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The FBI is investigating letters sent to PennEast, the company proposing a controversial natural gas pipeline that would span 114 miles from Wilkes-Barre to Mercer County, N.J., for possible threats against company employees.
PennEast has received plenty of "spirited" comments since entering the public comment phase of the project last October, but several letters received in April caused enough concern that the company turned them over to authorities, said PennEast spokeswoman Patricia Kornick.
She declined to specify the nature of the alleged threats contained in those letters, but said the company has since hired a private security firm to provide extra protection for employees.
Kornick wasn't certain how many letters the company received, but said the FBI has been investigating since April.
J.J. Klaver, a spokesman for the FBI in Philadelphia, did not immediately return phone calls for comment Friday.
"There is a strong organized movement of opposition regarding natural gas, so as a precaution, many firms will hire additional security for the safety of their employees and they will also step up security when there are public meetings," Kornick said.
The pipeline has generated a lot of public reaction with more than 3,000 comments logged on the website of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission since Oct. 7, 2014, the date comments were first allowed on the project.
During this stage, PennEast has been collecting comments from the public in preparation of filing their official application, including the finalized route. It will be up to FERC to approve the project.
Pipeline opponents on Friday said they were shocked at allegations of threatening letters. They were not aware of the FBI reaching out to anyone in connection to the investigation.
Laura Wilson, founder of Stop the PennEast Pipeline Facebook group in Holland Township, N.J., said members of her group have always been peaceful in their protests and always notified police if they planned to stand outside a meeting to hold up signs or hand out fliers.
"It came as a shock to us and we were concerned because we don't want anything to happen to anybody, regardless of if they are with PennEast or associated with Marcellus Shale. That's unacceptable," she said of the alleged letters.
Wilson owns a farm in the township and said the latest route changes have the pipeline crossing directly where her home, a pond and barn are located.
There are about 2,500 members of the Stop the PennEast Pipeline public Facebook group and another nearly 1,500 members in a private group geared toward impacted landowners.
"I am astonished to hear anything like this because I don't know a single soul who would do something like this. I don't even know how to react to it," said Karen Feridun, founder of the grass roots anti-fracking organization, Berks Gas Truth in Kutztown.
Feridun estimates her group has hundreds of members, though none of them are located directly in the path of PennEast pipeline.
Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of Delaware Riverkeeper Network in Bristol, questioned the validity of the letters.
"It doesn't seem like a likely story to us. It doesn't fit in with any of the attitudes of the people who have been involved in the PennEast discussions …" Carluccio said.
She's also concerned the alleged threats could draw attention away from environmental concerns and concerns about landowner rights that come with a project like the PennEast pipeline.
"I think we need to stick to the issues and all our central concerns about why we are opposed to this pipeline," she said.
Lately, the pipeline has faced increased opposition, particularly in New Jersey, where a recent report from FERC says only 33 percent of landowners along the proposed Garden State section of the route have agreed to let the pipeline survey their land.
Mercer County and Hopewell Township also recently took action to prohibit PennEast from surveying on their public land.In Pennsylvania, 78 percent of private landowners have agreed to allow the surveys. Kornick was not aware of any Pennsylvania counties or municipalities that have prohibited PennEast from surveying.