The Morgan County Courthouse in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia was packed this morning with more than 45 opponents of the IGS Mountaineer Gas pipeline.
They were there to urge Morgan County Commissioners Bob Ford, Joel Tuttle and Ken Reed – all proponents of the pipeline — to reverse their position and come out against the pipeline.
First up was Morgan County farmer and landowner Patricia Kesecker. IGS Mountaineer Gas has sued the Keseckers under eminent domain in an effort to cut through the middle of their farm.
Last month, Morgan County Circuit Court Judge Laura Faircloth rubber stamped the gas pipeline company’s request to take the Kesecker farm for their pipeline.
“We felt like we were being led like sheep to slaughter,” Kesecker told the Commissioners this morning. “It was very disturbing what we were going through that morning. She not only robbed us, she robbed our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of all the work and blood, sweat and tears that we put on this farm.”
“At this time our family has decided on the advice of our attorney that an appeal of Judge Faircloth’s decision would most likely not be productive,” the family said in a statement read by Patricia Kesecker to the Commission. “Unfortunately, over the last several decades, we the people of West Virginia have put politicians into local, state and federal government that do not support our rights as independent landowners. Instead, they represent the corporations that want to damage and take our family farms and livelihoods. Our elected officials in Morgan County alone haven’t held or attended public meetings about the project. Instead, they told our family to just go ahead and sign and try to get a good deal. They even wanted us to go behind closed doors to work out something.”
“At the federal level, our own Senator Joe Manchin this past September was talking with local business leaders about the Mountaineer Gas project. He told the group that ‘If the state becomes involved, it’s a public project with eminent domain and you can move on it when you need to.’ In the same speech, he warned local landowners who may not want ‘the inconvenience of a pipeline’ on their property that ‘you all are going to get pushback.’”
“It’s definitely time to change the eminent domain culture that is alive and well in West Virginia,” Kesecker said.
Kesecker said that Bob Ford called her to set up a meeting with Mountaineer Gas to discuss terms of an agreement between the Keseckers and the company. Kesecker said that Bob Ford insisted that no reporters be present at the meeting.
Ford admitted that he told Kesecker that there would be no reporters allowed at the meeting between the Keseckers and the pipeline company.
“These kind of spectacles don’t accomplish anything,” Ford said. “I know that the people in the room think it does. But it doesn’t matter. I wanted you to get the best deal. That could be done through a contract. I would not invite the media. These spectacles don’t accomplish anything. All it does is drive the cost of the project higher and higher and gives them less money to negotiate the contracts.”
Pointing to the room full of opponents of the pipeline, Ford said – “these people aren’t going to tell you that.”
“These people live in a fantasyland,” Ford said.
Upper Potomac Riverkeeper Brent Walls pointed out to Ford that it was the “spectacle” and “fantasyland” of people showing up at meeting after meeting throughout Maryland that pressured the Republican Governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, to sign a bill banning fracking in Maryland. Walls said that a similar campaign is now being built to pressure Hogan to block the TransCanada pipeline.
Morgan County land owner Shari Kerns-Smith reminded the Commissioners that they supported the pipeline in a letter to the West Virginia Public Service Commission more than a year ago – before the public had information about the pipeline.
Kerns-Smith wrote her own letter to the Public Service Commission in opposition to the pipeline.
Kerns-Smith said that Mountaineer Gas provided inaccurate maps, didn’t listen when corrected about property lines and ownership, they provided inconsistent information on a planned route, on the dates that they would be on the property, on the size of line, on the construction zone and size, on the liability of the landowners, and on the future negotiating of large equipment across the easement.
“They gave a dollar figure for easement and damages to my husband and I — stating they were ‘locked in on it,’” Kerns-Smith said. “Several months later the company denied that amount. The amount was down to the 38 cents. But they said they never made that offer. Apparently we were lying and just making it up. They stated that once they got the easement, which they said there was no doubt they would get, no doubt about that, they could ‘repair, alter, up size or replace’ the lines as they desired with no negotiations with the landowner. They said they could also change the line from a distribution line to ‘pump, transport, whatever’ and that they could run ‘chocolate milk, fiber optics, or oil’ through the easement if they wanted to. They could also lay other lines besides the initial line. They could take the old line out or they could offset the other line and decommission it.”
Kerns-Smith said that months after those comments were made, the company said they didn’t remember those comments, but they did reiterate they could run any kind of petroleum products through the line.
“They advised my husband and I that this is a ‘public project for the public good,’” Kerns-Smith said. “They schooled us on the fact that there are no family values, there is no sentimental value – value is only in the dollars.”
“They told us they have a right to eminent domain but would rather ‘work with’ us,” Kerns-Smith said. “They advised us not to seek legal counsel because they would then not work with us.”
“They insisted that a gas line through our property will benefit us and increase our property value. They argued with us when we said otherwise. But they did come back and admit that I would never have gas in my home, that it would not be feasible and it would not be an option.”
“This is just a sample of my personal experience and why I am in protest of this case,” Kerns-Smith said. “I feel that the company was trying to sneak into our area and use questionably ethical tactics to take advantage of property owners – some who have preserved farmland – their family farms – for generations. If I already in October 2016 do not trust the integrity of this company, I cannot trust the future aspects of the project either.”
“Mountaineer Gas made it very clear to me that if they are not on my property, then what they are doing is none of my business,” Kerns-Smith said. “Currently, they are not on my property. They didn’t use eminent domain to come through our property. They went around me. The land agent told me that they are a small company and they don’t have much money. They couldn’t afford to go around me. But they are currently going around me. I no longer get information about the pipeline from the company because it’s ‘none of my business.’”
Kerns-Smith said that the company did not disclose that they had additional ground on our property mapped for “ATWS.”
“The WS stands for ‘work site’ and that they planned to keep equipment and supplies in a large field on our property — no compensation for this was included on their offer,” Kerns-Smith said.
Walls, the Upper Potomac Riverkeeper, warned of the risks of TransCanada’s plans to dig a pipeline under the Potomac River just west of Hancock, Maryland and said that there is a growing regional and national movement to stop that project.
The TransCanada pipeline would feed fracked gas from Pennsylvania into the Mountaineer Gas pipeline that would cut through Morgan County. Walls called on the Commission to join in the regional movement against the pipeline.
David Lillard of West Virginia Rivers Coalition told the Commission that “pipeline construction has potential to have significant impacts on nearby water bodies due to failing sediment and erosion controls, inadvertent returns of drill mud when performing underground borings, and failure to contain accidental spills in karst terrain.”
“We hope you will consider these potential impacts and seek further information,” Lillard said. “Ask yourselves – if the famed Berkeley Springs are damaged, and the local economy damaged, will a modest fine imposed on a company bring you satisfaction?”