A retired special education teacher protesting a pipeline project in Huntingdon County was sentenced to up to six months in the Centre County Correctional Facility and a $2,000 fine on Friday, according to her attorney Rich Raiders.
Ellen Gerhart, 63, was convicted of indirect criminal contempt by Huntingdon County President Judge George Zanic one week after she was arrested. Zanic ruled that Gerhart’s protesting of Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 Pipeline project violated his order telling her not to interfere.
“Everything she has done in the last three years has been to protest the pipeline,” Raiders said. “She doesn’t want her property scarred by a three-acre swath of destruction, which I guess has now happened.”
Sunoco accused Gerhart of luring mountain lions and bears to her property as a protest, according to DeSmogBlog.
The proceedings stem from a 2015 declaration of taking that Sunoco filed against Gerhart and her family. The action gave Sunoco three acres of land to complete the project, according to Raiders.
“They were protesting the work that was done in a manner at, or in the vicinity of — which is how Zanic wrote the injunction — that, in the judge’s mind, materially interfered with the work,” Raiders said. “What the judge ruled is that, in his mind, she did contempt his order.”
Activists from across the nation were petitioning Zanic to free Gerhart, ultimately to no avail.
“We, the undersigned, are appealing to you to free Ellen Gerhart, a retired Pennsylvania special education teacher, from the Centre County Correctional Facility. Energy Transfer Partners’ claims about her are outlandish and unprovable,” a MoveOn petition with at least 2,581 signatures said.
A GoFundMe page has also been organized to help pay Gerhart’s legal expenses.
Gerhart is currently being detained at CCCF because the Huntingdon County Correctional Facility does not incarcerate women. She placed herself on a hunger strike and is being kept in solitary confinement, which is standard operating procedure for those undergoing a hunger strike.
“When this first came up in a prior hearing that we had in chambers, the judge was very interested in protecting his order and he was very much in the lines of, ‘I have to protect the integrity of my office and my ability to issue orders.’ That’s a judge thing and it’s a very common judge thing because judges don’t like to see their authority flouted,” Raider said. “I think that’s the way he looked at it. ‘I gave an order, I expect you to follow it. You didn’t follow my order so this is what I’m gonna do.’ That’s where I see his logic.”
Raiders also said he believes Zanic’s ruling was “harsh” and was not surprised by the decision.
“The judge read a sentencing condition colloquy from his laptop. We kinda knew that was coming the second he started reading off his laptop,” Raiders said. “There wasn’t much we were gonna do.”
Raiders also said he spoke with Gerhart briefly and was under the impression that she believed the sentence was harsh as well.
“It was unnecessary to go through this level of procedure. Speaking for myself and my impressions, I don’t think this woman would do anything to harm anybody. I don’t see it in her character. I don’t see it in her nature,” Raiders said. “I don’t think she was interested in causing any harm. I think the whole thing stems from her trying to resist the pipeline in any way she could.”
A public relations specialist for Energy Transfer Partners — who partners with Sunoco Pipeline — did not respond to request for comment.