State College Borough Council opposes route of Penn State pipeline project after residents object

jvanderk@centredaily.comApril 2, 2013 

— About 100 people filled the Borough Council chamber to capacity and dozens more took first-floor overflow seats Monday night to hear presentations on and voice opposition to a two-mile, 12-inch natural gas distribution pipeline planned for a route through the borough’s Highlands neighborhood.

Just after midnight, the council unanimously passed a resolution authored by Councilman Peter Morris that opposes the pipeline route, asks for permit denial and calls for negotiations between the involved parties.

“Thank you for being here,” Morris said to about 50 people who stuck around for the brief, regular meeting.

Residents spoke until about 11:30 p.m. Monday.

A vote is scheduled for April 15 on a permit for which Columbia Gas applied that would allow the firm to work on borough streets.

“This ticking time bomb has no place in our community,” Prospect resident Greg Miller told council. “You were not elected to roll over and play dead every time Penn State snaps its fingers.”

The borough rearranged the council’s regular meeting agenda to add a work session on just the pipeline issue.

The high-pressure pipeline is slated to travel from an existing Columbia Gas line near Porter Road, down Bellaire and Prospect avenues and South Burrowes Street, to Penn State’s West Campus steam plant. The university is converting the plant from coal to natural gas to meet new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air pollution standards that take effect at the beginning of 2016.

Prospect Avenue resident Javan Briggs, who spoke as part of the Highlands Civic Association contingent and helped organize a community meeting last week, read a few comments from a change.org petition against the pipeline. It had nearly 300 signatures late Monday.

“The pipeline as planned will be about 40 feet from my front door and 40 feet from my children’s bedroom windows,” she said, later asking if council members were willing to say resident lives were worth some repaved streets. Columbia will fund repaving, curb work and handicap access ramps following pipeline installation.

“We are counting on you to make the right decision, protect your community and stop this pipeline,” she said, to raucous applause.

When the list of more than 30 residents, who signed up ahead of the meeting to speak publicly, each spoke, the rest of the room offered applause for each of them as well. Many asked council members to have courage and to uphold their responsibility to represent the community. One resident said he’d pay additional taxes to pay for a potential court case.

Ford Stryker, associate vice president of Penn State’s physical plant, presented information on the university’s conversion plan, and Columbia representatives presented specifications and safety measures planned for the pipeline project.

All received questions from council members, and some appeared unsatisfied with the answers.

Councilman Ron Filippelli asked Stryker if the decision not to take the pipeline across campus was an issue of safety or cost. Previously, university director of energy and engineering, Rob Cooper, said it was because of difficulties presented by the already numerous underground utilities on campus.

“I think it would be best to ask that question of Columbia,” Stryker answered. University and borough officials have said, and repeated Monday, that the final route choice was Columbia’s, though both entities offered input and suggestions.

Mark Kempic, president of Columbia, said the company will not do anything to jeopardize anyone’s health or safety, and will take extra precautions, such as X-raying every weld, to ensure the line’s safety.

“The line can be controlled remotely or manually at the site,” he said. “If the pressure changes, we can control that. We can shut the line down if necessary.”

Dan Cote, Columbia’s vice president of pipeline safety, answered the route question by calling it the most “benign” in terms of avoiding other utility lines and the ability to install it. He said Columbia will perform four gas leakage surveys and patrol the line four times per year, more than is federally required.

While the council did not have any votes scheduled on the issue Monday night, other than a related resolution from Morris, Filippelli acknowledged the divisiveness and said that, perhaps, the involved parties could seek a project delay “so that people all feel there has been a complete airing of this.” He noted that the outcome may not change, and that all parties gave a good case.

“Penn State and the community are joined at the hip,” he said. “We can’t separate ourselves. And yet this has really serious implications to that relationship.”

Mayor Elizabeth Goreham received a standing ovation from some residents after she called for a compromise that would be satisfactory to all parties.

“The borough made a mistake by not consulting fully with Highlands residents,” she said, then also speaking to the council. “Keep your commitment to the residents of State College.”

Jessica VanderKolk can be reached at 235-3910. Follow her on Twitter @jVanReporter.

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