(This February 19 story is corrected to fix pipeline name to Constitution Pipeline in paragraph three)
By David DeKok
SCRANTON, Pa. (Reuters) - A federal judge ruled on Friday that a Pennsylvania family that runs a maple syrup business cannot stop most of their trees from being cut down to make way for a shale gas pipeline, but he stopped short of charging them with contempt of court.
Judge Malachy Mannion of the U.S. District Court in Scranton said his previous order allowing the tree-cutting could not be challenged in court.
But he said lawyers for the company building the Constitution Pipeline failed to prove the five defendants who own the property were guilty of obstructing the tree cutting.
“But I’m going to direct that U.S. Marshals are empowered to arrest or detain anyone who obstructs the felling of trees,” he said. “Then they will be brought before me for a contempt hearing.”
Monty Morgan, a former Ohio state trooper who is regional security director for Constitution Pipeline Co, was unable to identify any of the defendants as those who have blocked workers from cutting the maples this month.
The $875 million Constitution Pipeline, due to be operational this autumn, would run 124 miles (200 km) from Montrose, Pennsylvania, to Albany, New York. It would bring gas from fracking wells to the New York and New England markets.
“I think this is the most realistic outcome we could have expected,” said Megan Holleran, spokeswoman for North Harford Maple, a family-run syrup business in New Milford. “We never intended to disobey the judge’s order.”
She said peaceful protests would continue and became emotional about the impending loss of the maple trees. But she said family members will stay outside an exclusion zone set by the judge, and would not encourage others to stop the cutting.
Her mother, Catherine Holleran, is one of the defendants. Three others — Michael W. Zeffer, Maryann Zeffer, and Patricia Glover — are aunts or uncles. Dustin Webster, the fifth defendant, is a cousin. The family has owned the land since moving from Long Island in the early 1950s.
The 120-foot (37-m) wide pipeline right-of-way would force the felling of up to 200 maples, or about 80 percent of the family’s sugaring trees.
The company and the family have made no agreement regarding compensation for the land, which was transferred by an “eminent domain” court order declaring the pipeline in the public interest.
Michael Archie, a spokesman for Williams Companies Inc, which along with Cabot Oil & Gas Corp and several other partners will own the pipeline, said tree cutting could start as soon as the coming week.
Editing by Frank McGurty and Lisa Shumaker