All summer long, pipeline protesters have been camped along the Potomac River in Maryland and West Virginia. They don’t want to see a 3.5 mile long TransCanada natural gas pipeline built underneath the river. Supporters argue the line is critical to expanding natural gas resources to businesses and homes in the growing Eastern Panhandle.
Of the three outermost counties of the Eastern Panhandle, only Berkeley has access to natural gas as a utility source. That gas comes from West Virginia’s largest gas distribution company – Mountaineer Gas based in Charleston.
Mountaineer has over 220,000 customers throughout the state. It’s located in 49 of West Virginia’s 55 counties, and it maintains over 6,000 miles of distribution pipeline.
The company wants to expand distribution lines to Jefferson and Morgan counties. To do that, it’s relying on the completion of the TransCanada line in Maryland which would hook up to Mountaineer’s 22.5 miles of new line slated to begin construction in early 2018. The state’s Public Service Commission has already approved the first phase of the project.
But sections of that 22.5 mile pipeline will travel through private property – like this 600 acre farm owned by the Kesecker family in Berkeley Springs.
“It’s just very heartbreaking to know that you thought you owned something, and, you do until somebody else wants it, and they come in and they take it away from you,” said landowner Patricia Kesecker.
Kesecker and her husband raised their family in Berkeley Springs. Their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren all live nearby.
The Keseckers farm extensively and the property has been in the family for over 80 years. They also rent portions of land to about ten other people. For the past year the family has been very vocal about their disapproval of the Mountaineer Gas’ Eastern Panhandle Pipeline project.
In June, they were taken to court by Mountaineer Gas, and the Keseckers lost. Mountaineer obtained the right of eminent domain. This means the company is allowed on the Kesecker’s property without prior consent, but the company must compensate the family.
The Keseckers say, however, they don’t want money.
“I mean, we’re at the age, yeah, money would be nice, but it’s not nice to have to see our farm destroyed and it's not worth it. There's too much heritage, too much work that’s been done on this farm; blood, sweat, and tears.”
The family plans to appeal the court decision.
Kesecker shows me the vast expanse of acreage from her pickup truck. She points to an 8 to 10 acre field slated to host the pipeline. She says if the line goes through her property, it’ll disrupt corn and hay farming operations. Her family and tenants are also concerned about possible explosions or gas leaks.
“Why should they have our property and use it to what they want to do, and we’re paying the taxes still on it, and the insurance on our farm is on it? If it blows up, we wouldn’t have enough money to put back what they destroy or whoever they might kill in the process if you go across it with a tractor or something,” Kesecker said.
The 10-inch, steel, low-pressure pipeline would be buried at least four feet underground. Mountaineer Gas would clear and maintain a 50-foot right of way.
Senior Vice President of Mountaineer Gas, Moses Skaff says it’s rare that his company has needed to use eminent domain to secure pipeline pathways. He says the case with the Keseckers was one of only two for the Eastern Panhandle Pipeline. Skaff says out of 146 land tracts, 138 have been secured through deals with landowners.
Skaff also points out that Mountaineer has been present in the Martinsburg area for over 50 years without any reported safety issues.
“We have a 24-hour monitoring system of all of our distribution lines that provide alerts to our corporate office here in Charleston, which is manned 24-hours," Skaff noted, "We’re mandated by West Virginia Pipeline Safety to conduct surveys of all of our pipeline, meaning we actually walk pipelines to ensure the integrity of those pipelines.”
Skaff reports less than one significant incident a year occurs along their distribution system. He says his company also trains local emergency responders how to deal with incidents. He notes landowners near the pipeline also have the option to tap-in for access to natural gas.
John Reisenweber is the Executive Director of the Jefferson County Development Authority, and like residents of Morgan County, he doesn’t have access to natural gas. Reisenweber is a landowner, too, and says he understands concerns over eminent domain.
“If we didn’t at times use eminent domain, we wouldn’t get anything done," Reisenweber said, "We wouldn’t be able to build roads, I mean, this route 9; go find somebody who’s doesn’t like route 9. Go find them. Well, they were here a few years ago, and some of that was eminent domain. But they are compensated for it. They may not like it, but you have to look at what’s in the greatest interest of the community at large, and we believe that this project is in the greatest interest of the community at large, cause we do believe it’ll be done safely, and we do believe it’ll allow us to grow the economy.”
Back at the Kesecker farm, the family is hopeful their appeal will be heard in court. They also hope the shorter TransCanada line is not built. They say if it isn’t, their property would be spared since the Eastern Panhandle Pipeline project would have to be reworked.
Mountaineer Gas says the TransCanada line is vital to the future of natural gas in the Eastern Panhandle.