A legal back-and-forth has begun over letters sent to landowners along a proposed natural gas pipeline route in New York. The letters say litigation could begin later this week if landowners do not allow the pipeline company access to rights of way. An attorney representing pipeline opponents has responded.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a December 2nd order, subject to a variety of conditions being met, for construction of Constitution Pipeline Company’s proposed 124-mile natural-gas pipeline from northeastern Pennsylvania to connect with existing transmission pipelines in Schoharie County, New York. One day later, letters from a law firm on behalf of the pipeline were FedExed to those landowners who have not signed easement agreements. Daniel Estrin, an attorney with the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic in Westchester County, wrote back on behalf of opponents Stop the Pipeline.
“The day after the certificate was issued you have the company sending these threatening letters out to dozens of landowners along the proposed route essentially acting as if it’s already a done deal and they can now enter their land whether the landowners want them to or not and begin surveying and, by the way, sign on the dotted line or we’re taking you to court,” says Estrin. “So we don’t think that they have the power to do any of those things yet. They may ultimately get it, but this conditional certificate doesn’t give it to them and frankly what they’re trying to do is bully people.”
The letters to landowners came from Philadelphia-headquartered law firm Saul Ewing. A request for comment from the law firm was referred to Constitution Pipeline Company spokesman Chris Stockton.
“We’ve been negotiating with landowners up and down the pipeline right of way for nearly three years now and we have a reached a point in the process where we need to communicate with landowners what milestones we’ve reached and kind of what the next steps are,” says Stockton. “So, yes, we did mail letters last week to some of those landowners who had previously received offers from us, but they have not been able to reach an agreement.”
A letter says, “Constitution would like to reach an agreement with you and strongly prefers to avoid litigation. However, if you do not accept this final offer and execute the documents enclosed with the prior written offer from Constitution’s representative by Thursday, December 11, 2014, we will proceed to initiate suit under the Natural Gas Act.” Again, Constitution’s Stockton.
“There were some deadlines that were laid out and we’ve, our objective is to move the project forward,” says Stockton. “And so we’ll be working with landowners to hopefully reach an agreement soon so we can begin construction in the first quarter of 2015.”
He says Constitution has reached easement agreements with the majority of landowners affected by the pipeline project, amounting to less than 75 percent. Estrin is calling for Saul Ewing to retract the letter and says he will enter the legal fray on behalf of Stop the Pipeline landowners if Constitution files suit. Estrin says he also has concerns about FERC.
“It’s quite surprising to me that FERC is so aggressive about issuing these certificates before federally-required prerequisites are met,” says Estrin. “So there are certain prerequisites in federal law that must be met before any federal license or permit is issued and FERC somehow believes that it has some kind of exemption or something from that requirement.”
A FERC spokesman says it is not unusual for the Commission to grant a pipeline certificate subject to conditions. He adds that FERC having granted the requested authority to build the pipeline subject to conditions allows Constitution Pipeline to exercise eminent domain with those landowners who have not signed easement agreements.
The proposed project to transport Marcellus Shale natural gas involves the construction of 124 miles of 30-inch-diameter pipeline from Susquehanna County in Pennsylvania into New York’s Broome, Chenango County, and Delaware Counties, terminating in Schoharie County.