Sides cite economic benefits, ecological risk of pipeline

A controversial Sunoco Logistics pipeline, which is planned to span the length of the state, including locally, will provide thousands of Pennsylvania jobs and billions of dollars, economic experts estimate.

But pipeline opponents remain perched in Huntingdon County trees to protest construction, which they claim threatens safety, as well as the landscape’s aesthetic beauty.

It was that beauty that drew Ellen Gerhart to her Huntingdon County home along Trough Creek Valley Pike when she moved in years ago.

Now, a line of trees has been removed from her property as pipeline developers move to build across about 3 acres, using eminent domain to access the Gerhart land.

“There were hundreds of trees that they cut down,” Gerhart said. “All you are going to be left with is this dangerous pipeline.”

Sunoco Logistics employees are working to construct a 300-mile, underground pipeline — the Mariner East 2 — that will carry natural gas liquids from beyond Pennsylvania’s western border to a storage and distribution facility in Delaware County’s Marcus Hook area.

Along the way, the pipeline will pass through Blair, Cambria and Huntingdon counties.

Economic benefits touted

Gerhart and other opponents feel it’s their ideological duty to fight construction, but pipeline advocates have described protestors as “anti-growth activists” who are working to halt potential economic growth.

Among the advocates are members of the Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, a group that supports the expansion of energy-related infrastructure.

“Our main goal is to really provide a narrative on the direct and indirect benefits of infrastructure (expansion),” PEIA spokeswoman Brittany Tressler said.

Two local groups have ties to the PEIA. Tressler said the Altoona-Blair County Development Corp. and JARI — a nonprofit economic development organization serving Cambria and Somerset counties — are members.

ABCD Corp. President and CEO Stephen McKnight said the local economic development corporation has no strong stance on pipeline construction.

McKnight said the corporation’s membership is “mainly for informational purposes.”

But Linda Thomson, JARI’s president, said the economic benefits related to pipeline work made joining the PEIA an easy decision. In fact, JARI was one of the PEIA’s first members — joining in July 2015, about a month after its launch, she said.

“What I’ve said then stands today: If we want to grow a diverse economy and build vibrant communities, then we have to take advantage of this tremendous opportunity to put our natural resources to work for Pennsylvanians,” Thomson said.

In the case of the Mariner East 2, putting the state’s natural resources to work may translate to putting its residents to work, too.

Construction of the pipeline will create more than 30,000 union jobs, as well as a $4.2 billion “economic impact” on the state economy, Tressler said on numerous occasions.

Backing the PEIA’s claims is a February 2015 economic impact report by Philadelphia-based economic consultants at Econsult Solutions Inc.

The report, which estimates the direct and indirect economic benefits of both pipeline construction and related ongoing operations, reiterates the $4.2 billion claim.

That prospective impact will be realized through both the Mariner East 2 pipeline, as well as a repurposing of a Marcus Hook natural gas storage facility, according to the report that also predicts about $1 million in annual pipeline-related tax revenue to the state.

In Cambria County, the Mariner East 2 will provide needed ethane for Competitive Power Ventures Inc.’s Fairview Energy Center, which is to be built in Jackson Township, Thomson said.

Earlier this year, developers secured $700 million to cover a portion of the cost to create the 30-acre facility, which is to be constructed on an 86-acre piece of land.

“The pipeline is an avenue for local shale fields in western Pennsylvania, which lack critical infrastructure to get their product to market,” Thomson said. “Offtakes along the line give us access to low-cost propane, which is vital for local industries and businesses in this region.”

Jobs to be created

And in addition to the 30,000 pipeline construction jobs mentioned by Tressler, the Econsult Solutions report predicts another 300 to 400 permanent jobs.

Neither Tressler nor the report made clear how many of those permanent jobs will be available locally.

“I can’t get a good number on it since the project is only in its infancy,” Tressler said.

But the report seems to imply there will be few.

The majority of employment and expenditure impacts are predicted to be in the southeastern Pennsyl­vania region near the Marcus Hook Industrial Complex, the report reads.

It also is unclear how many temporary union jobs will be filled by local workers, but at least some are from out of the area; last month a block of rooms at an Altoona hotel was reserved for pipeline workers.

