During construction of the controversial Atlantic Sunrise gas pipeline through Lancaster County, Williams Partners removed a stormwater detention basin near the Pinehurst Manor mobile home park in Rapho Township. This action was taken without township approval and despite officials’ requests for further information, as Ad Crable reported in a front-page investigation in Thursday’s LNP. Then, on Aug. 31, disaster struck when 10 inches of rain fell in that area. With the absence of the stormwater basin possibly exacerbating the emergency, water surged through the mobile home park, endangering lives, destroying six residences and damaging 18 other homes. Residents are seeking answers about why it happened and who will pay for damages.
You can’t control the weather. But you can control your level of preparedness for weather emergencies.
And that’s why we are alarmed by the actions — or lack thereof in some cases — of Oklahoma-based Williams Partners and the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Williams Partners built and will operate the $3 billion Atlantic Sunrise pipeline, which will move natural gas from northern Pennsylvania through the central part of the state, and onward to markets along the eastern seaboard, including an export terminal on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. The pipeline is ready for operation, and Williams Partners has asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission this month for permission to begin sending natural gas through.
There is a long, winding and often-bitter history regarding the construction of the pipeline through Lancaster County.
Today we’re focusing on one small spot in Rapho Township.
While constructing the pipeline, Williams Partners determined that the temporary removal of a stormwater basin near two-dozen residences and Route 230 in Rapho Township was necessary.
So it demolished the basin — without the blessing of the township.
“When we saw they were penetrating that basin, we said, ‘Timeout!’ ” township engineer Jim Caldwell told LNP.
There was no timeout.
Additionally, township officials twice requested details on how and when Williams Partners would replace the destroyed basin.
There was no response.
Rapho Township refused to issue a “stormwater consistency letter” approval for the pipeline’s ongoing work.
It didn’t matter, though, because the state DEP, which ultimately handles approvals of pipeline work and environmental controls, gave a green light to the temporary basin removal. Williams Partners says that Rapho Township’s concerns were considered by the DEP “in crafting conditions” of its permits for the pipeline.
The rains come
On Aug. 31, the skies opened in a once-in-1,000-year event. Floodwaters raged through Pinehurst Manor, perhaps muddier than normal due to the adjacent bare-earth pipeline site. Every residence in the mobile home park was affected, with at least 25 percent of them total losses.
And it could have been worse than just property damage.
“Two girls had to be plucked through a window by a human chain as water rose to 4 feet inside the mobile homes and to the tops of vehicles,” LNP’s Crable wrote. “Fire companies in boats puttered among the mobile homes, helping others escape.”
It is fortunate there were no deaths.
But questions surrounding the removal and lingering absence of the protective stormwater basin have been raised.
“Anything that would have slowed (the water) down would have helped,” mobile home park owner Gerald Eberly told LNP. “The water obviously came from there.”
“An act of God made the storm, but they made it worse,” resident Tracy Wilkinson added, pointing the finger at Williams Partners’ removal of the basin.
Whether this is true needs to be answered. And in a way that can be trusted.
Rapho Township officials, meanwhile, told LNP they do not think the basin’s presence would have staved off the worst of the flooding.
“I’d say it would have held some water back — maybe a fraction of 1 percent of the water. I could not pin this one on the pipeline,” Caldwell, the township engineer, said.
Williams Partners said it is still investigating the flooding — in conjunction with Rapho Township and the Lancaster County Conservation District — though spokesman Christopher Stockton said, in a statement, “Our preliminary inspection indicates that the flooding does not appear to have been caused by our construction.”
Certainly, we don’t yet have all the answers.
There remain legitimate questions about the extent to which the removal and absence of the stormwater basin exacerbated the Aug. 31 flood.
We agree there should be a thorough investigation, but believe it should be handled by an independent party with no stake in the matter. Williams Partners should be interviewed and provide documentation, but should not have anything to do with crafting the report on this flooding. The state DEP probably shouldn’t take the lead, either.
There’s much at stake for the Pinehurst Manor residents who lost almost everything. Few, if any, of them have flood insurance. Their options are sparse. There is damage to the park’s drinking water system and paved roads. If they are to have recourse beyond the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the kindness of strangers, they’re going to need a timely, thorough and unbiased investigation of the factors in the flood.
However it turns out, we’re ultimately dismayed at how the removal of this stormwater basin was handled. Lives and property were unnecessarily endangered, and the protests of an engineer were ignored. It seems to us that there should be consequences for these transgressions.
A Williams Partners spokesperson says the stormwater basin will be fully restored as soon as weather allows.
We hope that happens without another moment’s delay.
Because you never know when heavy rains will fall again.