Residents raise concerns over safety, property values with proposed State College gas pipeline

Guy Pilato wondered Friday night whether a 12-inch, high-pressure natural gas pipeline planned to extend through the borough not far from his home would affect property values.

He said he brought it up because some people are more likely to respond to an issue with a financial impact.

“The real issue is human lives,” he said, in the event the pipeline would rupture.

Pilato was one of about 30 Highlands residents and supporters who gathered for a community meeting Friday to express concerns and ideas related to the pipeline project, an issue that has gained steam since a neighborhood meeting with Columbia Gas last week.

Columbia will install the pipeline to serve Penn State, as it converts the West Campus Steam Plant from coal to natural gas. The move will help the university meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air pollution standards, which must happen by the beginning of 2016.

After using information from Penn State and the borough to consider numerous routes, Columbia plan to start the new pipe from an existing line near Porter Road. It will travel under College Avenue and a stream, along Bellaire Avenue, across University Drive, along Prospect Avenue, up South Burrowes Street, across Beaver and College avenues and to the plant.

Columbia held a meeting in October to inform residents about the project, but many said they found out about it for the first time during the March 12 meeting, also informational for those along the planned route. More than a dozen appeared at Monday’s Borough Council meeting to speak out against it and Burrowes resident Johan Zwart spoke during the university board of trustees meeting the previous Friday.

Since then, residents have continued to organize. They started a Facebook page — “Stop the Penn State Pipeline” — and an online petition to the council to stop the project. They also are considering options for legal action, as the pipeline is a potential violation of the environmental bill of rights added to the borough’s home rule charter by referendum in 2011.

“There are a lot of energetic people and we have the opportunity to set a precedent for other communities,” said Javan Briggs, a Prospect Avenue resident who helped organize and lead Friday’s meeting. “We need to stand up as an entire community.”

Those present were encouraged to pursue the various ideas brainstormed, including attending the council’s April 1 meeting. Penn State and Columbia will make presentations about the project and the council has a vote scheduled for whether to allow night work on the pipeline near Beaver and College this summer. Columbia spokesman Russell Bedell has said the expected construction timeline is April through October.

Borough staff also must approve a permit from Columbia that allows the company to work under borough streets. Some residents suggested asking the borough to delay approval of that permit.

Mark Maloney, an engineer who used to live on Prospect and helped create a large, aerial map of the pipeline route and its potential blast zone in the event of a rupture, said liability is an issue.

“There are ways to do this research,” he said. “We just need more time.”

R.J. Briggs, Javan Briggs’ husband, noted the pipeline starts and stops at Penn State and that a route through the borough was planned only because it was more convenient and cheaper.

“We basically benefit not at all from this pipeline,” he said.

Rob Cooper, director of Penn State Energy and Engineering, has used a presentation slide to demonstrate the layers of utility infrastructure already under campus, which he said would make a pipeline route through campus more challenging and potentially dangerous.

“I’m sorry — I’m sick of hearing it — but the university infrastructure problems are not ours,” said Wendy Brown, who lives south of the planned route. “It offends me that this was so obviously detoured through the borough.”

Councilman Peter Morris doesn’t live in the neighborhood, but attended the meeting. On Monday, he expressed support for the residents, though said a court case could be a long shot. Morris said Friday he thinks he will prepare a resolution related to the issue that the council can vote on, and that he has legal questions.

Morris also tried to answer resident questions related to the council’s role in the situation and reminded them he is only one member.

“In my opinion, the case for safety, I think that’s very serious,” he said. “So I’m in favor of refusing to issue the permit and taking the consequences, possibly a lawsuit from, probably, Columbia Gas, and then it goes to court.

“The chances are not good that way, but I’m still in favor of going that route because I don’t see what else the borough can do.”