The idyllic Carbon County acreage where Bethlehem gets its drinking water — called one of the last great places on Earth by one conservancy group — might get a natural gas pipeline.
On a 114-mile route from the Wilkes-Barre area to a distribution terminal outside Trenton, N.J., the proposed PennEast pipeline would pass close to a pair of spring-fed reservoirs holding 10 billion gallons of water.
The pipeline would run past the historic Three O’Clock Spring in Towamensing Township, the source of Wild Creek, which fills the city’s reservoirs, and farther south over a water main carrying 12 million gallons of water a day toward the spigots of 115,000 customers in the Lehigh Valley.
To install the pipeline, contractors would have to remove valuable hardwood trees that the Bethlehem Authority has sold as carbon credits to corporations looking to offset their carbon footprints.
The possibility of a pipeline has prompted Bethlehem officials to alert the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission about their concerns, and has led to an outcry from Carbon County residents and environmentalists about the potential impact on water quality and biodiversity.
On Thursday, the Bethlehem Authority, which oversees the 23,000-acre watershed in Carbon and Monroe counties, hired Maser Consulting of Bethlehem to do a risk analysis of installing 3 miles of pipeline in the watershed.
“It is a very important resource,” Mayor Robert Donchez said, “and we will make sure it is protected.”
The proposed pipeline would carry 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day through Northampton County and across the Lehigh and Delaware rivers.
Lower Saucon and Moore townships have passed resolutions opposing the pipeline. Williams Township in December rejected a resolution opposing the pipeline, and Lower Nazareth Township wants it to steer clear of schools and as many homes as possible. Mahoning, Towamensing and Kidder townships and Carbon County have adopted resolutions opposing impacts.
Bethlehem Authority has stopped short of opposing the pipeline, but is stressing the potential impacts on erosion and water quality if the pipeline is not properly sited.
Pipeline builder PennEast will listen to the feedback and work with local, state and other regulatory agencies to ensure the pipeline is laid in the best route possible, company spokeswoman Patricia Kornick said. The company might determine the route should be reconfigured and not go through the Bethlehem Authority’s property, she said.
If the pipeline does go through the watershed, she said the company has engineering, safety and environmental specialists to develop the safest and most environmentally sensitive plan to do it.
Kornick said the natural gas transmission line is made of steel and has shut-off valves that are “monitored 24/7.” If there is a change in pressure or temperature, the valves are activated, she said.
“We want to establish a route that allows safe construction and operation with a minimum impact to the environment,” she said.
Linda Christman, whose Towamensing farm now is in the path of the pipeline, pointed out it would require a 90- to 125-foot clear cut to install, and a 50-foot permanent easement where no deep-rooted trees could be grown. The effects of fewer trees? More erosion, less water filtering, habitat fragmentation and invasive species, she says.
Christman, a member of Stop the Fracking Pipeline, a project of Save Carbon County, has urged the authority to intervene in the matter.
“The water authority has at least three purposes: one, preserve the integrity of the supply of water to Bethlehem; two, make sure the water is as pristine as possible; and thirdly, they need to protect the source of water,” she said. “This pipeline messes up all three things.”
And, as the habitat changes, it could affect endangered and threatened species like the bog turtle, northeast bulrush, Indiana bat and other species for which the Bethlehem watershed and adjacent state game lands are prized, she said.
“It’s clear that the installation of a pipeline, just like a road, through preserved lands leads to irreversible damage of those lands, especially the fragmentation of habitat,” said Dave McGuire, an environmental scientist who has advocated for the watershed’s restoration for 15 years.
In fact, the Nature Conservancy designated that watershed, most of which belongs to the authority, as one of the world’s “Last Great Places.” Its flora, fauna and spring-fed creeks, which carry an exceptional value rating, have attracted scores of scientific studies on the habitat that took root there thousands of years ago when the glaciers receded.
In the last decade, Bethlehem has instituted a program of controlled burns and selective timbering to help the forest regenerate, keeping invasive species at bay and the forest diverse. That land management program has helped it enter the voluntary carbon credit market.
Each credit represents carbon — which is locked in trees, which clean pollutants from the air — and the credits are sold to companies, which voluntarily limit themselves on carbon emissions. If the company exceeds the limit, the credits help them offset the environmental impact.
So, even though the pipeline wouldn’t cut through the land where the authority has timbered and burned, it would reduce the amount of carbon the authority can sell.
Steve Repasch, director of the Bethlehem Authority, said a clear cut would have a big impact on the authority’s 3-year-old program — carbon inventories are done annually. And, if the pipeline is installed on watershed land, the authority will argue that the pipeline company would have to reimburse the authority for lost revenue.
Kornick said the company starts negotiations with fair market value and goes from there.
The authority’s first priority, Repasch said, is maintaining a clean drinking source. He said the authority is concerned that the current proposal has the pipeline crossing over the city’s main, just south of Route 209, where it is buried just 5 feet deep. He had discussions last week with PennEast about moving the pipeline to another crossing where the main is 200 feet deep.
John Tallarico, chairman of the authority, has sent a letter to FERC requesting those concerns be addressed in an environmental impact statement.
Donchez asked that the pipeline avoid the watershed and transmission mains entirely, or at least provide a buffer zone.
“If built in the current and proposed location, it is absolutely critical that adequate protections are put in place to preserve our watershed, reservoirs and transmission mains so that the city can continue to safely provide drinking water for our residents for generations to come,” Donchez wrote federal regulators.
City Council President J. William Reynolds said he would wait to hear from the authority and city administration on the matter.
“Some of the information that has come out publicly about where this is going does cause some real concerns for both city residents and anybody who uses our water,” Reynolds said.
PennEast’s proposal is in the public comment phase, and the company is expected to submit a formal application next year. And, depending on the FERC’s decision, begin construction in 2017.
This article was written by Nicole Radzievich from The Morning Call and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.