Central Pennsylvania residents forced to move after land sold to make way for gas pipeline


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JERSEY SHORE, Pa. -- On hot days, twins Amanda and Chevelle Eck splashed in the Susquehanna River behind their trailer in the Riverdale Mobile Home Park.

Anytime their mother, Deb, worked late at her discount-store job, neighbors would meet the girls at the school bus stop and treat them to popsicles.

In less than five months, their community has all but disappeared as residents were evicted from the park to make way for major industrial development planned by the land's new owners. Some had to surrender their mobile homes in the process of moving.

"Basically, part of my family has been ripped away," Ms. Eck, 50, said in early June. "And I'm not giving up my home, too. I own my house. I bought that thing with sweat and I earned every damn penny I've put into that place. I just don't happen to own the ground it sits on."

Ms. Eck and her 10-year-old twins left Riverdale on July 7, towing their trailer to another mobile-home park.

PublicSourcelogo The Post-Gazette is a news partner of PUBLICSOURCE, a nonprofit investigative news group in Western Pennsylvania.
Learn more at publicsource.org

The few residents who remained were ordered to be out by 5 p.m. Thursday of last week, but at least one couple got a short extension because they still had nowhere to go.

The 12 acres Riverdale sits on are now owned by Aqua America and Penn Virginia Resource Partners. The partnership will use the parcel in a $50 million plan to build a water-pumping station and 36-mile pipeline able to carry millions of gallons of water daily from the Susquehanna to natural gas wells.

This small park that once held 32 trailers, home to an oft-ignored and marginalized population, has become yet another flash point in the national debate over the impact of natural gas drilling and the industry's methods.

Some say it is the first example of outright evictions because of Marcellus Shale operations in the drilling hotbed of Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia.

Riverdale provided affordable homes to a cluster of working-poor families and the elderly of Jersey Shore, a borough of 4,300 people between Lock Haven and Williamsport.

Most residents owned their mobile homes and paid $200 a month to lease the land. The majority had neither the desire nor the means to leave. No one bothered to ask them, they said.

The Lycoming County Planning Commission approved site plans Feb. 16.

Land owners Richard and Joanne Leonard sold the parcel to the partnership for $550,000 on Feb. 23, according to assessment records. The trailer-park's manager declined to comment for this story.

Aqua America initially offered residents a $2,500 incentive if they moved by April 1. The deal dropped to $1,500 if they packed up by May 1.

Donna Alston, Aqua America's spokeswoman, said company officials later realized the Riverdale tenants were not given adequate notice of eviction.

"As things became clear to us, ... we extended the period of time to move," she said.

The company hired a real estate agent to assist in relocations and offered $2,500 to all who moved by June 1. When some residents still did not leave, the company offered more money and more time. The deal became official June 22, and the terms are confidential.

Blake and Gerlinde Trimble said they could not find a new living situation by last week's deadline.

"It's just hectic and awful," said Ms. Trimble, 52, who was given a short extension by the company to stay in the trailer court. "We're trying to buy a trailer, and I don't even know what it looks like inside."

When contacted Friday, the Trimbles said they expected to leave Riverdale that evening.

Riverdale residents said rents were higher at other mobile-home parks and quotes they obtained showed it cost $5,000 to $10,000 to move a trailer.

But fears about money, arrest and even homelessness picked off most of them one by one.

Those who left dispersed to other trailer courts, senior housing or extra rooms in the homes of family and friends. The lucky ones were able to move their trailers, but others couldn't do that because the trailers were too old and heavy or would not be accepted elsewhere.

Several residents came back to gut their deserted homes for scrap. They stripped siding, appliances, carpeting and windows.

Eric Daniels, 43, had counted himself lucky when he got a $17-an-hour job driving a truck that hauls water to natural gas wells. The Riverdale resident's view shifted after he tore apart his Riverdale home and realized the new pipeline could threaten his job. More than 2,000 water truck trips had been eliminated by the pipeline as of April, the company reported.

"This is not the way you do business," he said. "Now I feel like an absolute refugee."

In May, calls to save the mobile-home park had ballooned into a protest that united its blue-collar residents with people more accustomed to defying the establishment.

Activists came from various states where drilling is taking place, and Riverdale became an intersection of causes.

"This is where environment meets social justice," said Wendy Lynne Lee, a Bloomsburg University philosophy professor who joined other activists at a 12-day Riverdale encampment, part of a broader "Occupy Well Street" movement.

Private security guards, followed by 20 state police officers, shooed away activists and ushered in construction equipment June 12.

The Philadelphia-area companies have completed 18 miles of pipeline and plan to extend the pipeline another 18 miles to provide water to more natural gas producers.

The pump station on the Susquehanna is allowed, per approval by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, to withdraw up to 3 million gallons daily -- a water volume equivalent to five Olympic-size swimming pools.

Crews have demolished abandoned trailers and the ground has been torn up as work on the pipeline and pump station continues.

Ms. Trimble thinks they are the last of the residents, but she's not certain.

"Everybody's in a rush to get their situation taken care of," she said.

marcellusshale

Halle Stockton: 412-315-0263 or hstockton@publicsource.org. The Post-Gazette is a news partner of PublicSource, a nonprofit investigative news group in Western Pennsylvania. Learn more at publicsource.org First Published July 15, 2012 4:00 AM


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