At your fingertips, pipeline information - Primer for landowners

Editorial published in the Press Enterprise, 4-11-2014

If you're a Columbia County resident wondering where to turn for information about a planned natural gas pipeline, know that help is available.  And it’s right here in Pennsylvania.

A non-profit corporation calling itself the Pipeline Safety Coalition (PSC) was created three years ago in the Philadelphia suburb of Downingtown.

Its mission, as stated in its website,  “To gather and serve as a clearinghouse for factual, unbiased information; to increase public awareness and participation through education; build partnerships with residents, safety advocates, government and industry; and to improve public, personal and environmental safety in pipeline issues.”

On March 25, we reported that the Williams Partners, a Tulsa, Okla., energy firm, wants to build a pipeline that would bisect the county along a north-south route, from Sugarloaf Township north of Benton to Cleveland Township south of Catawissa.  Since then, we’ve been hearing from residents wondering where they can go to get reliable information about pipelines, property owner’s rights and related issues. 

A cursory review of the PSC website shows that the coalition is striving to fulfill its mission.  It appears to be at least a good starting point for local residents who are feeling they need to get up to speed on this issue. 

Columbia Countians who find the PSC website useful can thank a 63-year-old grandmother of two who was once in their shoes.

According to a story in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Lynda Farrell and her husband, Steve, moved to Downingtown in June of 1992.  On the first morning in their new house, they awoke to the sound of bulldozers down their lane. 

“That was our first realization of what it was to have a pipeline on your land,” Mrs. Farrell told The Inquirer’s Michaelle Bond.
Years later, when Williams told the community it wanted to expand a pipeline, the Farrells and their neighbors did not know where to go to learn about their rights, about pipeline safety, and who regulates what.

Sound familiar?

So they got organized, got busy, and transformed themselves into, if not pipeline experts, at least laymen who have taken seriously the task of educating themselves about an arcane subject.

The companies that design, build and maintain the more than 300,000 miles of natural gas pipeline in the U.S. know their stuff.  They’re the experts.  So, when they come to your county, they’re holding most of the cards.

And pipeline projects are regulated by a remote and faceless federal bureaucracy, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“Our goal,” said Mrs. Farrell, “is to make sure everyone has a more level playing field.”

By “everyone, “ she means people like you.

The easily navigable PSC website has sections headlined:
• Pipeline Basics
• Pipelines and Community
• Pipelines and You

Under several of those categories are sections that might be of interest to some 300 Columbia County property owners, with whom Williams might be looking to negotiate easement rights.

One section explains the various kinds of Right of Way, or ROW, easements required for pipeline installation.

Under “Pipelines and You” is a section headlined, “Landowners Rights”;  it lists 10, all written in plain English, not legalese.  There’s also a link to Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know  law, which guarantees citizen access to government records, and may provide landowners with information they need in order to make informed decisions.

The negotiation of easements is a highly technical and specialized process that leads to a legal agreement or proceedings.  Any property owner who opts to represent himself has, in the words of the old courtroom saw, a fool for a client.

As we wrote here last week, the more you know before this project starts, the better your chances of not being stampeded, either by the pipeline company or its critics.

The Pipeline Safety Coalition is good place to start.