Bags of cremated remains ordered removed from disputed Fayette gas land
By Timothy Puko
Published: Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Accidents can't stop drilling. Lawsuits can't stop drilling. Gun-toting landowners can't either.
Add human ashes to the list.
A Fayette County family tied bags holding the cremated remains of family members to fence posts on a disputed piece of gas land in Redstone this month, according to court filings and a county sheriff's deputy.
A subsidiary of oil giant Chevron took Charles and Fujiko Miller to court, where Common Pleas Judge Nancy D. Vernon ordered them to remove the bags by Aug. 11 so Chevron could access the land to drill.
Fujiko Miller placed the bags around the property to ward off evil spirits and said only workers at the site could remove them, Chief Deputy Michael Helms said Tuesday.
“Chevron didn't want to touch them because they didn't want to be disrespectful of her beliefs,” Helms said. “I felt basically it was a misunderstanding of the parties involved.”
He visited the cattle farm on Aug. 9 when Chevron officials called about their latest conflict in a yearlong case, he said. The company has a court order granting them access to the property.
They resolved the latest flare-up the next day, Helms said, although he could not say how.
The Millers could not be reached by phone or at their home. Their lawyer, John S. Cupp Jr. of Uniontown, and a lawyer for Chevron did not respond to requests for interviews.
A Chevron spokesman responded with an email saying that the company does not discuss ongoing legal issues.
The case has been in county court since 2011. The Millers do not own the gas under their property. Chevron, claiming an agreement with the families that do, got a court order on July 13, 2011, that prevents the Millers from doing anything to stop Chevron from accessing and drilling the land, according to Chevron's Aug. 10 court filings.
A fresh dirt path winds about a half mile off of Center Gas Road and onto the Millers' property. It cuts across a hillside field where, neighbors said, they grow feed for their cattle.
A tractor blocked the driveway heading past a shed, and there were no parked cars or lights showing anyone might be home.
There are dozens of similar farms and country homes in the middle of disputes over gas land access and drilling rights, something that has become common during the Marcellus boom across Pennsylvania.
Companies that own or hold a lease for the minerals underground have a legal right in the state to come onto the surface land to access those minerals and have to pay only for land disturbance, experts say.
That has led to conflicts and legal disputes, even the odd case of landowners brandishing weapons, but most cases get settled in court for a few thousand dollars.
“That is pretty bizarre,” Steve Saunders, a Scranton attorney who specializes in oil and gas law, said about the Miller dispute. “I've never heard of anything like that.”
Chevron agreed to pay the Millers $26,500 for land access and crop damage, and possibly $19,000 more if its work prevents a harvest this year, according to its court filings.
The company also claimed that the Millers told the company to pay them $1,000 per bag to have the ashes removed, court documents show. Helms said Charles Miller told him that his wife believed, possibly from her religion, that bad luck would come to them if they touched the bags again themselves.
Fujiko Miller is Asian, Helms said, adding that he didn't know from which country.
Ashes hold religious importance in some Asian cultures. Some people from the Japanese island of Okinawa use hearth ashes to prevent attack from ill-willed spirits, according to the authoritative 1966 book from anthropologist William P. Lebra, “Okinawan Religion.” Ashes from family members who died outside the home need to be sprinkled on the spot of their death to bring spirits to rest, he wrote.
Staff writer Liz Zemba contributed to this report. Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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