Residents who live along the route of a proposed gas pipeline in central Pennsylvania worry that the natural gas “boom” could become more than a figure of speech. The pipeline's route would go through an area plagued by underground coal mine fires and subsidence.
When Pete Tipka first learned a company wanted to run a natural gas pipeline through his property in Bear Gap, Pennsylvania, he considered it.
“When the pipeline letter came in the mail, I knew nothing about it. I thought— oh, I’ll make some money… Then I did some research.”
It wasn’t easy. He couldn’t get much out of the government.
“People were apprehensive about giving information,” Tipka said. “They clam up and don’t say nothing.”
The company sent a landman to negotiate with property owners, but, according to Tipka, “he was a typical land person. An employee of a huge corporation, there to make landowners happy,” not to provide unbiased information.
The “Atlantic Sunrise” pipeline would run through 10 Pennsylvania counties, connecting other pipelines and moving natural gas for export. It’s a proposal from Williams Partners, a Tulsa-based Fortune 200 company.
As of November 2014, the pipeline is in a “public input” stage, before the federal government approves or denies the project. The project will also apply for eminent domain, which would give pipeline owners the power to take land if landowners won’t sell rights voluntarily.
Tipka started to worry about the proposed pipeline splitting his land in half – land that his family has owned for over 175 years. He went to public meetings held by the company, but company representatives quickly dismissed his concerns.
His bigger concern, though, lies in the mountain to the south of his land, where his great grandpappy milled timbers for the mines.
The abandoned coal lands near Shamokin, Pennsylvania, are scraggly and unnatural. There are mounds, ditches and barren patches. Coal and other rock are littered everywhere. These are the scars of mining, above- and below-ground, over many years.
The Glen Burn Colliery operated there for more than 130 years. It was once the second largest anthracite coal mine in the world. The waste produced by the mine – rock and coal dust – now sits as the world’s largest man-made mountain. There are three active fires inside the old tunnels.
The most famous place like this is Centralia, Pennsylvania — the “town-on-fire,” where the coal under town has been burning since 1962. But there are more than 30 other mine fires in Pennsylvania that most people don’t know about – like the fires where the Glen Burn Colliery used to be.
The natural gas pipeline is set to run right through the area of the Glen Burn fires.
Here’s what the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCRN) said about the fire in their December 2013 newsletter:
“The Glen Burn Mine Fire has started wildfires for as long as locals in Northumberland County can remember,” the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources reported in its December 2013 newsletter.
The government doesn’t really know the extent of the fires. The last time they tried to check was 1987, when they put in vent pipes to monitor track the flames.
The pipeline isn’t going directly over a fire. It’s going half a mile from the last known location of two of them. But it does run inside the natural limits of where the fire could spread.
Fire or not, the old tunnels run under the whole mountain and sometimes collapse. That causes surface cave-ins called subsidence. “The pipeline will be designed to maximize its intrinsic ability to span mine subsidence features,” the pipeline company has announced. But subsidence in the area is so bad it has destroyed roads and homes. Subsidence holes anywhere from 10 to 100 feet deep are easily visible in the area.
Leaking pipelines can also be destructive. Last year, five miles away from the proposed pipeline route, a leaking Sunoco gas pipeline destroyed 350 acres of land and groundwater.
Because of dangers presented by mine fires and subsidence, Tipka is fighting the pipeline.
“If they wanna come through here for $50,000, they’ll have to run me over with a bulldozer,” he said.
He’s convinced the township supervisors. They voted 5-0 to oppose the pipeline.
Tipka’s township isn’t the only one opposing it. Martic Township is against it. Over half the registered voters in Conestoga Township have signed a petition against the pipeline. Schuylkill County farmers are fighting it. Pine Grove borough is considering opposition. Though it only passes nearby, Lancaster City and Millersville Borough passed resolutions against the pipeline.
This article is reprinted with permission from the blog “Coal, Corn & Country.”A corporate video explains the purpose of the pipeline and some of the factors that influence routing decisions. Williams, the pipeline company, says the following in a website statement: “Williams is committed to working with landowners, as well as local, state and federal agencies, to design and construct the project in a manner that minimizes environmental and landowner impacts. The company is committed to extensive public outreach in advance of submitting our application to the [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission].”