Farmer released from jail after confronting workers over mine discharge

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UNIONTOWN, Pa. -- A still-indignant 73-year-old cattle farmer walked out of the Fayette County Jail on Monday morning after serving a four-day contempt-of-court sentence for confronting natural gas pipeline company employees who he said were pumping acidic mine water onto his pasture for a second time.

Joe Bezjak, a retired school teacher and principal at Point Marion Junior High School who runs 200 head of Black Angus beef cattle on his 700-acre farm near New Geneva, said the jail guards and inmates treated him much better than the pipeline company, Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream Partners.

"The pipeline people are totally unethical in every aspect," Mr. Bezjak said just outside the jail and courthouse. "They try to be your friend when they want to get a lease, but after that they start taking advantage of you. I'm fed up, you can tell. It's been lie after lie after lie."

He said that after he signed a lease allowing the company to install a six-inch and a 16-inch line across his property, Williams workers came on to his property in April without notice, tore down his fences, allowed his bulls and heifers and calves to mix and spill onto a roadway, didn't fix the cattle enclosures as promised and polluted his pastures with acidic mine water.

Mr. Bezjak was sent to jail Friday by Fayette County Common Pleas Judge Nancy Vernon after he violated a September court order that he not have contact with employees of the company.

Judge Vernon issued the September restraining order after Mr. Bezjak said he caught workers pumping abandoned mine drainage out of the pipeline trench and onto his pasture earlier this year and confronted them while he was sitting on his quad, which has a .22-caliber rifle mounted on it. Mr. Bezjak said he never threatened anyone with the gun, but pipeline workers say he did.

"I got upset and was arguing with them," he said. "I was angry because I saw what I'd worked for my whole life being damaged by these people who lied to me. So I stopped them, and by 10 a.m. there were three state police troopers in my driveway and I was handcuffed."

"Williams' goal is always to have good working relationships with our landowners and other stakeholders," Julie Gentz, a Williams company spokeswoman, said in a statement released Monday afternoon. "This situation is a rare occurrence, but there have been a number of disagreements with this particular landowner that we have tried to resolve amicably."

In November, while he was spreading manure in his fields, he said, he saw the workers pumping mine water into his fields again, yelled at them to stop and get off his property and called the state Department of Environmental Protection to report the problem. He was subsequently ordered to appear Friday before the judge, who imposed the jail sentence.

After investigating Mr. Bezjak's complaint, the DEP issued a notice of violation to Williams two weeks ago for dumping acidic mine water pumped out of its pipeline construction area onto the pasture land.

Ms. Gentz's statement said the company has a permit that allows it to pump water out of its pipeline trench but was "unaware" that it contained "acid mine discharge."

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Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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