NEWS ANALYSIS--Zrinski slams Bethlehem Twp. pipeline deal; commissioners respond
It’s no longer just nonbinding plastic straw bans. Northampton County Council member Tara Zrinski is now pursuing a new resolution, also nonbinding, taking aim at the PennEast Pipeline route through Bethlehem Tp. This one calls for an evacuation plan and asks PennEast to provide equipment for first responders.
Tara Zrinski is an at-large member of NorCo Council. Her resolution was discussed by Council’s Energy Committee July 17.
“I can’t just sit by and not do something,” she said. She was highly critical of Bethlehem Township’s Board of Commissioners and state lawmakers, who have already negotiated an agreement under which the township will receive $475,000..
PennEast Pipeline is a consortium of natural gas companies who want a 36-inch compressed natural gas pipeline extending 115 miles from Luzerne County to New Jersey. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) granted conditional approval Jan. 19, 2018. Northampton County Council has already adopted two resolutions, both penned by Zrinski, opposed to the pipeline.
In May, Bethlehem Township’s five commissioners unanimously approved a deal with PennEast under which the consortium agreed to move the pipeline 109 feet farther away from residences. It promised to bury the pipeline four-feet deep instead of the usual two-to-three feet. It pledged periodic inspections, including x-rays of pipe welds. Finally, it assented to a $475,000 cash payout to the township. This followed a year of negotiations that included commissioners, solicitor Jim Broughal, State Rep. Marcia Hahn and State Senator Lisa Boscola.
Zrinski slammed the deal because, she says, the township has failed to provide for an evacuation route that passes near residents, schools and hospitals.
“They threw their hands up,” she said. “They said they had Lisa Boscola on this, they had Marcia Hahn on this and they couldn’t negotiate. Their lawyer said, ‘Go ahead, take the 475.’ They didn’t ask for new firetrucks, emergency preparedness equipment. When you have PennEast in front of you, and they’re doling out millions of dollars to the water authority and you say, ‘Oh yes, I’ll take your first offer of $475,000.’ Mind blown.”
Zrinski also challenged the motives of negotiators.
“I think you have to look at the people who are negotiating these pipelines. They have different interests in them than we have,” she cautioned, failing to explain what she meant.
Zrinski wants to bring PennEast back to the table and get more equipment for first responders. She noted that homes, schools and even a maternity ward are within the 900-foot blast zone, but “[t]he $475,000 that Bethlehem Township received or will receive is hardly enough for even a firetruck.”
She said one township’s commissioner told her there is no evacuation route. She complained local municipalities are “unprepared to negotiate with pipeline companies or ask for the things that are necessary.”
“This poses a significant risk for people in this area for evacuation,” she complained. She said some residents would only have 40 seconds to evacuate.
“It doesn’t matter how much money you have when your house melts,” she continued.
In addition to criticizing commissioners, Zrinski also slammed state lawmakers.
“If our legislators are not doing their jobs, we have to push them to do it,” she said.
Zrinski is currently mulling a challenge to State Representative Marcia Hahn. She is also a solar energy sales representative.
She did most of the talking at this committee, which she chairs. It was difficult for council members to offer suggestions or ask questions without being interrupted by her.
Council President Ron Heckman did have a chance to express some reservations.
“Will it make a difference at the end of the day?” he asked of a nonbinding resolution. “It has absolutely no meaning to them or anyone else whatsoever.”
Zrinski sharply disagreed. She warned that, unless the county acts, “We’re going to get railroaded and put people in danger.”
Commissioners strongly dispute assertions
Three Bethlehem Township Commissioners - John Merhottein, JohnGallagher and Malissa Davis - have teamed up with a joint response to Zrinski’s proposed resolution.
“Our issue with Ms. Zrinskis comments regarding PennEast is she never appears to read below the headline. If she would have attended the meeting (or asked us) when we voted to accept the agreement with PennEast, she would have known we offered to accept no money if they would move the pipeline out of the blast zone of Hope Ridge (PennEast declined). The water authority has nothing to do with Bethlehem Township.
“Neither St. Lukes (assuming she means the maternity ward) nor any school are in the blast zone. Ms. Zrinski again muddles the facts to suit her purpose.
“Our mandate, under circumstances where we had no legal position to change things, was to protect Hope Ridge and we accomplished some pretty significant safety improvements.
“Here are the facts: PennEast had FERC approval. They did not have to negotiate with us. We negotiated and got the following safety concerns: Moving the pipeline over 100 feet from the proposed route, inspections as a class 4 pipeline, 100 percent x-ray of welds on the pipe, the pipeline buried an additional foot and the Residents in that area asked for a tree line. We did not accept the first offer from PennEast. Our ultimate goal was to move the pipeline as far as possible from Hope Ridge.
“We never ”threw our hands up.” Consider the position we were in with negotiating with PennEast (PennEast could have condemned the land, we could have gotten no safety concessions and less money). We are proud of what we accomplished. There were numerous phone calls and emails; a PennEast meeting with residents; and two negotiation sessions. We would not consider that throwing our hands up.
“Our ‘lawyer’ never said ‘take the 475.’ As a matter of fact, our Solicitor did what any good Solicitor should do, guided us through the negotiations, presented the facts and allowed the Board to make the decision. We did not accept the first monetary offer from PennEast.
“As for the ‘people who are negotiating these pipelines’ and their ‘interests in them,’ we can assure the residents of Bethlehem Township and Ms. Zrinski, our interest is and was the safety of our residents. Moving the pipeline farther away from Hope Ridge and the additional safety concessions we received are proof of that. We could have probably gotten more money and fewer safety concessions.
“We would like to note we do have an emergency response plan in conjunction with the County.
“As for what was or was not asked for, Tara Zrinski was not in the negotiation. She didn’t ask anyone on our negotiating team what we asked for, nor did she offer any suggestions. She never asked to sit in on negotiations. It is easy to criticize from afar, especially after the fact. Senator Lisa Boscola and Representative Marcia Hahn reached out to us and asked what they could do. Where was Tara?
“On a personal note, for Ms. Zrinski to make these comments, nonetheless put it in a resolution, without getting all the facts is hurtful and self-serving, not only to this Board, but to the public we both serve.”
Commissioner John Merhottein
Commissioner Malissa Davis
Commissioner John Gallagher