In Chesco town, opposition helped stop proposed gas pipeline

Posted: March 12, 2013

Amy Shenk had never joined a protest movement, never organized neighbors, never passed around petitions or printed signs.

And then last year, a man from a gas company came knocking at the door of Shenk's home in Warwick Township, in the rural north end of Chester County.

What he showed her was a tentative map of a proposal from three companies to run a "Commonwealth pipeline" right through Hopewell Big Woods, a 73,000-acre forest that local residents fought hard for years to preserve. He wanted permission to survey her land.

She balked. A movement was born, and however reluctantly, Shenk became a leader.

"I am not an activist," she said. "I've never been involved in anything like this before."

Gas pipelines are hardly new to the county, and plans for the Commonwealth pipeline are on hold indefinitely. But residents of the tiny township and public officials have mobilized nonetheless, launching a website, recruiting environmental experts to study potential impacts in the Big Woods, and dotting the roads in and around Warwick with bright red signs that read "Stop Pipelines Here."

When the Commonwealth representative visited Shenk, the three companies involved with the project were working out potential routes for a line intended to move natural gas from Marcellus Shale reserves in Lycoming County south through Chester County.

Since January, however, the plans have been on hold indefinitely because of economic conditions. Applications haven't yet been submitted to the federal agencies tasked with approving pipeline construction.

But Warwick isn't taking any chances, Shenk said.

"If other pipeline companies see how strongly the residents do not want a pipeline coming through this area, they might not even try," she said.

Natural gas pipelines are not new in the state. During the last two years, the federal government has approved 25 projects related to pipelines and natural gas processing. In Southeastern Pennsylvania, 10 pipeline projects have been approved since 2008.

And thanks to the Marcellus Shale deposits, for the first time in a century, Pennsylvania has become a net exporter of natural gas.

Chester County is the venue for several pipelines and two compressor stations, in West Vincent Township and Downingtown. The federal government is reviewing an expansion project for the Columbia NiSource pipeline - to run alongside an existing one - and a replacement of a portion of the Williams-Transco pipeline under Brandywine Creek was recently approved.

But residents are wary of any threats to the area's environmental resources, and they evidently have the ears of lawmakers.

Warwick Township Supervisor Charles Jacobs said Warwick and neighboring townships were preparing rebuttals in case Commonwealth representatives decided to proceed.

But Commonwealth officials say that isn't likely.

Low gas prices, a slow economy, and existing pipelines in the area all contributed to the current hold on the project, said Simon Bowman, a spokesman for UGI Corp., one of the three companies involved with the Commonwealth pipeline.

To get it going again, gas prices would have to rise, he said.

But future pipeline projects could face stiff resistance in Chester County, lawmakers have warned.

State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D., Chester) has introduced three bills designed to increase oversight of pipeline construction and is sending a letter inviting gas company representatives to speak with community members next week, he said.

"They should understand that resistance in Chester County is the greatest they will find anywhere in the commonwealth," he said. "We value the environment. And there are enough people who have the skills, talents, and financial resources to resist encroaches done insensibly and without proper community dialogue."

Contact Aubrey Whelan at 610-313-8112,, or follow on Twitter @aubreyjwhelan.

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