While workers may be from outside of central Pennsylvania, Legislative Director Abe Amoros, with the Laborers International Union of North America, said most will be from within the state.

“You do see some out of state plates for staging purposes, but the rest of the work will be done by local workers,” Amoros said, explaining that includes Blair, Cambria and Huntingdon counties. “If we have members in those counties, they will be working.”

And out-of-town construction teams will provide a windfall to area businesses, such as hotels and restaurants, which likely will be frequented by workers, Amoros said.

“The ancillary benefits are plentiful,” he said. “Pipelines have been very good to Pennsylvania.”

Pipeline construction is predicted to take at least two years, Amoros said, adding he expects most temporary jobs to last at least that long.

Amoros also said that construction workers are familiar with temporary positions because construction on every project eventually comes to an end.

“That is the nature of what we do,” he said.

Protests continue

However, pipeline opponents question if temporary employment and its boost to area businesses is enough to warrant potential environmental threats.

The Mariner East 2 received Department of Environmental Protection permits, but Gerhart and others said they fear toxic materials still could find their way into local land and waterways.

In September, Reuters reported an analysis of government data that suggests Sunoco Logistics spills more crude oil than any of its competitors, with more than 200 leaks since 2010.

Sunoco’s Mariner East 1 pipeline has been transporting propane and ethane in the region since late 2014; it too has leaked multiple times since then, Sunoco Logistics spokesman Jeff Shields confirmed.

About 70 percent of leaks happen inside Sunoco facilities, without impact to the public, Shields claimed previously.

Still, Gerhart worries about a similar leak near her 27 acres.

“Any leak or spill causes a public threat. It’s just crazy,” Gerhart said. “To say it poses no public threat is ludicrous.”

Sunoco officials offered to pay tens of thousands of dollars for access to 3 acres of Gerhart’s property, but those offers still were not worth the risk, she said.

So Sunoco officials took legal action, winning a “writ of possession” in Huntingdon County Court to access the land.

Pennsylvania Title 26 allows property to be taken by eminent domain for private business use if it will benefit a public utility. Infrastructure designed to transmit natural gas, including pipelines,

fits the public utility definition.

“The writ of possession entered by the Huntingdon County Court of Common Pleas legally authorizes us to construct on the Gerhart tract,” Shields said.

The writ also allows Sunoco officials to request the arrest of those protesting within the work area, including property owners, according to a late April report by StateImpact.

Sunoco policy does not allow Shields to release information about how often the company uses eminent domain, he said.

“I can say that the vast majority of easements are negotiated with landowners without court intervention. … We understand that condemnation should be exercised only as a last resort, when negotiations with a landowner fail and can impede the successful completion of the project,” Shields said.

Ongoing legal action aims to halt that work, and, while Gerhart and her supporters wait for a decision, protesters remain posted along the Huntingdon County pipeline route.

There, protesters climbed trees and hung large banners with anti-pipeline messages — including “No Mariner East 2” and “You shall not pass.”

Though trees have been removed, pipeline construction had not yet begun on the Gerhart property by the middle of last week.

Gerhart also has spoken out publically against the pipeline, both on her property, as well as in Harrisburg. Once, she was arrested for her opposition and charged with disorderly conduct, though charges were later withdrawn.

Some protesters, Gerhart said, have come to Huntingdon County from other states to oppose construction.

“I’m really proud to know all of them,” she said.

Tressler said out-of-state protesters are seen as problematic by the PEIA.

“It seems wrong that these out-of state-voices could make such an impact,” she said, not elaborating.

Sunoco workers are prepared to deal with protesters and plan to do so within the law, Shields said, explaining he hopes protesters will act peacefully, as well.

In early spring, construction began in Huntingdon County, where workers must bore beneath Raystown Lake to prepare a passage for the pipeline.

Last week, Shields said Huntingdon County work continues in Penn, Union, Shirley and Tell townships.

There is no timeline for when pipeline construction will begin on the Gerhart property, he said.

Construction in Blair County’s Juniata and Blair townships should begin within the next two weeks, Shields said. Work in Cambria County has not yet begun.

Mirror Staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.

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