NJ homeowners hire D.C. law firm to fight PennEast pipeline
Joe Hernandez, WHYY
Homeowners in Hunterdon and Mercer Counties have joined together to hire a D.C. law firm to fight the construction of the controversial PennEast pipeline that would carry Marcellus Shale gas to Northeast markets. The move marks a preemptive strike by residents along a wealthier stretch of the 114-mile long proposed pipe, aiming to fight off potential eminent domain actions.
“This is not just for this group of people,” said Vincent DiBianca, one of the new group’s organizers who lives along the proposed route in Delaware Township. “If this starts to set a precedent, and corporate gain is one of the fundamental principles at play here and people can lose their properties, that’s unconstitutional. It’s certainly not fair and just.”
HALT PennEast — which stands for “homeowners against land taking” — criticized the PennEast Pipeline Company for proposing a route for the pipeline that would abut or intersect the properties of dozens of New Jersey residents. The proposed 36-inch line would begin in Luzerne County, PA, pass through six Pennsylvania counties, cross the river into New Jersey, traveling through Mercer and Hunterdon counties to supply other major interstate pipelines with Marcellus Shale gas near Trenton.
The company has had trouble getting leases from some property owners in New Jersey, many of whom have been blocking surveyors. PennEast filed an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in D.C. back in September. The pipeline company would still have to jump through a number of regulatory hoops but would need approval from FERC to pursue eminent domain against holdouts along the route.
Proponents say the new line will provide needed reliability and cheaper gas to densely the populated New York and New Jersey market. They say it will also help supply the state with cleaner burning natural gas, which has been replacing coal at power plants.
PennEast has said it would use eminent domain only as a last resort, and has been working to make inroads with communities along the route, including offering grants for community projects. The company says it would rather reach out to homeowners first and offer to pay them for the use of their land.
But for some residents of Hunterdon and Mercer Counties, that dog won’t hunt.
“How would we farm?” asked Jacqueline Evans, who lives in Delaware Township with her three children, about a hundred feet from the proposed route of the pipeline.
“This pipeline would compromise that. I’m also transitioning into organic, and that would also be compromised.”
Evans said she is also worried about the safety of a natural gas pipeline so close to her kids. “My children are always asking questions about what happens when it blows up, and these are very difficult questions to answer as a mother.”
So far, members of HALT PennEast are only New Jersey homeowners, but DiBianca said he would be open to expanding the group to include Pennsylvanians as well. The group has hired Wiley Rein, a large Washington D.C. law firm specializing in government regulation, to represent their interests. FERC could make its decision as early as this fall.
Susan Phillips contributed to this report.