It’s not surprising that Lancaster County residents would be suffering from pipeline fatigue. The Sunoco Mariner II project is under construction, cutting a 125-foot-wide swath across 6.5 miles of northern Lancaster. Three years ago, the Rock Springs Pipeline was built through mostly farm fields in the southern part of the county before dropping down into Cecil County, MD.
So when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission held its first hearing in August 2014 on the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, Lancaster residents logged in 4.5 hours of testimony, mostly in opposition to it. Now, with the project getting federal approval and awaiting final permits from Pennsylvania, opponents vow to keep fighting, with their bodies if need be.
“We have pledges from 900 who will lay down in the path of the pipeline,” said Malinda Clatterbuck, leader of Lancaster Against Pipelines. Federal and state regulators may be required to seek public comment on projects like this, she said, “but it doesn’t weigh in on the decisions that they make. The laws are set up so that they don’t have to prove anything — in spite of the rights of people, communities and the environment.”
Opponents have already been arrested for trespassing when they blocked surveyors along the Conestoga Creek. They have only recently ended a monthlong encampment on an Amish farm, inspired by the long, contentious resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.
The Atlantic Sunrise project, a $3 billion expansion of the Transco transmission system, would move Marcellus Shale gas from Susquehanna County in the northeastern corner of the state to the Cove Point export terminal on the Chesapeake Bay and as far south as Alabama. Building the line would affect 3,700 acres of land and cross 388 streams, rivers and other water bodies, according to FERC, which approved the pipeline in February.
“We …are committed to utilizing construction best practices, which avoid or minimize impacts to wetlands, waterbodies and other sensitive environmental areas,” said Christopher Stockton a spokesman for The Williams Co. Inc., which is the leader of the energy consortium developing the pipeline. He added that the project “will create a crucial connection between Pennsylvania and consuming markets all along the East Coast. In the process, it will deliver economic growth, jobs and increased access to affordable, clean-burning energy.”
The only hurdles left before the bulldozers start cutting across nearly 200 miles in 10 counties are water-crossing and earth-moving permits needed from the state Department of Environmental Protection, as well as a sign-off from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
While opponents have dominated public meetings in the past, supporters turned out in force for a recent DEP permit hearing on the project. Three front rows were filled with pipe layers from West Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and other states. Opponents gathered in the back of the room, including farmers, doctors and teachers, unlikely activists in a conservative county.
Residents asked why the state isn’t protecting the environment. Some, frustrated by the regulatory process, taunted the DEP, asking why their counterparts in New York State refused to issue permits on another pipeline after an environmental review. Others questioned whether the cash– and staff-strapped department had enough resources to thoroughly review permits and stick to its mission of protecting air, land and water.
New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation has refused to approve two pipeline projects, stating they don’t meet state water quality standards.
Patrick McDonnell, Pennsylvania’s environmental protection secretary, rejected Lancaster residents’ criticism. He said his staff weighs how pipeline projects meet erosion, sediment control and water-crossing standards in each county it passes through.
“We are absolutely focused on our mission,” McDonnell said, responding later to residents’ criticism. “The way we do this is through the regulatory process. We are all focused on the same goal — how we get there is different.”
The public meeting in Lancaster was more like a political debate than a hearing, with comments for and against the project met by applause from each side.
“I’ve been doing this since 1998, and it wasn’t always like this,” said David Butterworth, a representative of Pipeliners Union Local 798. “Pipe building didn’t have a black eye. It’s a good job, with good pay and an honest way to make a living.”
This project, and the public, have changed over the years. The urban and suburban population has grown and with it, more development pressure on farm and open space. Meanwhile, millions of tax and private dollars have been poured into conservation efforts.
The Lancaster Farmland Trust, a private preservation organization, has conserved 475 farms totaling 29,000 acres in the county. The nonprofit land trust presented education sessions for landowners in the county to understand how the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline might affect their land. Karen Martynick, the trust’s executive director, said she thinks that Lancaster’s conservation success actually makes it a target for pipeline development.
“The appraised value is lower, as the development rights have been removed. If they condemn the land they can pay the landowner less,” she said.
Of the 3,700 acres of land being taken by agreement or eminent domain, about 1,700 are agricultural and the rest residential, forest, public and commercial, according to FERC documents. The pipeline will go through about 35 preserved farms in Lancaster County.
Martynick said she is frustrated that there seems to be no coordination in developing pipeline routes so they wouldn’t take so much land. The process by which companies can force landowners to sell easements — or take them by condemnation — alienates even those who are otherwise supportive of natural gas development, she said.
“To grant private companies the right of eminent domain is against everything our country stands for,” she said. “We value private property rights, and then we let private companies take land away.”
Daniel Forry has been fighting the pipeline for three years — his family has owned the 385-acre farm he works with his son’s family for 160 years. Even before preserving the farm, Forry and his ancestors cared about things like soil compaction, water quality and quantity, and leaving the land in better shape for the next generation.
Forry testified and wrote letters to state and federal agencies; he was frequently quoted in local newspaper articles on the controversy. He allowed Lancaster Against Pipelines to bring local officials and others to his farm to show where the high-pressure, 42-inch pipeline would be built within 800-feet of his family’s home, near his swine operation and over the natural springs on which he depends.
But Forry’s fight is over. He negotiated an agreement with Williams, after being served with court papers three times.
“Well, you can’t let it destroy you,” he explained, his voice flat and low. “We put some time and energy into the fight, but they’re not going to destroy us. It makes you more supportive of groups that are against it.”
Like Forry, many landowners eventually conclude they can’t afford to fight.
“It’s been hard to watch,” the land trust’s Martynick said. “They’re farmers; they want to be out on the land and doing what they do best. You can be vehemently opposed to the pipeline, but you have to deal with the eventuality that if you go through condemnation it takes away any chance of negotiating.”