Gas pipeline project worries State College residents, will help Penn State meet federal regulations

Residents and business owners along Bellaire and Prospect avenues and South Burrowes Street are fired up about a project that will place a high-pressure natural gas line past their homes, leading to Penn State’s West Campus steam plant.

More than a dozen attended Monday’s Borough Council meeting and spent an hour of public comment time expressing concerns about the project, which will bury a 12-inch diameter coated-steel pipe, with pressure at 400 pounds per square inch.

They’ll get another chance to comment and learn more during the council’s April 1 meeting, at which time Penn State and Columbia Gas will present information on the project. The council also will vote on whether to allow night work in the area of Burrowes Street and College and Beaver avenues.

The pipeline will be the largest of the nearly 50 miles of natural gas piping Columbia Gas owns in the borough, and residents are concerned about safety and the potential violation of the environmental bill of rights added to the borough’s home rule charter by referendum in 2011. In part, it bans pipelines and other distribution methods of fossil fuels.

Penn State is converting the west plant from coal to natural gas to meet new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air pollution standards by the beginning of 2016. When university officials decided on natural gas, they sought gas service through Columbia.

Rob Cooper, director of Penn State Energy and Engineering, said the university received board of trustees approval in November to go ahead with the project, following an October public meeting with residents along the then-proposed pipeline route. He said the borough helped notify those affected.

They did the same for a meeting last week with Columbia and borough representatives, to update residents on the construction schedule.

Johan Zwart, an engineer who lives on South Burrowes, said he didn’t leave that meeting with a good feeling.

“I had technical questions and I didn’t feel they could answer those,” he said. “The feeling was that nobody really knows about it.”

Now that more do, residents are worried, and they want to stop the installation.

“A gas line like this is not very wise,” Zwart said. “These are very big gas lines and accidents happen.”

Zwart had such an accident at his home. As residents and others are instructed to do before construction work, he called 811 to have the utilities marked in his yard before digging for a project.

Once he started the backhoe, he realized he hit a gas line that wasn’t marked, and heard hissing before calling 911. Police, fire, gas and other officials showed up, and Zwart said “nothing bad happened.”

But he said it’s “outrageous” to bring the larger pipeline through town, because such accidents aren’t outside the realm of possibility. Borough Public Works Director Mark Whitfield said punctures have happened, but that he knows of no explosions.

Russell Bedell, a spokesman for Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania and Maryland, publicly offered his contact information Monday night, so residents can ask further questions. He said the new pipe will be “state of the art,” which includes coated steel, .375-inch walls and electronic markers wherever the pipe changes direction. These features are for safety and help crews locate the pipe, Bedell said.

In case of a problem, the shut-off valve is near the Hampton Inn on East College Avenue, where the pipe will originate.

“We meet or exceed all state and federal safety standards for design and construction of our lines,” Bedell said.

The project is set to start sometime in April and finish in October. Bedell said residents will receive a letter alerting them to the start of work, and door hangers as work nears their homes. Construction will start near Porter Road and travel to University Drive by May. At that time, work will switch to the campus plant and travel east.

The new pipe will be the largest in the borough and will hook up to an existing line near Porter Road. It will travel under College Avenue and the stream, along Bellaire Avenue, across University Drive, along Prospect Avenue, up South Burrowes, across Beaver and College and to the west plant.

Columbia considered many other routes, with input from Penn State and the borough. Those included installing the pipe along various routes through campus, along College Avenue and along Foster Avenue.

Cooper shows a presentation slide of utilities on campus and in the borough, layering water, sewer, steam tunnels, chilled water, and existing gas lines, which form a “mess” on campus that would cause potential conflicts with the new pipeline. If the university had to dig and fix another line, there could be danger of hitting the gas line.

“It lowers everyone’s risk,” he said of the planned route.

Whitfield said using College Avenue would have lengthened the project from one year to two, due to complications with the road as a state route, and created the problem of closing one lane for two consecutive summers.

“I think it would have been pretty traumatic for the downtown businesses,” he said.

Placing the pipe under Foster Avenue would have created the potential for similar problems as on campus, with half the street taken up by underground Verizon lines. And more bends in the line create more potential failure areas.

“Foster, to me, it’s like a disaster waiting to happen,” Whitfield said.

Borough Council members also expressed concerns. However, the borough’s only role now is to approve a Columbia permit that allows them to work on borough streets, and that’s up to staff. As part of the project, those streets will be repaved at Penn State’s expense.

While Councilman Peter Morris said he agreed with resident concerns, particularly about the environmental bill of rights, he said he fears they would lose a court case on the issue, because municipalities can’t ban such facilities under state law.

Borough solicitor Terry Williams said it likely would be a matter for the residents to take to court, and Zwart said he thinks residents are working on that.

“We have to see if everyone would get together on that,” he said. “I think they will. It’s definitely worth fighting for.”