Pipeline foes head to Columbia: Rock Hill SC Herald, 2/17/07

Opponents take fight against planned eminent domain seizure to state panel

By Monica Chen

Opponents to a 42-mile pipeline planned to run from York and Chester counties [in South Carolina] to Lancaster County have taken their fight to Columbia.

About 30 members of Patriots Against the Pipeline recently attended a hearing held by a committee assessing the state's eminent domain laws.

The committee - of which Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster, is a member - is expected make recommendations on possible changes next month.

Many of the residents who attended the hearing have been embroiled in lawsuits for months with Patriots Energy Group - a consortium of York, Chester and Lancaster Natural Gas Authorities that is planning the pipeline. The companies argue that because the pipeline is for the public good, they can use eminent domain powers to secure right-of-way for the construction.

General managers of the three natural gas authorities also attended the hearing in Columbia.

PEG officials have said the new pipeline will save the gas authorities $60 million over 30 years and will ensure available capacity to meet the area's growth.

But the residents say the proposed pipeline would unnecessarily intrude on their properties.

An existing line owned by Carolina Gas Transmission Corp., like PEG's proposed line, runs from an interstate gas pipeline west of York County to a station in Lancaster County.

Jim Olson, a former executive of Ford and Toyota now living in York County, spoke for the residents and bemoaned the lack of oversight of the natural gas authorities.

"They have banded together to form a large commercial entity, PEG, that will negotiate multi-year, multi-million-dollar purchase contracts over a multi-state area - subject to no regulation," Olson said, according to a copy of his statements.

Olson also called for required public hearings on PEG's plans.

"We believe future demand can be met by the existing pipeline company," Olson said, "making a new pipeline redundant and the damage it would cause unnecessary."

PEG officials embarked on a $32 million plan for a new transport line to connect to an interstate gas line in 2005. But they quickly encountered opposition from residents who bristled at offers for their land.

The lawsuits, filed by at least 11 landowners out of more than 100 along the pipeline's proposed route, have halted its plans. PEG has acquired some of the hundreds of acres needed for the project, but with the lawsuits pending, none of the pipes has been laid in the ground.

Tim Thornton, general manager of the Lancaster County Natural Gas Authority, said this week the new line would provide a measure of independence and cushion the area from pricing fluctuations.

At the hearing, Mike Enoch, general manager of the Chester County Natural Gas Authority, implored the legislators to preserve the status quo in eminent domain laws.

"Eminent domain exists because services such as electricity, natural gas, sewer and water are considered necessities," Enoch said in a prepared statement. "They are essential services upon which lives and livelihoods depend."

"The purpose of eminent domain is to prevent any property owner ... from denying an entire community adequate service," he added.

South Carolina law forbids a government from using its condemnation powers to seize property for private use unless it's used to eliminate blight. Utilities and special purpose districts also can seize property for the good of the public.

The study committee is one of two steps being taken to reform the state's eminent domain laws. The first was a constitutional amendment passed by voters in November that allows the legislature to enact laws that limit eminent domain powers.

The Eminent Domain Study Committee is expected to make recommendations by March 15.

Rock Hill SC Herald: http://www.heraldonline.com