Not in Anyone’s Backyard?

A new pressurized natural gas pipeline pitted Duke Energy against Hamilton County residents who didn’t want it running under their streets or near their schools. With construction completed, the focus now shifts to safe operations.

Illustration by Dante Terzigni

Justin and Ann Feldman used to love their home in Reading, until Duke Energy constructed a high-pressure natural gas pipeline under Market Street in front of it. “The scariest part is that if that line was cracked and would catch fire and would explode,” says Justin Feldman, his voice rising, “we could be incinerated.” The Feldmans’ daughter and grandchildren also live on the pipeline route, deepening their fears.

For nearly six years, the Feldmans fought Duke Energy over the construction of the C314V Central Corridor Pipeline. Many in Hamilton County did, from local high schoolers to seniors to politicians. Nearly every community on the route intervened. But the fight came to an end in September, with a decision by the Supreme Court of Ohio to side with the Ohio Power Siting Board and grant Duke a certificate to build.

“The decision is a disappointment,” said a statement from city leaders in Blue Ash, who, along with the municipalities of Reading and Evendale and a grassroots opposition group, argued their case to the state supreme court. “The City put up a strong fight to protect the community and its residents.”

Now it’s done. The final weld of the approximately 13-mile pipeline was made on December 14, and it now lies a minimum of four feet underground from the southern border of Butler County through the Hamilton County communities of Sycamore Township, Blue Ash, Sharonville, Evendale, Reading, Amberley Village, Golf Manor, and Cincinnati, ending at Duke’s C350 Norwood Station.

Justin and Ann Feldman.

Photograph by Dylan Bauer

Safety has always been opponents’ biggest concern. An average of 11 people die each year in pipeline incidents, according to 10- year tracking by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Duke plans to have the pipeline operational by early March, with restoration projects along the route wrapping up this spring. Company leaders reiterate that they’ve exceeded federal safety requirements and have the track record to operate the pipeline safely. Statistically, now that the pipeline is in the ground, the biggest danger may be, well, the rest of us.

Glenn Rosen couldn’t believe what he was reading. It was February 2016, and one of Duke’s first pipeline letters had arrived at his Blue Ash home on Bleuwing Terrace—one of hundreds of households to receive the notice. “We are writing to inform you of a proposed natural gas pipeline project being designed in order to increase the reliability and dependability of the natural gas delivery system in the area,” the letter read. “Providing safe, reliable natural gas is a responsibility we at Duke Energy take very seriously. This pipeline will ensure natural gas reliability for the next generation in Hamilton County.”

Rosen began googling 30-inch pipelines, as described in the letter, and soon landed on news articles about explosions, including one in 2010 in San Bruno, California, that leveled a residential neighborhood, killed eight people, and injured 58. Federal investigators determined the utility company, Pacific Gas and Electric, caused the explosion with flawed record-keeping and sloppy maintenance.

“I realized this was a huge deal,” Rosen says, recalling his initial thoughts. He began going door to door to consult his neighbors and became one of the founding members of the grassroots organization Neighbors Opposing Pipeline Extension (NOPE), which fought Duke to the Ohio Supreme Court. NOPE’s membership grew into the hundreds, and it organized public forums to rally regional politicians, school and business leaders, academic experts, environmentalists, and others who opposed the project. It helped get more than 1,000 letters of opposition filed against Duke’s application for a Certificate of Environmental Compatibility and Public Need from state regulators. There are no local votes taken on these matters.

In general, NOPE believed the pipeline was unnecessary and irresponsible. Many saw the plan as a money-making deal for Duke and not a benefit to the people it endangered. NOPE worked with experts to calculate a “blast zone” to qualify and quantify what was at stake, pointing out that all of the proposed pipeline routing options went by schools, churches, work, and business centers. One jogged right by Jewish Hospital and Kenwood Towne Centre.

The route Rosen’s house was on would get dropped early in the process, but he and others continued to fight. It wasn’t a “NIMBY” (not in my backyard) issue, but a not-in-anyone’s-yard one, he says.

