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Federal judge rules PennEast can use eminent domain to seize pipeline land


A New Jersey federal judge has ruled that PennEast Pipeline officials can begin seizing property from landowners through eminent domain.

U.S. District Judge Brian Martinotti said last Friday that the pipeline company is free to access private and public land along the proposed 117-mile route. PennEast Officials said there are 136 property owners affected under the New Jersey District Court ruling.

The federal ruling was expected and moves the $1.2 billion project a step closer to being completed.

Pipeline officials are “pleased with the ruling allowing the project to take another step forward in delivering low-cost, reliable energy that strengthens New Jersey’s economy and creates thousands of jobs,” Tony Cox, chairman of the PennEast Board of Managers, said in a statement.

Those who oppose the pipeline were not surprised by the ruling and continue to view the fight as a marathon with a series of key battles still ahead.

“We were hopeful that the judge would protect the property rights of individual homeowners, landowners and small business operators rather than side with large private enterprise and their insatiable appetite for outlandish earnings,” said Joe Buchanan, a founding member of Homeowners Against Land Taking (HALT) in a statement on the group’s Facebook page the day the ruling was handed down.

The group says it represents several thousand people whose homes, businesses and property rights are threatened by the pipeline’s construction.

“It is still wrong that the court gave PennEast access to get on people’s property,” Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club said in a statement following the ruling. “The granting of eminent domain will allow PennEast to do surveys on homeowner’s land so that they can reapply for permits with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) and the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC).”

Tittel said that PennEast does not yet have all of the permits needed to build the pipeline.

The DRBC still hasn’t scheduled hearings on the pipeline, according to Tittel. PennEast’s application process to the DRBC could take up to a year.

“Even though we lost this court case, the DRBC also has the power to stop PennEast Pipeline,” Tittel said. “So far, the commission has not moved forward with any of PennEast’s applications.”

Those who oppose the pipeline are also counting on the State of New Jersey to help in the fight.

“With this court ruling, the battle is now with Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration who will need to deny these new permit applications to stop this unneeded and dangerous project from being built,” Tittel said.

One of Murphy’s campaign promises last year was to fight against the pipeline.

The court ruling follows a similar ruling by Judge Malachy E. Mannion from the United States District Court for the Middle District several days before, which also provided the pipeline company with the ability to access the last property that had not been surveyed in Pennsylvania.

“Once in operation, PennEast will provide the low-cost energy for ratepayers to ultimately support future investments in higher cost wind and solar,” Cox said. “Our immediate next steps are to perform routine land, environmental and other ground-level surveys. These surveys will update and confirm data for certain federal and state permitting guidelines.”

Reports say that the pipeline company offered $3,000 for access to property in New Jersey along the pipeline route which runs from just north of Wilkes-Barre through a section of Bucks County, across the Delaware River to Hunterdon and Mercer counties in New Jersey.

“As a result of ongoing engagement with stakeholders, including New Jersey state agencies, PennEast aligned nearly half the New Jersey route with overhead power lines, including across certain preserved lands, to reduce tree clearing and other impacts,” Cox said. “Because impacts to certain preserved parcels must be mitigated under state law, PennEast is allocating millions of new dollars to new open space preservation.”

Homeowners say it’s not enough.

“At the end of the day, today’s court decision has only served to fortify the steadfast stance of homeowners, political leaders and so many others in opposition to this misguided initiative,” Delaware Township homeowner Vincent DiBianca said in the Facebook statement.

“We’re confident that in the end PennEast’s flaws, inaccuracies and misrepresentations will be revealed and the pipeline will not be approved,” said Michael Heffler, Lambertville resident and HALT member. “In many ways, our fight to protect our water supply, quality, and safety has just begun.”

“This is the water supply for 17 million people and a Wild and Scenic Area with Special Protection Waters, and we must protect it,” Tittel said.