State College officials again raise safety issues about Penn State steam plant conversion

Safety remained the top issue Wednesday in a continued review of a natural gas conversion project at Penn State.

The borough Planning Commission reviewed updated plans for the West Campus steam plant, at West College Avenue and South Burrowes Street, which will convert from coal to natural gas to meet federal air quality guidelines by the start of 2016.

The more contentious issue related to the project is the new, high-pressure pipeline required to provide service to the plant. The line will start from an existing Columbia Gas line near Porter Road and now will wind through campus and enter the plant on the north side.

That’s a change from the original plan, which would have taken the line down borough streets. After a series of Borough Council meetings focused on the issue and dozens of resident complaints, Columbia and Penn State worked to reroute the line. The university board of trustees approved that move, at an additional cost of $9.6 million, in July.

Construction on the pipeline is set to begin in October on sections that can be installed during classes and in areas that won’t affect football activities, according to Office of Physical Plant spokesman Paul Ruskin. Following football season, additional sections will be installed. Finally, after graduation next May, work will take place throughout the summer between Park Avenue and the steam plant.

The route change, in turn, changed the plans for the plant conversion, which were presented to the commission Wednesday afternoon. While the energy conversion did not trigger the borough land development process, an addition of paved areas on the site did so.

Engineer Jim California, of Buchart Horn Inc., presented the plan changes, mainly related to moving the gas line entry to the plant to the north side and installing a fence around that area.

A future project phase will eliminate unneeded equipment following the conversion and add a building to the site for other plant operations.

Commission member Mike Roeckel first raised the issue of the plant as a terrorism threat, wondering if the gas service should be placed behind bigger fences or inside a building.

“It seems like you could create some mayhem,” he said, noting that many people live and work in the area. “It just seems like that’s an area where you could create a lot of problems pretty easily.”

Roeckel noted Penn State likely employs experts in such issues and Chairman Evan Myers said a consultation would be part of the commission’s project comments. A vote on the project was not required.

Roeckel also expressed concerns about two 25,000-gallon above-ground diesel fuel tanks at the site, used for emergency generators. He said that’s a large amount of fuel so close to other buildings.

California, who did not seem to have answers satisfactory to commission members on safety issues, said there are standards in place for those tanks.

“I mean, the site is secure,” he said of walls and fences on-site. “Somebody would have to breach that to get to a tank.”

Commission member Anita Genger raised an issue discussed previously and also by some residents — the location of the steam plant. She said the prominent downtown location is inappropriate and that the high-pressure gas line makes it “much more vulnerable to attack.”

California noted the complications of moving the necessary infrastructure if the plant is relocated, like the steam lines that serve two-thirds of the campus.

“It’s just not that simple to move the plant to the east side without taking all the infrastructure with it,” he said.

Myers added that, while the community applauds the university’s sensitivity to the opposition to running the gas line through a borough neighborhood, it hasn’t gone far enough.

“The fact that the power plant is located where it is, No. 1, I don’t think is conducive to a healthy downtown,” he said. “It takes up a lot of space in a prime development area.”

He said that, along with bringing through a gas line where people live and work, is irresponsible.

“I think it’s the wrong place at the wrong time and needs to be moved,” he said, noting the increased force at play in the event of a natural gas explosion. “It’s less of a cost than if it stays there.”