By Mark Gilger Jr, Republican Herald
PINE GROVE — Jack Zerbe II was about 10 years old when the Sunoco pipeline was built through his family’s farm in Washington Township, but he remembers that it took 15 to 20 years for production on that land to return to where it was before construction.
As three generations of Zerbes continue to oppose the proposed construction of The Williams Companies pipeline through their portion of the county, they received a letter Jan. 26 from another company looking to put another pipeline through their property.
“We were like, ‘You have got to be kidding me,’” Leah Zerbe, Jack’s daughter, who also lives on the farm, said Thursday.
The Williams Companies Inc., an energy company based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has plans to expand its Transco pipeline to connect the natural gas fields in northern Pennsylvania to markets in the Mid-Atlantic and southeastern states by 2017. Dubbed the “Atlantic Sunrise Project,” the proposed expansion includes construction of about 178 miles of 42-inch diameter, high-pressure gas pipelines in Pennsylvania and at least two new compressor stations in Susquehanna and Columbia counties. That section of the proposed pipeline, called the Central Penn South Line, includes running 17.6 miles of pipeline through five townships in the western part of Schuylkill County. It would enter Schuylkill County from East Cameron Township, Northumberland County, and run underground through Eldred, Hegins, Frailey, Tremont and Pine Grove townships. From there, it would enter Union Township, Lancaster County, through Swatara State Park.
The letter the Zerbes and other residents in the western part of Schuylkill County received came from Universal Field Services Inc., a right-of-way acquisition firm headquartered in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with an office in Wilkes-Barre.
According to the letter, Universal was hired by Future Power PA LLC, a privately owned company that is developing a natural gas-fired electric power generating project near Good Spring, Porter Township. As part of the project, Future Power PA wants to build a new gas pipeline to connect the power plant to an existing natural gas pipeline in the Reading area. The proposed line will run for about 20 miles and be capable of transporting up to 55,000 MMBTU (million British Thermal Units) per day of natural gas. Future Power, Moosic, is a subsidiary of EmberClear Corp., a publicly traded company based in Canada.
Universal sent letters to property owners along the proposed tract asking permission to conduct studies and surveys on their land. The proposed route will run near the Sunoco gasoline pipeline through Hegins, Frailey, Tremont, Pine Grove and Washington townships. The rest of the 12-inch line would run through Berks County. The right of way area is also shared by PPL for some of the route.
Property owners will receive monetary compensation for any easements, but the Zerbes and other farmers in the affected townships are not selling.
“To have a pipeline here would be a determinant to our healthy business,” Leah Zerbe said.
The farm, she said, known as Potter’s Farm, has been in the family for at least six generations and was named after her grandfather, Jack “Potter” Zerbe I. The 65-acre farm grows organic crops without using pesticides or any other chemicals.
“Fossil fuels and organic farming don’t really mix,” Leah Zerbe said.
The fields are also used for outdoor yoga and other activities.
“The land is important for the crops and the scenery is important for agritourism,” Leah Zerbe said.
She is a cofounder of Schuylkill Pipeline Awareness, a nonprofit organization with the goal of educating landowners about pipelines and the easement acquisition process. Her sister, Faith, works for the Delaware Riverkeepeer Network, a nonprofit advocacy program for the Delaware River watershed.
Both organizations, along with Berks Gas Truth, the Clean Air Council and Stop the EmberClear Pipeline, also known as STEP, signed a letter sent to James Palumbo, president of Future Power PA, outlining their concerns and called on him to abandon the project.
Some of the concerns raised in the letter include that Future Power PA did not notify landowners directly and only informed them through a letter from a surveying company; landowners were not provided with clear plans regarding the project, the proposed route and pipeline specifications; its location next to an aging line and as close as 100 feet from some homes; and lack of information on the proposed power plant in Good Spring.
The letter was also sent to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, both Berks and Schuylkill county conservancies and township supervisors of the affected areas in Berks and Schuylkill counties.
“We are proud of our community and we want a say (in) what is happening in it,” Leah Zerbe said.
Last week, EmberClear announced that it dropped plans for a natural gas power plant in Berks County. According to an article from the Reading Eagle, Paulumbo said the company stopped pursuing the project in South Heidelberg Township because of concerns about the time needed for permits and community feedback. The company received preliminary approval in March for a facility to turn natural gas into gasoline and propane with plans to start as early as mid-2015.
The Zerbes and other residents have been urging township supervisors to pass resolutions opposing the pipeline. While such resolutions may not legally prevent a pipeline from being built, Leah Zerbe said it sends a message to companies that they have to seek eminent domain for it to be built and pressures them to build it elsewhere.
“Big companies want the path of least resistance and they are not getting that here,” Jack Zerbe III, Leah’s brother, said.
Schuylkill Pipeline Awareness and Delaware River Keeper Network have additional information on property rights and pipelines available on their websites at http://www.shalejustice.org and http://www.delawareriverkeeper.org.