The Central Corridor Pipeline was constructed to move natural gas to customers in Hamilton County from a northern pipeline in Butler County. Duke officials said the company needed to build the pipeline, originally estimated to cost $110 million, in order to retire two propane caverns and not risk putting some customers out of service. The pipeline must be pressurized to move and balance gas through the system, though the amount of pressure necessary was always part of the public debate.

Duke initially estimated the project would be completed by 2018, but community backlash held it up, with a drawn-out application process that involved the community clamoring for more public participation and an eight-month delay at the company’s request.

After a three-day hearing in Columbus, the Ohio Power Siting Board granted Duke a certificate to build in November 2019. The board included the chair of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, Sam Randazzo, who stepped down in 2020 after becoming ensnared in the House Bill 6 bribery scandal; FirstEnergy Corp. admitted to giving him millions of dollars in consulting fees and bribes.

NOPE and others responded with a formal request for a rehearing, arguing that Duke hadn’t done its due diligence related to required details of the pipeline route OPSB selected—not Duke’s preferred route, but an alternate one. The OPSB said no to a new hearing, and NOPE members and the communities of Blue Ash, Reading, and Evendale appealed that decision to the Ohio Supreme Court. The court accepted the case but did not put a stay on construction, so Duke kept building.

In September 2021, the court concurred with the Ohio Power Siting Board that Duke proved it needed to build the pipeline.

NOPE may have lost the pipeline war in the end, but group member Jared Newman, a Blue Ash resident, says the movement prevailed in a few ways. After the community rallied, Duke scaled down the size of the pipeline from 30 inches to 20, pressurizing it up to 400 pounds per square inch instead of its initial 600 psi maximum. The company’s then-president of Ohio and Kentucky, Jim Henning, announced that “based on the 2,900 comments we received, we think we have put forth the best solution for the community.”

Newman says the Ohio Power Siting Board got a slap on the wrist from the state supreme court for not following its own rules, which perhaps will improve the process for future pipeline applications. He’s talking about the segment of Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor’s opinion that agreed with NOPE, Reading, and Blue Ash. (Evendale exited the case before the court made its ruling.) She said Duke had not provided all of the materials required in the state application to prove it had fully investigated the route ultimately chosen by the Ohio Power Siting Board. “While an agency has a certain amount of discretion in adopting rules to carry out the legislative objective, agencies should not be permitted to ‘pick and choose’ which rules they will follow,” her opinion reads. “Failing to be consistent in the execution of administrative rules affects the citizens of our state and does a disservice to our system of government.”

Still, the court decided that Reading, Blue Ash, and NOPE had not proven they were harmed by the state agency’s error and concurred with its decision that Duke should be granted a certificate to build.

Duke’s reasons for needing to build the Central Corridor haven’t changed since the beginning, says Sally Thelen, the company’s longtime local spokesperson. “It has always been about us needing to retire the propane caverns and needing to balance our supply in our system and to have the ability to upgrade infrastructure without having to take people out of service,” she says. “Without this kind of pipeline down the backbone of the county, we wouldn’t have been able to do that.”

The Ohio Power Siting Board, too, placed retiring the 60-year-old propane peaking stations—another name for the caverns— at the top of its reasons for approval. Thelen says Duke has operated the stations, which are located hundreds of feet underground, about 10 days each year to supplement the region’s natural gas supply—usually on the coldest days when natural gas demands are high. “We would lose 50,000 customers if we were to lose a propane cavern,” she says. “These are antiquated technology that we need to get off of our system so we aren’t reliant, frankly, on something we don’t have a lot of control over.”

If something went wrong with one of the limestone caverns, it would need to be retired immediately, Thelen says, which could cause long outages. “I wouldn’t want to be the somebody who has to figure out which 50,000 customers aren’t going to get gas.”

As for safety measures on the pipeline itself, Thelen says Duke has gone beyond what’s required, including doubling the thickness of C314V’s steel walls. The company X-rayed every weld and will monitor the pipeline 24/7 with scheduled inspections, she says. In its initial application to the state, the public utility company promised to keep records for all repairs, inspections, and patrols.

