Guns flash in Fayette landowners' dispute with pipeline company
Many landowners upset with the natural gas industry hire lawyers. David Headley instead grabbed a shotgun from his living room.
Headley, 53, of Springhill in Fayette County, did not fire on anyone the day he carried the weapon outside to talk to workers, but his confrontation with pipeline company workers has drawn attention. It brought Pennsylvania State Police and the courts down on him and attracted activists, researchers and journalists from across the country to his home.
“It's been a whirlwind for us,” said Headley, a soft-spoken, white-haired man. “It's totally out of control. This was just a minor conflict over a minor amount of money ... that basically started a war, it seems.”
Headley's story is a case study of how bad things can get when landowners butt heads with companies intent on tapping the region's newfound gas bounty.
International corporations are foraging for billions of dollars' worth of gas from deep underground in remote parts of Appalachia, creating a culture clash that's often rife with miscommunication and legal entanglements, said author Seamus McGraw, who has heard several stories about landowners brandishing guns at drill sites.
“It happens. It's not terribly common. It is almost always counterproductive,” said McGraw, who wrote “The End of Country” about early Marcellus shale development.
To deal with gas companies, he said, “you've got to speak to them in their language. The business end of a hunting rifle is not their language. You're going to end up having to hire a lawyer anyway ... so go to the lawyer first.”
Path of conflict
The Headley conflict hinges on the path pipeline company Laurel Mountain Midstream cut through the family's property. In retrospect, Headley said, if he had received more money when the company wanted to move its right of way, things might not be bad today.
Headley, his wife, Linda, and their sons, ages 16 and 4, live about five miles north of the West Virginia border. They bought the 115-acre property seven years ago, intending to live there in semi-retirement. They own three horses and a blue tick coonhound named Banjo. The property gradually slopes through woods from a meadow around the home to a grassy, shaded floodplain along Georges Creek where they often camp for fun.
Headley signed a $68,000 deal in August 2010 — and later an $11,000 addendum — with Laurel Mountain, a pipeline company operated by Oklahoma-based Williams Cos. Inc. Both sides agree they once got along well but dispute virtually every other facet of the feud and how it has escalated during the past two months.
The relationship soured over the right of way: The family claims the company decided to move it twice; Williams officials claim it happened once, at Headley's request.
Headley said he tried to stop work on May 21 by calling police. He claims the company temporarily stopped at his request but restarted that day and sent an armed security guard twice that evening. The next day he took the old shotgun — a living room decoration, he said — and held it loosely against his shoulder as he talked to a project supervisor sitting in a pickup.
“I just wanted to patrol my property, to make sure they didn't cause me any harm that day,” Headley said. “Their security that came out the night before was armed, so I didn't know what kind of trouble there was going to be the next morning.”
A subcontractor, STI Group, hired the security, said Helen Humphreys, regional spokeswoman for Williams. She did not know whether the guard was armed, and an STI official did not return messages seeking comment.
“If you were surrounded by trees or surrounded by buildings, it shouldn't matter: It's always unacceptable to pull a gun on people,” Humphreys said. “If you had people walking into a bank with a gun because they were frustrated, nobody would find that acceptable.”
Headley said the gun was not loaded. Company officials said workers could not know that, so they called state troopers.
The company sought a court order the next day, submitting a photo of Headley with the gun. After a hearing, he signed a restraining order, agreeing to stay 50 feet away from the company's right of way until crews finish the project. When that might occur is undetermined.
Humphreys said the gun convinced Williams officials that they needed court intervention to ensure workers' safety.
“That's the type of threat that Williams — and any responsible company — takes very seriously,” she said.
Leak interrupts work
About a week after the court ruling, work stopped anyway. State environmental inspectors halted it indefinitely.
Drilling fluid had seeped into the creek, a tributary of the Monongahela River, as workers bored beneath for the pipeline. The Department of Environmental Protection cited the company for clouding the stream. The company estimated 300 to 1,000 gallons of bentonite, a clay that can smother aquatic life, seeped into the streambed, according to the state's inspection report.
Bentonite leaks are common at pipeline stream crossings. A DEP supervisor characterized the case as a “relatively small release with a minor environmental impact,” said John Poister, the agency's spokesman in Pittsburgh.
Williams officials said the problem often is unavoidable in Pennsylvania's wet, hilly terrain full of abandoned coal mines. The Headleys think it's indicative of a rough-around-the-edges pattern of work by the gas industry.
Headley told state agents who inspected the bentonite spill about other problems with two shallow gas wells on his land operated by Findlay-based Atlas Energy LP. Inspectors verified that a corroded tank was leaking brine and oil-like byproducts from one well, and that bubbles arose around another wellhead in a spring above the creek.
The DEP cited Atlas for the leaky tank and is investigating whether there's a second leak. Atlas removed the tank but left behind a connecting pipe that drips, staining the gravel below to a rust color, the Tribune-Review found on a recent visit. The other wellhead still bubbles.
The spring bubbles, and the Headleys can light it on fire. They claim the bubbling started — and their horses stopped drinking from the spring — after Atlas tapped its only deep well for shale gas on the property in 2009 and 2010. The family did not connect those factors until watching the environmental activist-produced documentary “Gasland” in May.
Coalbed methane often seeps to the surface in old mining areas such as Fayette County, according to the DEP. Supervisors will visit the Headley site soon to try to determine what's causing the problems, Poister said.
“Remediation of the site is ongoing, and we intend to work diligently until this matter is resolved,” said Brian Begley, Atlas' Philadelphia-based spokesman.
One DEP inspector assigned to Fayette County declined to comment on the entirety of issues related to the Headleys' property. The other inspector was on vacation.
The situation worries Veronica Coptis, a community organizer who visited the site for the Saltlick-based Mountain Watershed Association.
“I think it's a huge concern for the health of the stream and downstream,” said Coptis.
She and others who visited found Laurel Mountain's system to control sediment had failed. They also found signs of aluminum in a nearby tributary.
The DEP is investigating whether that's a recent discharge or related to old, widespread mine drainage in the region, Poister said. It's not uncommon for long-standing problems to become visible when a stream's water level is low, he said.
Drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people comes from the Monongahela, Coptis noted. “If we continue to act carelessly with our headwater streams, we're going to keep risking public health effects.”
Researchers from Yale University tested water on the Headleys' property, he said, and since environmental activists from Western Pennsylvania started telling his story, others from Philadelphia, Illinois and even Africa have visited.
These days Headley regrets signing the lease with Laurel Mountain, or at least not hiring a lawyer first.
Other landowners similarly complain that companies made verbal promises that were not written into contracts. Many wish after the fact that they had signed something different, Humphreys said.
Headley is considering a lawsuit.
“I guess when we stood up and decided to fight, we had no idea the machine was this big,” Headley said. “We feel like there's no turning back at this point.”
Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.