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Tension builds in Lancaster County as Atlantic Sunrise wins approval

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A sign opposing the construction of the Atlantic Sunrise gas pipeline is displayed at a home in Conestoga in southern Lancaster County.
A sign opposing the construction of the Atlantic Sunrise gas pipeline is displayed at a home in Conestoga in southern Lancaster County. - (Photo / )

An underground highway for natural gas is being routed through Lancaster County, and tensions are building as a future of bulldozers and steel looms.

Oklahoma-based Williams Partners LP plans to install a 186-mile natural gas pipeline, known as the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline, that will cross Lancaster and Lebanon counties. The $2.58 billion project will carry natural gas from the state’s Marcellus Shale fields to the existing Transco Pipeline, which shuttles gas between the Gulf Coast and the Eastern seaboard.

Above ground, however, is where the action is.

About 1,000 tracts of private land lay in the pipeline’s path, 32 of which are in Lancaster County.

Williams must secure agreements with landowners to obtain the land through eminent domain, which will give the company a permanent easement on their properties.

The easements will allow Williams to install and maintain an underground pipe. The landowner can grow grass or crops above the pipeline, but having sold their rights to the underground portions of their properties, they won’t be able to plant trees or dig foundations.

Some landowners are grateful for the compensation they will receive. Others say the pipeline is plowing through their future development plans.

Landowners unhappy with the pipeline project are fighting back, and they’re backed by environmentalists worried about water quality from drilling, and others who say demand for natural gas doesn’t justify the project.

Thousands of gas pipes are stored on the site of the former Alcoa plant in Lebanon.
Thousands of gas pipes are stored on the site of the former Alcoa plant in Lebanon. - ()

Yet business groups, such as the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry in Harrisburg, argue that the pipeline will lead to new jobs, cheaper energy and cleaner air.

In 2011, Pennsylvania became an exporter of gas for the first time in 100 years, producing more gas than it consumes, according to Kevin Sunday, director of government affairs for the chamber. That’s why a pipeline that can send gas to other places is critical, Sunday said.

Putting the pipeline in Lancaster is also critical, because that’s where Williams’ other pipeline, Transco, is located, according to Williams spokesman Christopher Stockton.

“Once we can get that gas into a pipeline through Lancaster, it can go two directions — south as far as Alabama, or north to New York,” Stockton said. “It’s going to be like adding an express lane to a city struggling with traffic congestion.”

Gas producers in Pennsylvania deliver 10 percent of the nation’s natural gas, including about one-third of gas consumed in the state, Stockton said.

Connecting the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline to the Transco pipeline will give existing markets for natural gas direct access to yet another gas line.

“It’s a game changer in a lot of ways,” Stockton said.

Construction to start late summer, early fall

The Atlantic Sunrise pipeline received approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, on Feb. 3, after almost three years of consideration.

Williams has 30 days to accept FERC’s certificate of approval and file a plan for complying with the agency’s conditions, such as environmental requirements and reporting, according to Stockton.

Williams still needs some local and state approvals. The FERC approval is a step forward. “But we’re not quite ready to put shovels in the ground,” Stockton said.

Pipeline construction in Lancaster County likely won’t start until late summer or early fall and will be complete in mid-2018.

The project is expected to create the equivalent of about 837 full-time jobs in Lancaster and generate $54 million in personal income, resulting in an economic impact of $75 million for the county, according to a Penn State study commissioned by Williams.

The jobs will be sustained for the duration of the project, Stockton said.

Other pipelines touch county

The Atlantic Sunrise pipeline is one of several pipelines that transport natural gas through Lancaster County, and to businesses based there.

A pipeline operated by TransCanada Corp., for example, runs near Shady Maple, a smorgasbord-style restaurant and farmer’s market in East Earl Township. Shady Maple did not have natural gas service, but it worked out a deal in 2012 with the pipeline company and its gas provider, UGI Utilities Inc., to tap into the existing pipeline, according to Glenn A. Weaver, Jr., CFO and COO for Shady Maple.

The project cost Shady Maple $1 million. The company has been paying UGI for the project over the past five years. Despite the additional payments, Shady Maple has saved about $120,000 a year since it started using natural gas instead of oil and propane for cooking, heading and water heating. Now that repayments have stopped, it expects the annual savings to jump to nearly $240,000, Weaver said.

Farmers, too, can benefit from using natural-gas crop dyers instead of propane equipment, saving them 33 percent when drying crops like tobacco and soybeans, Stark said

Even homeowners benefit since so many power plants use natural gas to make electricity, Stark said, explaining that the low cost of natural gas means that electric generators spend less on fuel, making electricity less expensive. The average homeowner saves about $2,000 a year on utility bills.

