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Twenty-three members of a local protest organization in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania — which helped a group of nuns build a small outdoor chapel atop the route of a proposed natural gas pipeline — were arrested Monday after they tried to halt the pipeline's construction.
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Since 2014, Lancaster Against Pipelines has been working to stop the natural gas-pumping Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, which would expand on Williams Partners' Transco pipeline system. But last weekend, they were told that construction would begin Monday, and they realized that they had exhausted all of their legal options.
"None of us want to get arrested," said Melinda Clutterbuck, a co-founder. "What we want to do is bring a just system to the world we live in and be part of bringing about systemic change. We are willing to get arrested if that's what it takes, because the system has given us no other option but to raise our voices."
Clutterbuck and her 16-year-old son, Ashton Clutterbuck, were arrested for the first time on Monday after they participated in an early-morning protest of nearly 150 people that concluded with 23 arrests in all.
The group planned to stage its protest on a farmer's field owned by elderly environmentalist nuns, known as the Adorers of the Blood of Christ. Williams' proposed pipeline runs straight through the sisters' land, a direct contradiction of their religious views.
The nuns are fighting a religious freedom lawsuit against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which approved the pipeline in February. Their hope for a temporary injunction until their suit concluded was denied on Friday.
The sisters did not participate in the protest, but they did hold a prayer vigil at the chapel on Tuesday, and a few watched the protest. They did not, however, condone the demonstration — for fear of potential liability issues.
Despite the Adorers' absence, there were still plenty of local protesters. Clutterbuck said that once Lancaster Against Pipelines was told that Williams planned to begin construction on Monday, group members felt that they had no other option but to put their bodies in the way — so they sent out a text message alert.
"We thought now was the time to activate, engage, motivate, to plan some actions around that space," said Clutterbuck, a lifelong resident. "To protect the chapel and protect the land."
The 23 Lancaster Against Pipelines protesters were released five to 24 hours after their arrests on Monday.
One demonstrator, Elam Zook, 59, a contractor, was taken to a hospital after he was arrested by West Hempfield police.
After complaining about extreme discomfort because his his hands were zip-tied behind his back for more than an hour, Zook began to hyperventilate and nearly passed out.
"I had to stand up to be searched, and I almost collapsed when the cuffs were released," Zook said. "They got me water, and I couldn't see people's faces anymore. I could hear them talking to me, but it took forever for me to respond."
Police eventually called an ambulance, which carried Zook to the hospital. He said an emergency medical technician at the scene told him that he may have suffered a panic attack.
"The cops were very unconcerned about it," Zook said. "They were laughing and joking about it."
The West Hempfield Police Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Back at the site, the construction crew began to dismantle part of the chapel on Tuesday. The colorful prayer ribbons visitors had tied to the rope fence lay scattered in the dirt alongside leftover corn stalks.
"We respect the rights of people to protest, but our focus remains on constructing this important, federally-approved infrastructure in a safe, efficient manner," Williams spokesman Chris Stockton said in a statement. "We will continue to coordinate with local, state and federal authorities to ensure protestors, construction personnel and our employees remain safe during the ongoing construction process."
Stockton emphasized Williams' claim that the nuns' land could still be used for agriculture once Williams completes its work.
Lancaster Against Pipelines and the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, meanwhile, maintain that the pipeline could have a massive environmental impact that extends beyond the border of the sisters' farmland.
The local convent, which owns the land, could not be reached for comment. But the General Administration of the Adorers in Rome shared a photo with Lancaster Against Pipelines that included a sign that said it stands with "all people who defend and protect God's creation ... especially now in Columbia, PA, USA."