Since 2014, Jacqueline Evans has been at war. After discovering that her organic farm in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, fell along the route of the proposed PennEast Pipeline, the artist and single mom threw herself into a battle many told her she would lose.
“It put a fire into my belly,” Evans says. “I was just like, ‘No, no, no. They’re not going to do this to us.’”
If built, the 116-mile long natural gas pipeline would run from Luzerne County, Pennsylvania to Mercer County, New Jersey, carving a path through the Delaware River and roughly 4,200 acres of preserved farmland and open space. Evans’ property is located in the pipeline’s incineration zone, making a potential explosion — like the 1996 natural gas fire in Edison, New Jersey — a huge risk.
Like hundreds of other affected homeowners, Evans has refused to allow developers to enter her property to complete the land assessments necessary to obtain permits and begin construction. But she didn’t stop there. Evans has also created anti-PennEast banners to hang on hay wagons throughout the area; co-founded a local coalition called Homeowners Against Land Taking; and has testified against the pipeline in state and federal court.
Still, PennEast’s developers have reasserted their intention to build the $1.2 billion project. The company is waiting for word on whether the United States Supreme Court will hear a case that will decide whether PennEast can use eminent domain to seize both public and private properties like Evans’.
But Evans isn’t discouraged. In fact, she has more hope now than ever, thanks to recent headline-making court decisions that dealt blows to pipelines around the country. In July, activist pressure led to the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline and stalled the Keystone XL Pipeline.
And locally, a mishap during construction of the New Jersey Natural Gas’s Southern Reliability Link (SRL) pipeline caused significant foundational damage to a house in Monmouth County and leaked sludge into a nearby stream. That has led to an indefinite halt on drilling, and could provide legal leverage in an ongoing lawsuit to overturn approval of the project by multiple local agencies.
“Every victory helps everybody else who is going through this,” Evans says. “We celebrate together. It’s great to see justice in the world.”
According to Jeff Tittel, Director of New Jersey Sierra Club, this year has presented both unexpected challenges and opportunities for climate change activists and homeowners like Evans as they fight against PennEast and other major projects across the state.
The New Jersey chapter of the national environmental organization has made it its mission to put a moratorium on all fossil fuel infrastructure in New Jersey, in order to limit the carbon emissions that are warming the planet and presenting considerable risks for the state. A recent report by the state Department of Environmental Protection shows that New Jersey will be hit particularly hard by climate change, thanks to flooding, declines in crop yield, species endangerment, and more.
Due to coronavirus, the New Jersey Sierra Club has been unable to galvanize activists through the in-person organizing it has long relied on — aside from a few socially distanced protests, including one in which participants parked along the route of the SRL pipeline and held up signs from inside their cars.
Instead, the organization has held virtual rallies and offered resources to help concerned citizens contact their elected officials about local fossil fuel projects. The organization has also encouraged its network to testify against proposed projects — from a liquified natural gas terminal in Gibbstown to New Jersey Transit’s gas-fired power plant in the Meadowlands — at hearings over Zoom.
Tittel says this new form of activism has its pros and cons. On the one hand, people who may have been otherwise unable to travel to hearings and early morning board meetings can now simply tune in and testify from their living rooms.
“Usually when we go to a New Jersey Transit meeting in the morning, we get eight to 10 people to testify,” Tittel says. “This time, we had 75 people sign up to testify. And even more showed up to listen.”
Still, these virtual and distanced actions lack the face-to-face connections that, to Tittel, are an essential part of movement building.
“Nothing beats the energy you get when people are in a room together, when you get the applause, when you get the reaction in real time from the officials that you’re challenging,” he says. “And when we were out canvassing door-to-door against PennEast six years ago, people would say, ‘Well, you really can’t stop the pipeline.’ We could explain to them directly how you can. It’s tougher to do that in the chat room. Eye contact is important.”
Tom Gilbert is the campaign director for ReThink Energy NJ and New Jersey Conservation Foundation, two other statewide environmental organizations active in the fight against pipelines. He agrees that the pandemic has presented logistical challenges. But he’s also noticed it has brought a shift in public perspective, one that might be propelling the climate movement forward rather than holding it back.
“People are starting to draw parallels to the climate crisis being similar in some respects to COVID-19, in that it’s global in nature, it has far reaching implications for our health, for our economy,” Gilbert says. “And it requires a massive mobilization effort and transformation of how we do things.”
Further, the Black Lives Matter movement has increasingly called attention to environmental racism — of which fossil fuel projects serve as a prime example. Power plants, in particular, are often built near minority-majority communities, making them more at-risk than white communities to be exposed to air pollution, water contamination and explosions.
“There’s the pandemic of racism, the pandemic of coronavirus, and the pandemic of climate change that are all linked,” Tittel says. “I see a chance to make those historic changes that only come around once in a generation. And so even though it’s always a tough struggle, that’s why I’m hopeful.”
Like Evans, part of Tittel’s hope comes from the July’s anti-pipeline victories. He says that other Sierra Club chapters were involved in all three of those national battles, and they all used a strategy similar to the one Tittel has been utilizing for PennEast: Throw up all available legal challenges in order to stall construction for as long as possible. And clearly, according to Tittel, the strategy works.
“So many times we’re told, ‘You can’t stop a pipeline. They have federal rules on their side, they’ve got the state utility laws on their side, they’re powerful, the government’s in their pocket,’” Tittel says. “It just shows that sometimes when it’s David versus Goliath, David can win.”
For Evans, the past six years have been miserable. She says employees for PennEast have trespassed onto her property, sent intimidating calls, and flew aerial surveying crafts over the area for seven months at a time. The ordeal has given her severe health problems and forced her to move and rent out her farmhouse.
But there are silver linings. The fight against PennEast has inspired a passion for justice and activism in her children — and brought her closer to her neighbors.
“I live in a small town and I thought I knew everyone. But when this happened, I met so many other people that I never even knew existed in my town, and they became some of my best friends,” Evans says. “I’ve gotten to see the strength of my community. I’m so proud of everyone that’s been part of this, and how far we’ve come.”
This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory and the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting project.
Brianna is an independent journalist based in Philadelphia. Her work focuses on solutions to pressing social and environmental issues, from food insecurity to climate change, with an emphasis on the human stories behind them. You can find her bylines in The Philadelphia Citizen, Green Philly, CityWide Stories and more.