Another pipeline, the Mariner East 2 pipeline, recently received key permits from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. That 350-mile pipeline, a $2.5 billion project, will pass through the heart of the midstate including Cumberland County, as well as parts of York, Dauphin, Lebanon and Lancaster counties.

Pipeline projects also generate jobs indirectly, in industries such as engineering and manufacturing, Sunday said. He cited companies such as Manor Township-based Rettew Associates Inc., which does engineering work for pipelines, and Dura-Bond Protective Coatings in Steelton, which is a pipe supplier.

Sunday acknowledged that projects should be done responsibly, and with minimal environmental impact.

“It’s a $3 billion project,” Sunday said. “There’s not a lot of companies out there that are looking to invest that kind of money in the state.”

Protesting the pipeline

Pipeline opponents, including midstate groups such as Lancaster Against Pipelines, Concerned Citizens of Lebanon County and Lebanon Pipeline Awareness, have asked FERC to withdraw its approval of the pipeline. In a letter to FERC, seven organizations claimed that it “failed to properly evaluate the purpose and need for the Atlantic Sunrise Project.”

Built as a symbol of resistance to the Atlantic Sunrise project, a wooden structure dubbed “The Stand” sets on the proposed pipeline path across the southern Lancaster County property of Justin and Susan Cappiello, who refused to grant right-of-way to the pipeline builder.
Built as a symbol of resistance to the Atlantic Sunrise project, a wooden structure dubbed “The Stand” sets on the proposed pipeline path across the southern Lancaster County property of Justin and Susan Cappiello, who refused to grant right-of-way to the pipeline builder. - ()

But opponents are not just writing letters. Lancaster Against Pipelines estimated that more than 500 protesters have signed a pledge saying they’re willing to take action against the pipeline, which could include protesting at an encampment set up on a farm in Conestoga Township along the pipeline’s path, member Nick Martin said.

On Feb. 11 and 12 the group organized a training session for nonviolent protest. More than 100 people gathered at the site on Sunday as part of the training.

“Most people are just regular residents of Lancaster County that are upset about this,” Martin said.

Williams respects people’s right to protest, company spokesman Stockton said, adding that Williams will work closely with local law enforcement to make sure protesters are being safe and legal.

Protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which is slated to pass near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, have drawn national attention.

“For the most part, we’ve got a lot of support for the project,” Stockton said. “But there are pockets of folks who disagree with the project.”

Those pockets of folks ask why they have to bear the burden for a private company’s pipeline, and why Williams changed the pipeline route over the years so that it now runs through more private land than public. They’re worried about damage to local waterways and animal habitats. Some feel the money Williams is offering for easements is not enough.

Williams did change more than 50 percent of the original route but only to accommodate issues it discovered while gathering information from local landowners and agencies, such as the Lancaster County Conservancy, Stockton said. He acknowledged that the route change, although it fixed issues for some groups, “may have shifted impacts from one to another,” Stockton said.

Gary Erb, who owns 72 acres of land in Conestoga Township, was planning to build a house exactly where a pipeline will now fill the ground needed for the house’s foundation.

His farm, which is protected by the Lancaster Farmland Trust, came with one house on the property. Erb built another home on the property where he and his family live now. He is allowed to build a third house, as long as it is on a subdivided 10-acre tract of land, per the trust agreement. But now, due to the location of the other homes, the pipeline and power lines, Erb can’t build that new home.

“We are not allowed to take down trees or develop our land for our own profit, yet a pipeline company has more rights to it and has a right to destroy our trees for the pipeline installation and their ultimate profit,” Erb said.

Erb has three sons and was hoping they all could live on the land with their families for years to come.

He asked Williams to move the pipeline slightly so that it goes along the edge of his property, not where he wants to build the house. Williams denied his request because it would have placed the pipeline where it would impact other landowners who currently aren’t affected by the project, Stockton said.

The money Erb was offered, which he declined to reveal since it is still being negotiated, is based on the value of the property today, without considering future development, Erb said.

Williams is offering money to landowners based on assessments made by third-party appraisers. The appraisers are assessing the value of the easements, according to Stockton.

If a landowner and Williams cannot come to an agreement, the dispute could head to court and a judge would ultimately determine the fair value of the easement.

“We want to treat the landowners fairly. We will offer them, in many cases, three times the value of that appraisal,” Stockton said. “Certainly it’s their right to refuse that. If they feel that they’re not being treated fairly, they don’t have to accept that offer.”

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