Peco is facing stiff resistance to a plan to build new natural gas infrastructure to improve service to a Delaware County community, which denied zoning approval for the project after residents complained it would be a hazard to public safety.
The Philadelphia utility, which serves 532,000 natural gas customers in suburban counties, has appealed to the Delaware County Common Pleas Court and to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission to overturn a Marple Township Zoning Board denial of its plan to build a distribution hub it calls a “gas reliability station” in Broomall.
Peco says the $150 million project involves building an 11.5-mile pipeline from its West Conshohocken gas plant to the proposed Sproul Road facility, where gas pressure would be lowered before the fuel is fed into the local distribution network that ties to customers. Peco says the project is needed to supplement energy supplies to Marple and surrounding communities, where growing demand is set to exceed delivery capacity in the next decade.
Peco asked the PUC to exempt it from zoning rules because the facility is necessary “to comply with its statutory obligation to provide an adequate, safe and reliable supply of natural gas to meet growing demand.” Peco’s arguments may resonate with the PUC, which regards any failure of a public utility to provide gas to its residential customers as a cardinal sin.
But residents, who formed a group called the Marple Safety Coalition, say Peco should find a safer and more suitable location for the facility than the half-acre site the company acquired at the corner of Sproul and Cedar Grove Roads. The site, formerly a gas station, is next door to a fast-food restaurant, Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers. Residences are located across streets on three other sides of the site.
“We haven’t gotten any risk assessments from Peco, and obviously the aesthetics are not great,” said Greg Fat, a member of the Marple Safety Coalition. Peco wants to surround the facility with an eight-foot concrete-reinforced steel wall that would muffle noise and deter intruders from entering the unmanned site.
The property is now zoned for use as a “neighborhood center,” which permits “low-intensity retail establishments and offices.” Utility use is permitted by “special exception” if it does not cause harm, hardship, or adverse effects to the community. Peco says that Marple Township did not spell out its objections in its denial.
The two Democratic state legislators from the area, Rep. Jennifer O’Mara and Sen. Tim Kearney, wrote to the PUC this month to object to Peco’s appeal of the zoning decision, saying its action “is the exact opposite of working with the community that will be directly affected by this construction.”
Peco said it explored other options, but chose its location because the land was available, zoning was compatible, and the site is located a few blocks from Sproul and Lawrence Roads, where its new gas line would tie in to the existing local gas distribution network.
“In no way do we not understand that people prefer to see something different,” Doug Oliver, Peco’s vice president for governmental and external affairs, said in an interview. “We understand it, but we also understand that those same communities have an expectation that they have sufficient gas supply for keeping their homes warm, cooking their food, and taking a shower.”
To reinforce the facility’s purpose, Peco called it “a gas reliability station.” It would include a 2,073-square-foot steel building containing valves, piping, electronics, electric batteries, and remote monitoring required to reduce the pressure of the natural gas. A second 16-by-10-foot building would contain telecommunications systems. Six heaters with 15-foot stacks to warm the gas would be located within the eight-foot walls surrounding the site.
But the community group portrays the facility as a “gas expansion plant” with factory-like “smokestacks” that “modify” the gas for distribution. A three-minute video the group posted on its website is a montage of disasters involving all manner of natural gas infrastructure.
Peco says the facility is similar to 30 other “gate stations” it operates where the company takes delivery of natural gas from interstate pipelines that cross through the region. Gate stations typically lower high-pressure pipeline gas to a pressure more suitable for a distribution network.
The Marple Township facility is different from the gate stations because rather than taking delivery of gas from an interstate pipeline, it is receiving gas that Peco already owns and keeps stored at its West Conshohocken liquefied natural gas plant.
“This is the first such animal that we have created,” a Peco employee explained in a Zoom call that Peco conducted with the community in October. “This will be the first time we’ve done a reliability station anywhere.”
Peco has spent much of the last six months trying to walk back those words, which the Marple Safety Coalition seized on to call the reliability station “experimental.”
“There’s absolutely nothing experimental about this infrastructure — nothing experimental and nothing unknown,” Oliver said.
Peco on Saturday presented new draft architectural plans in a community meeting that give the facility less of an industrial look. The community activists were not won over, and said Peco is still trying to steamroll the community.
“The Marple Safety Coalition stands behind the fact that whether there are red bricks, cedar planks, cement benches, or noise-deadening plastic walls surrounding the gas plant, this location is not an appropriate fit for such a facility,” the group said in a statement. “There is no way to decorate a square peg to fit through a round hole.”
Greg Fat, the spokesman for the group, suggested that Peco should explore other sites in the area that are more industrial or more remote, including an undeveloped wooded lot on Sproul Road that is part of the SS. Peter and Paul Cemetery.
“There’s a little wooded section on the front of the cemetery,” he said. “Obviously you wouldn’t get complaints from those neighbors.”