In addition, Thelen says, Duke installed remote control shut-off valves every 2.5 miles along the pipeline and in strategic locations to be able to shut it down more quickly in case of a leak. The pipeline will be marked as close to the ground as is practical, which is standard, but the company also installed warning strips in the dirt above the pipeline so that anyone who might dig should hit the warning strip first.

Pipelines are quite safe in the U.S., says Michelle Michot Foss, a fellow in energy, minerals, and materials at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Being underground, for one, protects them better than other forms of our energy infrastructure.

“For the most part, all of our system is state of the art,” Foss says, explaining that the U.S. began regulating public utilities early on and the result was a fairly standardized and regulated industry. If you look hard at the data, she says, ruptures or explosions usually occur because of an outside force like construction or an earthquake. It’s almost never a failure of the pipeline itself. “It is always, always injury to the pipeline, and homeowners are some of the worst,” says Foss. “That campaign to Call 811 Before You Dig was one of the best inventions ever.”

None of these steps really bring any comfort to the Feldmans, who live on the pipeline route and spent six months of 2021 dealing with construction noise and dust. By the pipeline’s mid-December wrap-up, nine months into construction, 40 complaints had been logged, including litter from construction workers and air quality concerns.

The Feldmans say it wasn’t just the love for their home that they lost. “This whole process has destroyed my faith in government and destroyed my faith in democracy,” says Justin Feldman.

His community of Reading did fight all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court, but in the end Feldman says he feels like the entire process was rigged. He was a little guy, powerless to stop any of it. It drives him nuts, too, that as a Duke customer he’ll help pay for the project.

Duke originally estimated the project would cost $110 million, though Thelen says the company will have a final figure in the spring when all work is completed; she doesn’t yet know how much of the cost will start showing up on customers’ bills or when. Duke will submit its total project costs to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which will determine what is recoverable for company. That amount will then be spread out over months or years to customers, Thelen says.

Rosen, from NOPE, says nothing will convince him that the Hamilton County outcomes weren’t predetermined despite the hearings and court consideration. But both he and Newman say they’d lead the fight again. “If somebody sent me a postcard telling me a pipeline was going through my backyard, I’d do the same thing again,” says Rosen. “It’s about protecting yourself and protecting others around you.”

The Central Corridor Pipeline Timeline

FEBRUARY 2016: Duke Energy Ohio sends its first letter to Hamilton County property owners who might be impacted by a new high-pressure natural gas pipeline.

SEPTEMBER 2016: Duke Energy submits an application to the Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB) for a Certificate of Environmental Compatibility and Need to build C314V Central Corridor Pipeline.

AUGUST 2017: Duke Energy asks the OPSB for additional time to examine site-specific matters. Nearly all communities along the route have asked to intervene in the upcoming state hearing, as well as school districts, including Sycamore; environmental groups; and business and religious leaders.

APRIL 2018: Duke asks the OPSB to restart the process of approval.

APRIL 2019: The OPSB holds a three-day hearing on the application.

NOVEMBER 2019: The OPSB approves the project but throws in a bit of a curveball, selecting an alternative route, not Duke’s preferred route in its application.

JANUARY 2020: Opponents file for a rehearing, arguing Duke did not perform due diligence in plotting the alternative route before the OSPB gave the green light. The board denies the appeal.

SEPTEMBER 2020: Duke files a 199-page amended application, granted permission to do so by the OPSB.

MARCH 2021: The OPSB accepts the amended application. Construction begins. Blue Ash, Reading, Evendale, and NOPE appeal the Ohio Power Siting Board’s decision to the Ohio Supreme Court, which accepts the case but does not require Duke to stop construction.

SEPTEMBER 2021: The Ohio Supreme Court issues a unanimous opinion acknowledging the OSPB didn’t follow its own administrative rules but concurring with the OPSB’s decision to grant a certificate to build.

DECEMBER 2021: Duke completes the last weld on the Central Corridor Pipeline.

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