Pipelines concern public

The threat of the use of eminent domain by a pipeline company drew public outcry last week.

The Public Utility Commission held two hearings last week in Susquehanna County, allowing testimony to be given in response to Laser Northeast Gathering Co. LLC’s application for a certificate of public convenience from the commission.
The hearings, held in Great Bend and South Montrose, each drew crowds of over 200 people. Administrative Law Judge Susan D. Colwell presided over the hearings, accepting speakers’ testimony into the official record.
At the Wednesday night hearing held at the Elk Lake American Legion hall, Craige Stevens, of Silver Lake Twp., said he lives on the pipeline route.
“What are you offering my neighbors and I to do this?” questioned Stevens. He said that unless the company was supplying gas to the area, it should not be considered a public utility.
Stevens also spoke against the company being allowed to use eminent domain to take the land needed to complete the 30 mile stretch of pipeline that cuts through the Silver Lake, Liberty and Great Bend township areas to the Millenium Pipeline in New York.
“When you show up at my house with the sheriff and take (my land) from me anyway that’s called theft,” Stevens said.
His comments, along with those of many others speaking against Laser’s PUC application, drew thunderous applause and cheers from many in the audience.
Keith Operg, of Brackney and also a member of E.L. Rose Conservatory, said most of the landowners in the area care deeply about their land.
Operg said, “Local landowners should determine the best uses of their land. The power of eminent domain should not be taken lightly.”
The hearing also drew people from out of the Susquehanna County area who offered testimony against granting the use of eminent domain to Laser.
Drake Saxton, of Muncy, asked the PUC to reject Laser’s application for public utility status.
He argued the company was “masquerading as a public utility to use the power of eminent domain.”
The power, said Saxton, would deprive landowners from negotiating a fair market price for their land.
Frank Finan, of Hop Bottom, offered to play five minutes of a video, edited down from one hour. Finan said the video suggested the pipeline companies would use eminent domain.
His video was not accepted or played at the hearing because it was edited and could be taken out of context. However, the hour-long video was taken by the PUC and Finan was told it would be reviewed in its entirety.
Although the possibility of eminent domain was the foremost concern voiced at the hearing, some also expressed concern about possible environmental damage and safety concerns along the pipeline.
Richard Jordan, of Montrose, said the possibility of declining property values were also a concern.
Jordan also argued that Laser had “no reason to subject the company to the regulation of the PUC other than for the power of eminent domain.”
He also said that if the average landowner did not have the means to challenge the taking of their land in the court system.
Leslie Avakian, of Greenfield Twp., said, “Eminent domain is the key issue.”
She argued the proposed pipeline was not the same as power transmission companies regulated by the PUC.
“The idea of forced inclusion into a corporate entity seems unjustifiable and unlawful,” Avakian said.
Dr. Thomas Jiunta, of Shavertown, said acquiring PUC status was “basically a corporate convenience’ for Laser.
In the afternoon hearing in Great Bend, County Commissioner Michael Giangrieco offered testimony.
“I don’t want a private company to tell me when and how I can use my land,” said Giangrieco. “They say it’s a last resort, but it will become one of the first resorts. Our experience shows that this industry views landowners as an inconvenience.”
While principals of Laser Northeast, Scranton native Tom Karam and Texan Chip Berthelot, were in the hall, they did not testify. They defended their plans with some attendees during breaks in the hearing, which stretched on for three hours.
Karam said eminent domain is not an unfettered power that negates property owners’ rights and interests, but rather a due process that includes a hearing before a local quasi-judicial board of view, just compensation, and an appeals process.
Beyond that, condemnation is something Laser Northeast wants to avoid because of the expense and bad feelings it engenders, Karam said.
Technical hearings on the application will be held in August in Harrisburg. Judge Colwell will issue her recommendation to the commission by year’s end, she said. The full commission will make a decision at a later date.
Times-Shamrock writer Dave Falchek contributed to this report.