Underground Penn State utilities complex, officials say

jvanderk@centredaily.comApril 20, 2013 

When asked to describe what it looks like underneath Penn State’s campus, Office of Physical Plant spokesman Paul Ruskin called it “spaghetti city.”

That spaghetti includes 17 miles of pipes that distribute steam to heat campus buildings, more than 60 miles of pipe that send drinking water across campus and 73 miles of storm drain pipes.

The campus also hosts an underground chilled water system that serves 4.5 million square feet in 64 buildings, a system of natural gas pipes, and telecommunications and Internet cables.

Since the beginning of the public discussion on the 12-inch high pressure natural gas pipeline meant to serve the university’s West Campus steam plant conversion from coal, Physical Plant officials have said that the complex maze of utility lines already in place would pose a greater risk to running the new pipeline through campus.

However, late Thursday, the university announced it has asked Columbia Gas, the utility company that will place the new pipeline, to reconsider its decision to run the pipeline under borough streets and re-examine routes through campus. The proposed plan was to run the pipe from an existing line on Porter Road, under Bellaire and Prospect avenues and South Burrowes Street, and to the West Campus plant.

Penn State made the decision based on continued outrage and opposition from borough residents, many who live along that proposed route.

“Penn State has listened to the residents’ concerns,” Ruskin said Friday. “It’s a little early to tell exactly what alternative route is going to be the most viable, but we’re certainly examining every possibility.”

Ruskin said the university notified the borough of its plans to ask Columbia to re-examine all the routes previously discussed.

Originally, Columbia considered four campus routes for the pipeline, including using Curtin Road or Pollock Road to get from Porter Road to the steam plant. It’s unclear whether one of those routes could still be under consideration.

Columbia spokesman Russell Bedell said Friday that the utility will examine potential routes that include pieces of the originals, but “essentially, these are new routes.”

“It’s kind of open,” he said. “We just want to make sure it’s the best possible route to go across campus. Not only do we have to make sure what underground facilities are there, but we have to do engineering analysis as well.”

Ruskin said the two entities will consider previously “missed possibilities” for potential routes.

Penn State and Columbia will meet on the issue over the next few weeks, hoping to reach a project resolution.

The project turn comes after State College Borough Council directed Manager Tom Fountaine not to issue the permit allowing Columbia to install the pipe under the public streets, also responding to the public outcry.

The university and utility have said they are still considering their options related to legal action against the borough. Penn State officials say the university will continue to cooperate with the borough and Bedell said Columbia will continue to answer questions from residents.

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

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