As more pipelines are proposed to transport Pennsylvania’s vast natural gas resources around the region, there’s growing concern about their impacts on the landscape. In the case of the proposed PennEast pipeline—which will stretch more than 100 miles from Luzerne County, Pennsylvania to New Jersey—some environmentalists are particularly concerned about the impacts on so-called “exceptional value wetlands.” Worried that the project wasn’t getting proper scrutiny from regulators, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network recently commissioned a report on the PennEast pipeline’s potential footprint. And we chatted with ecologists James Schmid and Steve Kunz about some of the findings in their report.

The Allegheny Front: So let’s start with some basic vocabulary: What exactly are “exceptional value wetlands,” and what’s the significance of that designation when it comes to construction of the PennEast pipeline?

James Schmid: Wetlands are divided into two classes for regulatory purposes. Exceptional value wetlands meet specific criteria, such as providing home for endangered species that are wetland inhabitants. Everything else is classed as an “other” wetland. The designation is used to determine the availability of certain permits that are allowed in other wetlands but not in exceptional value wetlands.

Steve Kunz: The standard of review is higher for exceptional value wetlands. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is not supposed to issue a permit in an exceptional value wetland if there’s an adverse impact on the wetland or the project is not water dependent. The bog turtle is of particular interest in this pipeline project because the pipeline goes through four counties in Pennsylvania. And three of those are known habitat for bog turtles.

LISTEN: In the Rush to Build Gas Pipelines, Are Wetlands Being Overlooked?

AF: And so take us through some of the main findings in your report.

SK: So PennEast has identified 153 different wetlands along the route in Pennsylvania, and 60 percent of them are exceptional value wetlands. They want to clear the pipeline right-of-way to have access to it, so one type of impact that these pipelines have is converting forested wetlands to herbaceous wetlands. If the wetland is herbaceous, it’s just grasses and sedges, and they don’t really have to clear anything. But if it’s a forested wetland, they’re going to cut down the forest in the right-of-way and maintain it as an herbaceous wetland. So they’re proposing the permanent conversion of about eight acres of wetlands.

Another issue is the wetland delineations for this project were not finished when we finished our report in July 2016. The proposed pipeline covers about 79 miles in Pennsylvania, but about 19 miles of that had not yet been investigated for wetlands—primarily because landowners had not granted access. And that’s a problem for the regulatory agencies like DEP because they shouldn’t have accepted the application for review until all of the work was done to identify the important resources along the route. They have accepted the application for a water quality certification, so that’s under review by the DEP. And that’s sort of concerning. We also looked at the wetlands that were delineated, and we saw some problems with the delineations. In some places, they were under-mapped. And if they were shown correctly, the impact would have been calculated as being larger.

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The tiny bog turtle is North America’s smallest turtle. It is listed both as a Pennsylvania endangered species and threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. It lives in three of the four counties included in the PennEast pipeline’s proposed route. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

AF: So what are your recommendations?

SK: We have always recommended for this pipeline and other projects that the wetland delineation be reviewed by the regulatory agencies in the field. The Pennsylvania DEP doesn’t routinely do that, but the Army Corps of Engineers does have a process set up to do this for any kind of project. It’s a common thing that someone proposing to build a shopping center has to delineate the wetlands and then get the Corps of Engineers out to the site to look at their flag delineation in the field, make any adjustments and the Corps will approve that drawing. And if that simple process were followed for these pipelines, then you would have some assurance that the resources were properly identified. You can’t protect the resource if it’s not identified.

AF: And it sounds like that’s something you’ve seen before.

JS: It has been our experience that regulatory agencies are underfunded. Their funding has been reduced dramatically in the last 10 years, even though their workload has increased greatly with the coming of gas production and pipeline construction in Pennsylvania. And they don’t have much time to put into these efforts. And that’s why the conservation groups have been concerned that they may not be able to do a proper job of examining the information that has been submitted.

SK:  The comments that we provided on the PennEast pipeline are the kinds of things we hope the Pennsylvania DEP will consider as they review this application. Now in the case of PennEast, the main state permit that they need to get is the one that deals with wetlands and streams. The applicant has applied for that permit, but the state has not yet deemed the PennEast application complete for technical review. So we’re hopeful that our comments will help the agency suggest changes or additional information so they can do a proper review and make a decision to issue a permit or not. But based on what we’ve seen in the past with permits that have been issued for projects like this, we’re not too optimistic that all of the comments will be incorporated.

AF: Do you see this as a concern going forward, as we see more natural gas infrastructure being proposed?

SK: Yes, it’s a real concern. What’s the rush? If it’s a good project and it’s something that’s going to benefit the public, then it deserves a comprehensive review to make sure it’s not damaging the environmental resources that we all depend on.

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Ecologists James Schmid and Steve Kunz are the authors of a new report on the potential impacts of the PennEast pipeline on wetlands along the route. The Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which commissioned the report, says it will use the findings to challenge DEP’s Section 401 Water Quality Certification for the PennEast Pipeline project. Patricia Kornick, a spokesperson for PennEast, calls the report flawed and questionable. “PennEast places its confidence in FERC’s July 22 draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), for which several qualified organizations and regulatory agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish & Wildlife, have provided input over the last two years,” Kornick said in an email. Meanwhile, the DEP’s Neil Shader says, “Earlier this month, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that DEP’s procedures regarding Section 401 Water Quality Certifications are appropriate.” Shader acknowledges the agency has limitations, but says there are dedicated staff working on pipeline permit applications.