Judge to rule in Sunoco eminent domain challenges

January 21, 2014
A Sunoco pipeline project has come to a dead end at the South Spring Valley Road property owned by a North Strabane Township couple who are at the center of a legal battle to relocate the line. - Scott Beveridge / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Sunoco Pipeline believes Pennsylvania’s Business Corporation Law authorizes it to have eminent domain powers to condemn private property its needs across Washington County to develop a pipeline to ship Marcellus Shale products, the company’s attorney argued Tuesday in Washington County Court.

Kandice Hull, a Harrisburg attorney representing the Philadephia company, claimed in court the law qualifies Sunoco as a privately owned utility that can take property without federal approval for easements because it’s involved in developing an interstate pipeline for products classified as oil.

“We meet that law requirement without reference to any other authority,” Hull argued before Judge Katherine B. Emery as part of a challenge filed against Sunoco by the owners of 25 properties.

Sunoco planned to have construction under way in late 2013 on the 50-mile pipeline from the MarkWest natural gas processing plant in Chartiers Township to connect to a longer pipe in Delmont that travels across the state and into Delaware near Marcus Hook.

The project was delayed after Sunoco decided to end voluntary negotiations with the property owners and seek, instead, to condemn their land in separate lawsuits it filed in Washington County Court.

The Sunoco filings were consolidated and set aside after countersuits were filed against the company late last year by the owners of the 25 properties challenging the company’s right to claim public utility status.

“This is not one of those exceptions under the Business Corporation Law,” argued Harrisburg attorney Michael F. Faherty, who represents owners of 10 of the properties, including Ronald and Sallie Cox, who are fighting to protect the wooded area they own in front of their home on South Spring Valley Road.

The Cox case has become the first to reach a judge, and its outcome is expected to determine how the remaining cases will proceed through court.

Faherty said he believes Sunoco needs approval to use eminent domain power from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“This is a pipeline that needs to be regulated,” Faherty said.

Sunoco has four customers that would use the pipeline to ship ethane and propane, byproducts of what has been discovered in Marcellus Shale natural gas exploration. Range Resources of Southpointe identified itself as a major shipper on the line, while Sunoco declined to make public in court the identities of its other three customers in the project.

Hull said Sunoco “has acted in good faith” with the property owners and intends to provide them with adequate compensation for their losses.

Its right-of-way manager said the company seeks to post a $3,000 bond to cover any damages it causes to the Cox property during construction.

Emery said she planned to issue a “prompt” ruling in the Cox case but would give Faherty another week to submit a response to a previous Sunoco filing.

Scott Beveridge is a North Charleroi native who has lived most of his life in nearby Rostraver Township. He is a general assignments reporter focusing on investigative journalism and writing stories about the mid-Mon Valley. He has a bachelor's degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a master's from Duquesne University. Scott spent three weeks in Vietnam in 2004 as a foreign correspondent under an International Center for Journalists fellowship.

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