To the delight of more than 100 angry residents, Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) has aligned himself with landowners who are battling several natural gas-pipeline projects proposed for Chester County.
A standing-room only crowd attended a meeting with Specter, Rep. Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.), a representative of Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D., Pa.), and several state legislators in the West Whiteland Township building yesterday afternoon.
Russell S. Donnelly, who described himself as an "envoy from Maryland" representing several federal and local lawmakers, said his state wanted to join "hands to form a collective, cohesive action."
Within hours after the meeting ended, Specter sent a letter to the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), urging the agency to hold hearings before approving the controversial projects.
And he advised residents to form a legal defense fund and hire a lawyer.
"I believe this is a matter that should be fought all the way," he said, asserting that the fight in Chester County could set the pace for similar conflicts around the country.
With all three of the major transcontinental pipelines having large transmission facilities in the county to process and ship gas to markets in the Northeast, Chester County is being besieged by new pipeline projects.
A $155 million project under way by Williams/Transcontinental Gas Pipeline Corp. affects hundreds of Chester County landowners. The project involves replacing 7.15 miles of aging, 30-inch-diameter pipeline with a 42-inch-diameter pipe.
The company also wants to increase its easement by 20 feet for safety purposes, spokesman Chris Stockton said. That's 20 feet too many, said homeowner Agnes McFadden, who lives in the Swedesford Chase development. Williams already has a 100-foot easement, she said.
"They want to put this under my kid's bedroom window," she said. "FERC doesn't care about me or my children."
An 88-mile pipeline proposed by Virginia-based AES Corp., known as the Mid-Atlantic Express, would run between Sparrows Point, Md., and Chester County's Upper Uwchlan Township. It would have an impact on more than 400 landowners and more than 2,500 acres of preserved land. FERC is reviewing that project.
Still in the planning stage is a third pipeline proposed by Dominion Keystone, starting in Western Pennsylvania, that would cross several municipalities in the county's northern tier before ending near Exton.
State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester) said the state Senate recently passed a resolution calling for FERC to hold hearings and return land-use authority to local governments.
He also said his office would coordinate the legal defense fund.
Gerlach called for a county-wide natural gas task force that would coordinate information, assess environmental impacts, and share that information with residents.
"We need to figure out how we as a community and a county can join together to put up a better effort to deal with pipeline projects," he said.
Residents said they were frustrated with FERC's lack of response to their concerns and the difficulty in getting accurate and specific information. Specter said he agreed.
"The actions by FERC so far leave a lot to be desired," he said. The agency has not responded "in my judgment adequately" to environmental matters, including safeguarding drinking-water supplies, he said.
Although many said they would like to see swift congressional action to rein in FERC's authority, especially when it comes to eminent domain, Specter said that was not possible with so many other issues on the table, including the current economic crisis.
Evem though FERC officials have said that companies need the agency's approval to seek eminent domain, county residents are worried about possible abuses.
"We are not obstructionists," said Vincent McHugh of West Whiteland Township, "but they need to do it right."