Eminent domain, public meeting format challenged at PennEast Pipeline hearing

JACK FIRNENO / WIRE PHOTO

JACK FIRNENO / WIRE PHOTO Michael Spille, a landowner in New Jersey who could see some of his property ceded due to eminent domain, spoke out against the proposed PennEast pipeline before a public meeting last week in Lahaska.

The proposed PennEast Pipeline may not be slated to touch Lower Bucks County, but advocates and opponents agree it could have a substantial impact on the region. However, their opposing views on just how that impact could be felt were on full display at a public hearing meeting on Aug. 16 in Peddler’s Village.

The project calls for a new pipeline to transport natural gas extracted through fracking in the Marcellus Shale region in Central Pennsylvania to points across 118 miles from Luzerne County in Pennsylvania to Mercer County in New Jersey.  

It would not reside anywhere in Bucks, but would partially sit upstream from an area in the Delaware River and could be accessed here by interconnecting lines.

The pipeline application is in the second stage of public input opportunities. Last month, PennEast submitted its draft environmental impact statement to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It’s open for comment until September, with public meetings being held across the region until then.

But the timing of the statement release, and format of the hearings, have some crying foul.

“It was very deliberate, trying to keep us out of this hearing,” said Toni Granato of the New Jersey Sierra Club, an environmental group.

Granato was one of approximately 40 protesters who met before the meeting at the Lahaska United Methodist Church across the street from the Cock N’ Bull Restaurant, where the hearing was held.

Along with environmental ramifications, she and others there were suspicious that the statement was released in the middle of the summer with hearings in August, when many people are away and unable to attend.

The short time between the statement’s release and the meetings also gave many people less than three weeks to “digest” the documents and form an opinion and statement, said Maya van Rossum of the Delaware Riverkeepers, who also called the proceedings a “faux hearing process.”

Rather than holding a town hall-style meeting, participants would sign in and randomly be given three to five minutes to give their statement privately to a stenographer. The process, she said, could be intimidating, and would diminish the plan’s opposition with what Granato had called a “divide and conquer” tactic.

To combat this, the Riverkeepers network organized the meetup, where a videographer recorded statements in front of the crowd before people gave statements privately inside. The statements were compiled into a video for the group to use on social media.

A number of those who spoke outside were landowners in New Jersey troubled by the fact that PennEast, a private company, could be granted access to their land through the use of eminent domain.

Michael Spille, a landowner in New Jersey who could see some of his property ceded due to eminent domain, was critical of a company that stands to make millions of dollars getting permission through the government to use his land.

“This is literally South Jersey industries selling South Jersey gas. This is not a needed project. This is not eminent domain for public good. This is eminent domain for private profit and private greed,” he said.

However, others see the pipeline as a boon to private residents and industry. Using the gas “downstream,” according to Joe Leighton, Associate Director of Associated Petroleum Industries of America, would draw more businesses to areas including Lower Bucks, where they would have access to less expensive natural gas.

Even as the pipeline is being built, groups like Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry would be working with businesses to build access points into the line for use along its corridor.

“The competitive advantage that would come to Pennsylvania manufacturers from having more affordable and available resources would lead to expansions that would create more permanent jobs,” said Leighton.

David Taylor, president of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, noted that the industrial sector accounted for a third of natural gas consumption nationwide in 2014, and 80 percent of that demand comes from manufacturing. He also indicated the advantage to residents, especially in Central New Jersey, who would benefit from lower natural gas costs and availability.

“If you look at what happened during the polar vortex and how people got slammed — thousands in home heating bills — there was a bottleneck,” said Taylor.

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