Sheldon were arrested and charged with criminal trespass and released without bail within approximately an hour of their arrest. Meanwhile, Ellen Gerhart of Camp White Pine, a resident of a more rural area, served two months in jail for resisting the ME pipeline on her homestead. Red Fawn Fallis is currently serving almost five years in a Texas prison, on top of the almost two years she spent in custody, for defending the water in the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) fight. Indigenous Water Protectors of the DAPL fight have received the harshest charges and sentences so far.

Sheldon, who lives in the evacuation zone, told me that while under arrest, “the experience was very professional .… We didn’t feel threatened in this situation.” She went on to say, “I felt the police were there to keep the peace for the community.” That’s a far cry from how law enforcement have treated indigenous demonstrators.

During an arrest by the Iberville Sheriff’s Department, the officer repeatedly slammed the door into Foytlin’s legs as she was trying to get into the cop car. She later went on to describe a situation where she was shackled to a wall, but a white woman who was arrested at the same action wasn’t. “It’s a situation where they almost innately see us, people of color, as violent …. Where as white folks who have committed the same crime are treated like they are intelligent, informed people …. We are treated like insurgents and they are treated like patriots. The worst part is we are treated like insurgents on our own land.”

When describing the fight over the pipeline, Sheldon said, “The right to property rights have been violated in this case …. It’s our country, it’s our land.”

Flynn said, “There’s no giving up. We’re in it until it’s operational and even then we’re still going to fight it. I have kids to protect.” This narrative was common among many of the suburban-based people, many of whom are new to pipeline fights.

Their statements overlook the overarching concerns for Indigenous people: stopping the state and the industries’ atrocities. Instead, they seem primarily interested in protecting white, land-owning lives. This mindset places a higher value on the lives of the most privileged while ignoring the environmental racism and land theft that Native people experience both within and outside Pennsylvania.

When I asked Whistler about state violence against Natives in Pennsylvania pipeline fights, he said that the treatment has been “pretty fair” based on what he’s seen. However, he went on to say, “they don’t look at us as Native, maybe it’s because they look at us as a bunch of white people.”

At the Mama Bear Brigade action, I interviewed Pennsylvania State Trooper Sgt. John Sunderland, who actually said to me, “Thank you for exercising your rights.” That was a very different response from the heavily militarized police without any identifying information at Standing Rock, who over the course of my first trip threw tear gas at me, threatened to arrest me, lied to me, and ordered me to leave an area despite allowing local media to stay. I imagine that Sgt. Sunderland erased my indigeneity due to my proximity to a group of white people versus how I was treated in North Dakota.

The state may not be abusing Natives in Pennsylvania at the same rates as other states, but the erasure of Indigenous people is a form of violence. It is genocide.

Cognitive Dissonance

While some of the white suburban residents fighting ME have experienced some monitoring and harassment by private security firm TigerSwan, it’s been minimal by comparison to other pipeline fights, namely the Bayou Bridge pipeline. Natives there, similar to DAPL, have faced harassment, intimidation, death threats, have been doxxed, and the state even tried to take Foytlin’s children from her. When I asked Laura Ryan, a resident of Chester County, if she’s had this problem her response oozed with privilege, “No, my husband’s a lawyer.”

Bibianna Dussling, a Navy veteran and resident of Middletown, said that she’s concerned for first responders’ lives. She also explained that before the ME fight, she felt “we need this [resource extraction and pipelines] for energy and we have to accept some risk.”

Until recently, though, the risk has routinely been placed on those in rural areas, Indigenous people on tribal land, and people of color in urban areas. While Dussling and Britton both expressed concern for others being affected by pipelines, they showed little in the way of accompliceship to the Native people who have suffered heavily for over a century by the fossil fuel industry.

While speaking with Dussling, she mentioned that there are pipeline workers right next to the Glenwood Elementary school grounds. She expressed concern that the workers aren’t screened even though they’re next to school. “I don’t think any of them was a pedophile, but any type of screening where they’re gonna be here at school property,” Dussling said. Meanwhile, these same workers have set up man camps near reservations and have been accused of kidnapping, raping, trafficking, and murdering Native girls and women at unprecedented rates. On some reservations, Native women are murdered at ten times the national average.

Are white, affluent children’s lives worth more than Native children?

As I listened to the stories of landowners in southeastern Pennsylvania I hoped that they would resoundingly come out against pipelines, fracking, and the fossil fuel industry. My hopes were often dashed. I rarely heard people take a stand against the fracking across their state, but rather take concern with only how the ME project is impacting them.

The cognitive dissonance was most deafening with Morgantown resident David Anspach. Anspach is a director of a wastewater treatment plant and very familiar with contaminated water. His well water was so contaminated that within two weeks of the drilling on his land he was “literally shitting blood.” He was repeatedly lied to and brushed aside by Sunoco and the state and municipal regulatory bodies and officials. He eventually was provided with a water buffalo, a drinking water storage unit, that wasn’t properly installed and required repairs to his house and eventually became contaminated. His life and that of his spouse, child, and pets were put in danger, not to mention the threat of an explosion due to another pipeline leak.

Listening to his story, I couldn’t think of a better example as to why we must stop fracking. I was stunned when Anspach said, “I don’t think I could necessarily say that I’m outright anti-pipeline for the sheer fact that I understand the progress of business, society, advancement … needs to happen through something.” He later went on to say that once construction is completed he’ll sell his house and leave the township.

The fossil fuel industry has called Pennsylvania an “easy take state,” according to local organizers. It’s going to take the residents, especially those who are the most privileged, standing up and fighting back through direct action that stops construction, and by ending their support of the oil and gas industry and the politicians in the industry’s pocket. If the land is to be saved from further harm, they will have to give up the safety of their cozy lives and put themselves on the front lines to not only stop construction, but also to stop the further fracking of this land altogether.

CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify how much time Ellen Gerhart spent in jail before being released on parole.