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Anti-pipeline efforts shift as construction concludes

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Workers for Williams Partners are in the finishing stages of pipeline construction at a site near Marietta. Pictured are Matt Andrews, left, the construction manager for the site, and Bill Gilligan, the assistant chief.
Workers for Williams Partners are in the finishing stages of pipeline construction at a site near Marietta. Pictured are Matt Andrews, left, the construction manager for the site, and Bill Gilligan, the assistant chief. - (Photo / )

The pipeline is nearly complete. But the pipeline battle is taking a new shape.

Williams Partners reports that construction of the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline is wrapping up in Lancaster County and the pipeline will begin operating mid-August, much to the chagrin of activists who have been fighting the project since its inception in 2014.

Activists are now setting their sights on the laws that allowed the pipeline to be built in the first place.

“Yes, it is true that this pipeline is in the ground, but we still think it is unjustly there,” said Malinda Clatterbuck, co-founder of Lancaster Against Pipelines. “We are going to continue to fight — non-violently, of course — for the laws to change.”

Clatterbuck, a Mennonite pastor and former teacher, took issue with how Williams obtained the land needed for construction — through eminent domain — and believes what happened to the Lancaster community is a part of a larger issue.

The anti-pipeline group is working with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund to try to strengthen land use laws, including an amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution that would allow local communities to enact local laws that would protect landowners from eminent domain.

According to McNees Wallace & Nurick attorney Kandice Hull, eminent domain has been in place for centuries and it is unlikely that an attempt at a constitutional amendment could overturn the long-standing law for public utilities.

Nonetheless, it can be tweaked. Gov. Tom Wolf signed an amendment this summer that limits the use of eminent domain on parks and open spaces protected by a conservation easement. The new law requires entities to seek approval in a county Orphans’ Court before seizing preserved land through eminent domain. Public utilities and emergency condemnations, however, were exempted.

Hull explained that under the federal Natural Gas Act of 1938, pipelines are automatically considered public purpose projects, and as long as they are approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, their builders are able to take land using eminent domain.

FERC approved the Atlantic Sunrise in February 2017, concluding that the project was environmentally acceptable and in the public interest, clearing the path for Williams to begin construction.

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that when eminent domain is used to take land, the project must have a public purpose and affected landowners must receive just compensation.

Chris Stockton, a spokesperson for Williams, declined to say how much Williams paid to landowners, but explained that both the privilege of establishing a permanent easement across their land and damages to crops, grazing lands, timber or any structures directly caused by the construction and maintenance of the pipeline were taken into account for valuation.

Landowners are not giving up ownership of the land; they are only allowing Williams the right to construct, maintain and operate the pipeline.

The Atlantic Sunrise project is an expansion of the existing Transco pipeline system, which has been in service for 50 years, and will transport natural gas from the Marcellus Shale to markets in the Mid-Atlantic and southeastern states.

According to Williams, the pipeline is expected to increase economic activity in areas both hosting and drawing gas from the pipeline by as much as $1.6 billion. It also is expected to cut energy bills said to be inflated by constraints on pipeline capacity.

“One of the things that we saw a few years ago when we initially proposed the project was a need for what we call takeaway capacity,” said Mike Atchie, another spokesperson for Williams. “The general concept was creating this line to bring gas from northern Pennsylvania into Transco and then allow Transco to flow bi-directionally to move to different markets as demand increases.”

Once operating, the new system is expected to increase pipeline capacity by 1.7 billion cubic feet per day and bring natural gas to an additional seven million homes along the East Coast.

According to Stockton, a small portion of the gas is exported overseas, but the majority of the natural gas will serve domestic consumers along the eastern seaboard that previously relied on gas from the Gulf of Mexico.

“The overall impact for the industry will be significant because you’ll see more production, more activities related to natural gas in Pennsylvania,” Atchie said. “We talk a lot about the construction, but it’s the long-term proposition of having a pipeline takeaway capacity in Pennsylvania that is really significant.”

During construction, Atchie estimates about 4,500 jobs were created and anticipates another 6,000 to emerge indirectly once the pipeline is fully operating.

The efforts of pipeline activists are drawing to a close in Lancaster as Williams prepares to place the pipeline in service, but they will now be turning their efforts toward other areas where projects similar to the Atlantic Sunrise are being considered.

Clatterbuck has reached out to several communities in Annapolis and Harford County, Maryland where people are opposing a pipeline going through the state and under the Potomac River. She hopes to educate residents on their rights as property owners and how to effectively protest.

“We are going out to other communities to share what we have learned and how we think local communities need to pressure their legislators to start paying attention to their constituents,” Clatterbuck said. “We are hoping to give more power to local communities so they have a greater say in making decisions that most directly affect their own health, safety and welfare.”

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