On March 31, Oklahoma-based Williams Cos. filed its formal proposal with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to build a 42-inch natural gas pipeline through 35 miles of Lancaster County. Williams says the pipeline is needed to transport natural gas from fracking wells in northeastern Pennsylvania to the companyâ€™s existing interstate Transco pipeline. The gas it would convey would be shipped to customers along the Atlantic Coast and, likely, overseas.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rarely rejects a pipeline proposal, but if ever itâ€™s going to do so, this would be the time.
We understand the need for natural gas; itâ€™s a relatively clean energy source, and Pennsylvania has plenty of it. But Williams could have, and should have, chosen existing rights of way for this pipeline.
At the bare minimum, it should be required to make its case for why alternative routes would not suffice.
In its application to FERC, Williams asserts that the â€œpublic benefits of (this) project are far more substantial than the potential adverse effects.â€
We strongly disagree.
Lancaster County, an agricultural mecca, has some of the richest, nonirrigated soil in the nation. It should not be sacrificed for the sake of a private companyâ€™s convenience and profits.
This county has a stellar record of preserving farmland.
Itâ€™s a tragic irony that in prohibiting future development of all this land, preservation just may have rendered it more vulnerable to pipeline companies, which prefer open spaces to developed ones.
There is now â€œa big target right across preserved farmland in Lancaster County,â€ says Karen Martynick, executive director of Lancaster Farmland Trust.
In essence, the tax dollars and charitable donations put into preserving farmland here will be subsidizing a private companyâ€™s construction project by making it easier and cheaper.
There are 57 preserved farms within a quarter-mile of the proposed pipelineâ€™s centerline, Martynick says.
Of those, seven have been preserved through the Farmland Trust, a nonprofit group founded in 1988 to give Amish farmers a means of preserving their land, without needing to participate in a governmental program. Another five have been preserved by the trust in joint projects with the county.
The other farms have been preserved through the Lancaster County Agricultural Preserve Board, which is funded by state and county tax revenues.
Trust officials believe the pipelineâ€™s intrusion on these properties would undermine the entire preservation program here, which has preserved more than 100,000 acres of farmland â€” more than any other county in the nation â€” at a cost of $250 million.
Farmland preservation should be just that â€” not dig up and repair, dig up and repair. Many Lancaster County farmers see themselves as stewards of their land; it is land they intend to bequeath to their children. The land is their livelihood, and its productivity depends on the quality of its soil.
Particularly for those who practice no-till farming â€” a means of protecting the soil by declining to plow or till it â€” the prospect of heavy construction equipment disturbing the soil may be a terrible one.
Williams will compensate farmers for crops lost during construction, and says it has a plan to reclaim affected soil. But in its FERC application, the company insists: â€œConstruction of the pipeline is not expected to have any long-term, adverse impacts on no-till farms.â€
In his recent conversation with the LNP Editorial Board, U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts seemed dismissive of the impact this pipeline might have on farmland.
â€œIâ€™ve visited with farmers who have pipelines going across their farms, and you couldnâ€™t even tell, if they didnâ€™t tell you,â€ he maintains.
This is a large, high-pressure pipeline. And the installation of pipelines can â€œdisrupt the soil tremendously. ... Even if they do everything right, some of the soil improvement that you accomplish with no-till (farming) will be lost,â€ says Sjoerd Duiker, associate professor of soil management and applied soil physics at Penn State University.
â€œThere will be some impact no matter what.â€
If the affected farms were part of the federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, they would be off-limits to pipelines, as that program prohibits the granting of easements or rights of way for utility lines. Those farms are shielded, too, from eminent domain seizure.
Clearly, part of the problem here owes to the failure of the federal government â€” Pitts and Congress included â€” to create a comprehensive infrastructure plan that protects vital agricultural land and provides for our nationâ€™s future needs.
In this instance, farmers â€” some of them Amish, who generally donâ€™t wield political influence or resort to litigation to defend their interests â€” are being asked to absorb the risks of a project that wonâ€™t benefit them or the county.
The threat they face is a threat to us all, as their farms help to feed us.
We ask FERC to reject this pipeline proposal.
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