Fayette farmer defends face-off with gas crews in field
A Fayette County farmer who spent four days in jail for contempt of court said he was trying to protect the environment from acidic wastewater when he disobeyed a judge's order and confronted a crew that was laying gas pipeline on his property.
“They punish you for doing something that is right,” said Joseph Bezjak, 73, shortly after his release from the Fayette County jail on Monday morning. “I would have waited two weeks to go to court, but it was something that needed immediate attention.”
Judge Nancy Vernon on Friday ordered Bezjak to spend four days in jail after finding him in contempt for violating a court order in which she forbade him from interfering with workers from Moon-based Laurel Mountain Midstream Operating.
Bezjak said Laurel Mountain, a pipeline company operated by Oklahoma-based Williams Cos., began in April to install a 16-inch underground gas pipeline on his Nicholson Township farm.
Bezjak, a retired junior high school principal who raises black Angus cattle, said he confronted workers in May, when they allegedly destroyed fencing and his cattle escaped. He said earlier reports that a rifle was involved were exaggerated. Court records indicate the rifle was mounted on a quad during the confrontation.
Vernon ordered the company to install new fencing in May, and she issued an injunction forbidding Bezjak from interfering with the crew.
Bezjak on Monday said that the fencing was inadequate and he lost two calves and a cow when the animals, apparently disoriented during the trench construction, could not find their way back to the barn.
He said he discovered another problem on Nov. 9, when he was spreading manure near the site and noticed workers pumping what appeared to be wastewater from their trench into his pasture.
“I see waste coming down on my land, down a hillside, and I could see big, black spots, from a 3- to 4-inch pipe, with a pump,” Bezjak said, noting that he told the workers to stop because he feared for the safety of his cattle. A photograph that Bezjak said was taken that day depicts an area of blackened grass that originates near the pipeline and travels down a hillside to an unnamed creek.
A Williams spokesman, Scott Carney, said in a prepared statement that Bezjak's land has a “legacy” of acid-mine drainage from surface-mining operations. He said Laurel Mountain had a permit for its project from the state Department of Environmental Protection and was unaware that water it discharged from the trench was contaminated.
Bezjak said he went back to the site on Nov. 28 and confronted the workers a second time when he saw them using a backhoe to pile dirt on puddles of contaminated water, sending the water into his pasture.
“I told them to stop and leave, and they did,” Bezjak said. “Then, I get a summons in the mail for a hearing on Friday.”
Laurel Mountain's attorney, Richard Bower of Connellsville, declined comment. Court records indicate he asked for the hearing to have Bezjak held in contempt of court. Bower argued that the Nov. 28 confrontation between Bezjak and the workers violated Vernon's order.
Bezjak said he was given little opportunity to explain himself in court before he was found in contempt and taken to jail in handcuffs. His attorney, Melinda Dellarose of Uniontown, could not be reached for comment.
Bezjak said he confronted the crew because he believed the water was acid-mine drainage that escaped from an old terra-cotta pipe that was broken during installation of the gas pipeline. But DEP inspectors found no evidence of a broken terra-cotta line, according to spokesman John Poister.
Poister said the water was acidic and likely was inside the line that was being installed.
“We don't know if it was acid mine drainage,” Poister said, noting the area has a history of acid-mine drainage problems predating the gas-line installation. “It doesn't appear to have come out of anything except Williams' line.”
Poister said Williams was issued a notice of violation and agreed to remediate the area of the discharge. The discharge of acidic water is not expected to result in long-term damage to Bezjak's land, Poister said.
Poister said DEP inspectors found no problems when they visited the site as recently as Friday.
Carney said Williams has made a number of attempts to work with Bezjak to resolve concerns over the pipeline, including the allegations of acidic-wastewater discharge.
“Williams' goal is always to have good working relationships with our landowners and other stakeholders,” Carney said. “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.”
The violation notice is the third one issued to the company since June in connection with the Bezjak site, according to DEP's website. Other violations, issued in June and August, were for discharging pollutants into waterways and failing to properly store or dispose of residual waste, according to the website.
Laurel Mountain's line is next to an existing gas pipeline installed on a 50-foot right of way on land owned by Bezjak Land Management Co. Bezjak could not recall how much Laurel Mountain paid for the right of way, but court records indicate it was at least $9,900.
Carney said Williams will continue to attempt to work with Bezjak to address his concerns.
“We hope a way can be found to resolve this issue amicably,” Carney said in the statement. “Williams very much appreciates being part of the communities in southwestern Pennsylvania and we look forward to living and operating in this area for many years.”
Liz Zemba is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or firstname.lastname@example.org.