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Chesco township plan would give municipalities more control over pipelines

Boris, a German shepherd, walks along a pipeline path in Chester County.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

Boris, a German shepherd, walks along a pipeline path in Chester County.

Chester County’s Uwchlan Township is proposing a sweeping set of regulations that would impose new local restrictions on the development of future pipelines and give municipalities more control over where and how pipelines can be built.

The measures are included in a five-page document that was adopted as a resolution by Uwchlan Township on Aug. 14. The township is now beginning the process of creating ordinances based on the proposals.

Uwchlan officials intend the document to be a template for other Pennsylvania townships that want more control over new pipelines at a time that the industry is planning more lines to carry abundant natural gas and its associated liquids from the Marcellus Shale to domestic and international markets.

The proposals range from routine measures like requiring pipeline companies to install secure fencing at their sites to more controversial plans including limiting the number of pipes that can be built in an easement, and requiring operators to compensate townships for any loss of tax revenue that results from a decline in real estate values caused by pipeline construction.

“Utilities should be responsible for decreases in the fair-market value of properties resulting from the location of easements and utility facilities, and construction activity,” the document says.

It calls for a ban on new pipelines carrying heavier-than-air products such as pressurized natural gas liquids within 2,500 feet of homes, schools and places of worship. And it would regulate the maximum and minimum depth of pipelines or other utility structures to minimize impact on aquifers, private water wells, and building foundations.

In a response to local concerns about the safety of new pipelines, the resolution also calls for a wide range of emergency preparations including evacuation plans and gas-leak monitoring systems.

The document results from cooperation between the Uwchlan Safety Coalition, a community group that is pressing for pipeline safety, and the Uwchlan Township Board of Supervisors. Joe Toner, chairman of the board, said he was planning to introduce the resolution to the Chester County Association of Township Officials on Thursday night but the meeting was cancelled, and the resolution is now due for consideration in late September.

“Our process here is to encourage other municipalities to do the same thing,” Toner said. “We think this is a road map for any municipality in the state.”

If enough townships adopt ordinances based on the resolution, they would together be able to assert themselves against a pipeline industry that is more likely to prevail legally over individual municipalities, Toner said, noting that there are 73 townships in Chester County.

Some of them already have ordinances that cover some of the Uwchlan measures but other parts of the document will be new to most townships, Toner said.

“We need to band together with the same types of laws so that then when it gets into court we can say to the judge: ‘This is a thoughtful, rational process,’” Toner said. “We started with a resolution, we developed our laws, we developed our laws into the comprehensive plan, which is a 10-year document, and these things have significant legal merit.”

He predicted that industry lobbyists would try to overturn the measures at the Public Utility Commission, in the state legislature, and at the Department of Environmental Protection. But he said any such efforts would not succeed if enough townships adopt the measures.

Any ordinances adopted as a result of the Uwchlan initiative would not affect current pipeline projects like Sunoco Pipeline’s Mariner East 1 and 2 because they have already been permitted, but are designed to strengthen local regulation for future pipeline projects. Some private water wells in Uwchlan Township turned cloudy after Mariner construction crews hit an aquifer in July, leading to a temporary halt in construction, and prompting the company to offer municipal water connections to affected customers in Uwchlan and West Whiteland Townships.

According to the Chester County Planning Commission, there are seven pipeline projects planned or underway in the county in addition to the two Sunoco lines. They include a compressor station for a Williams Transco expansion project, and enhancements to existing facilities for the Marcellus to Market project by Texas Eastern Energy.

In nearby West Goshen and Middletown Townships, some residents are pressing officials to enforce existing ordinances that would impose requirements such as minimum distances between pipelines and homes.

Eric Friedman, a campaigner for pipeline safety in Middletown, welcomed the Uwchlan initiative, which he said appears to be the first of its kind.

“In cases where federal and state governments have failed to regulate hazardous enterprises in close proximity to vulnerable, dense populations, it is absolutely appropriate for local governments to fill that gap,” he said.

Christopher Stockton, a spokesman for Williams, said the siting of interstate pipelines is a matter for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has “exclusive regulatory jurisdiction over interstate transmission pipelines with respect to the siting of pipeline facilities under the Natural Gas Act and the Pipeline Safety Act.”

In the case of Sunoco’s Mariner East pipelines, the company did not seek FERC approval because the agency does not grant eminent domain for natural gas liquids. Instead, Sunoco chose to gain its “certificate of convenience” through the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which granted the pipeline project access to eminent domain authority but does not have siting authority. This left local governments with few options for determining where and how the pipeline gets built.

John Dernbach, a professor of environmental law at Widener University, said he wasn’t aware of any other effort to create a template for municipal regulation of the pipeline industry. “It appears to be an effort to establish leadership,” he said.

Dernbach said the authors of the resolution may have been encouraged by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s recent landmark ruling that government at all levels must be a trustee, not a proprietor, of natural resources, and must ensure citizens’ health and welfare, as required in the Environmental Rights Amendment of the state Constitution.

“The decision does give local governments somewhat more justification when they want to protect the health and safety of their citizens,” he said. “But that doesn’t give local governments the right to say ‘no’ to everything.”

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