Six years later, pipeline struggle continues in Carbon
Bridgette Shambo’s dream home sits atop a sloping, grassy lawn.
To access it, one must travel up a steep and narrow drive, shaded by leafy branches and lined on one side by stone and pebble. Out of the cover of greenery is Shambo’s home. Beyond it, there are just trees.
The house’s brick face is among the few features Shambo didn’t pick herself. That, and the underground geothermal heating system her boyfriend, Eric McKeever, installed. The two live in the Towamensing Township dwelling with Shambo’s daughter, Leah Dietrich, and their dog, Randy.
“You know like when you’re little, and you draw things, and most little girls draw houses and the sun,” Shambo said. “This is it for me. … This is where we want to be.”
Before Shambo and McKeever decided to buy the property and build on it, they found out a startling detail: A pipeline was to be constructed across the street. The project was headed by PennEast, the company that’s spent years trying to build an over 100-mile natural gas channel between Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Shambo wasn’t excited about the project. But it wasn’t a deal-breaker either. So she and her boyfriend started making plans for their new home in Carbon County.
Then a certified letter came from PennEast. The pipeline wasn’t going across the street, the letter read. It was going through Shambo’s property.
If her lot was a square, she noted, then the pipeline was cutting right through it.
“There’s so much nature here,” Shambo said. “Them coming through and doing this - it’s just going to destroy it.”
Last March, Shambo spoke at a Towamensing Township board of supervisors meeting. The pipeline, she told the board, would lay next to a 500-pound propane tank buried in her lawn. It would also sit near the family’s underground well.
“If something were to go wrong,” Shambo warned in the spring, “it would go terribly wrong.”
But Towamensing Supervisor Guy Seifert said there wasn’t much the township could do. He told Shambo that the best defense landowners have is joining a local citizens group fighting the pipeline, known as Save Carbon County.
Shambo has been attending their meetings since she discovered the proposed pipeline underlined her property, and she said it’s been a whirlwind. “I feel like my emotions change with each new breaking news,” she said.
It’s not just the organic beauty encircling her home that Shambo worries about. She’s concerned for the people inside of it, too. PennEast’s plan includes a pipeline capable of carrying 1 billion cubic feet of gas per day.
“If this goes in, and something’s wrong, how responsive are they going to be if we smell gas?” Shambo asked.
“What if we don’t smell gas?”
A six-year battle
PennEast introduced its interstate pipeline around this time in 2014. The company proposed starting it in Pennsylvania’s northeastern Luzerne County and ending the pipe in New Jersey’s Mercer County, cutting through three other state counties and one other in New Jersey. It put forth a 2017 in-service date.
Where the company hadn’t been able to settle with landowners for rights of way, it looked to get ahold of easements through eminent domain.
Half a decade later, construction on the pipeline has yet to begin. Though the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted PennEast a certificate of public convenience two years ago, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals later ruled it couldn’t use eminent domain to condemn 40-odd New Jersey-owned properties on its pipeline route. (That ruling could be challenged in the Supreme Court, which requested last month for the solicitor general to weigh in on the matter.)
That pending case in New Jersey led PennEast to change its approach earlier this year. Instead of packaging the pipeline as one, it filed an amendment with FERC to build it in parts. The first phase, which PennEast has said will be complete by the end of 2021, is the pipeline’s construction in Pennsylvania. The second is building the portion in New Jersey by 2023.
But Linda Christman, president of Save Carbon County, hopes neither manage to break ground.
Christman lives on a farm in Towamensing with her husband, Roy Christman. A white, wooden sign erected at one corner of the yard marks the land’s preserved status.
“We didn’t preserve it so a pipeline could go through it,” Christman said.
Soon after PennEast unveiled its pipeline, Christman helped form Save Carbon County. “If you buy a piece of property, you have a reasonable expectation that you’re not going to have to do something that you absolutely don’t want to do with the property,” Christman said.
“They don’t recognize the damage that they do to people, to their lives,” she said.
Albertine Anthony is one of the landowners opposing the pipeline with Save Carbon County.
Anthony lives on a 120-acre farm that’s been in her family for three generations. It was owned by her grandfather and father. When Anthony’s mother died in 1983, it became hers.
Anthony was raised on the property, and in the 95 years she has lived, a freshwater spring has supplied water to the house. It doesn’t require electricity, nor is it tied to a well. It’s a gravity-fed system - one that’s sensitive to change, and one PennEast wants to cut across with its pipeline.
“It won’t be the same,” Anthony said.
“They shouldn’t have the right to it,” she said. “It’s reserved. … But they don’t care. If they want to do something, they want to do it. That’s the way I look at it.”
Years ago, in the ’60s, the Christmans sold more than 400 acres of land. It was acquired by the state and used toward the establishment of Beltzville State Park, a popular Carbon attraction that sees thousands of visitors annually.
To Christman, that case - where the family’s land was seized through eminent domain - differs from the one they face today. “It’s not like a pipeline where you’re just talking about a company’s bottom line,” she said. “It’s really a public benefit.”
Christman still thinks about something a fellow landowner once told her. The Save Carbon County leader recalls it under the shade of her porch one early July afternoon. Behind her home is a field of barley, which PennEast wants to cross with pipe. Before her is a grassy yard and a sign advertising Save Carbon County, a small token of her bid to stop them.
The other landowner told Christman: “You think you own a piece of land until somebody richer comes along.”
Christman barely skips a beat.
“That’s exactly right,” she says.