The PennEast Pipeline Company proposed the construction of an interstate natural gas pipeline in August 2014. Since then, communities across Pennsylvania and New Jersey have voiced concerns about the pipeline’s route — two of these groups are the Bethlehem Authority and Bethlehem Township.
The proposed pipeline would stretch approximately 120 miles from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to Trenton, New Jersey.
Natural gas provides heat for more than 50 percent of Pennsylvania homes and 75 percent of New Jersey homes, PennEast spokesperson Patricia Kornick wrote in an email. The PennEast pipeline will meet the region’s growing demand for natural gas and electricity.
“Every time someone turns up the furnace, takes a warm shower, flips on the lights, charges a mobile phone or turns on the television, it is because natural gas makes it possible,” Kornick wrote. “Natural gas literally fuels the quality of life for most people, including those opposing its development.”
More than four miles of the pipeline will run across the Bethlehem Authority watershed, which executive director Steve Repasch said provides water for the entire city of Bethlehem as well as 11 surrounding municipalities. Any damage to the water lines could affect about 116,000 people.
Kornick wrote that the pipeline’s route is determined to avoid restricted and sensitive habitats. A team of safety experts, engineers, geologists, biologists, hydrologists and other environmental professionals help determine the ultimate route.
Initially, the Bethlehem Authority attempted to propose alternate routes to the PennEast, but when none were accepted, it focused on negotiating any issues with the pipeline itself. Repasch said engineering consulting services reviewed the proposed pipeline and its potential impact on the watershed, and the two groups met with city officials for technical discussions over this time.
PennEast entered the pre-filing phase of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which provided it with the opportunity to receive public input on the pipeline from groups such as the Bethlehem Authority and Bethlehem Township, Kornick wrote.
Throughout this phase, PennEast held hundreds of open houses, meetings and informational sessions across the towns impacted by the proposed route. Although pre-filing is usually a six-month period, PennEast worked with the public for almost one year to gather as much feedback as possible.
In January, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave PennEast the initial approval to proceed with its pipeline project. During negotiations, Repasch said the Bethlehem Authority and PennEast were able to agree on several terms to protect the water system infrastructure, and the two signed an agreement for an initial term of 25 years.
To use the Bethlehem Authority’s land, PennEast paid $420,000 upon the execution of the agreement. Annual payments increase yearly from $34,126 in the first year to $75,392 in the last year of the deal.
“There were people in the city who thought we should have fought the pipeline harder and for longer, but most people understood our position,” Repasch said, “and while nobody is happy with the pipeline coming through the property, we did everything we could to minimize the risks.”
In Bethlehem Township specifically, the pipeline runs within the potential impact radius of several homes. John Gallagher, the Bethlehem Township third ward, said the potential impact radius is 950 feet, which means the area within 950 feet of the pipeline is at risk if an explosion occurs.
One such development is the Hope Ridge community, in which the closest homes would be about 400 feet from the pipeline, and the remaining houses within the development would still be within the 950-foot risk zone.
On Feb. 6, the Bethlehem Township board of commissioners authorized Gallagher and former manager Melissa Shafer to draft a letter to PennEast in support of the Hope Ridge homeowners. The letter requested an alternate route between Church Road and the Southmont Shopping Center, which Gallagher said would be the maximum distance the pipeline could move away from Hope Ridge without requiring a completely different route.
Gallagher said after the board of commissioners sent its letter, PennEast met with the board and Hope Ridge residents to discuss their requests.
“We got a lot of resistance, even though we offered other possible solutions,” Gallagher said. “Almost all of the points that they brought up about why they couldn’t move the pipeline had to do with their preferred method of construction…It seems like a simple engineering problem for which there should be solutions.”
Since that meeting, the township has proposed three or four potential routes through the PennDot Park and Ride off William Penn Highway, which would reduce the distance from Hope Ridge by about 150 feet — a compromise Gallagher said is good, but not ideal.
“PennEast is pleased that constructive discussion with the Bethlehem Water Authority resulted in an agreement,” Kornick wrote in an email, “and continues to work with the majority of landowners to reach a fair agreement that compensates landowners for temporary and permanent impacts.”
PennEast plans to begin construction this year and anticipates the line will be in operation in 2019.