A group of concerned landowners plan to voice their opposition to a proposed natural gas pipeline expansion in southwestern Massachusetts. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is holding public meetings on the project this week.
The Connecticut Expansion Project proposes an additional 13 miles of natural gas pipeline running parallel to existing pipes in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut. While Kinder Morgan’s other regional initiative, the 400-mile Northeast Energy Direct Project, has received most of the attention, those in Sandisfield, Massachusetts aren’t letting the smaller proposal slip their minds. A pipeline was placed in Sandisfield in 1952 and a blasting accident during the last expansion in 1981 led to neighborhood evacuations. Roberta Myers remembers that day.
“A large boulder flew up in the air and impacted the working pipeline, ruptured it and gas spewed up,” Myers said. “There was not a fire. That was really lucky. Had there been, there would have been a lot of devastation.”
Myers is a member of Sandisfield Taxpayers Opposing the Pipeline, or S.T.O.P. The group formed about a year ago when a dozen or so landowners were contacted by Kinder Morgan-owned Tennessee Gas Pipeline. S.T.O.P. member Jean Atwater-Williams says she and fellow landowners were unsure of the company’s intentions.
“We were led to believe that there was just a survey on the existing easement,” Atwater-Williams said. “We were not told this was for a pipeline expansion.”
Citing environmental issues among other concerns, Atwater-Williams says S.T.O.P. has filed for intervener status in the federal permitting process. In May the town of Sandisfield, home to some 900 people, passed a nonbinding resolution opposing any further pipelines. FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen says the agency has issued a notice of intent to prepare an environmental assessment and is collecting public comments.
“Once we receive these comments and conduct our own analysis, the environmental assessment will be published,” Young-Allen said. “It will be open for public viewing and comment once that is done. Then the entire record will go before the commission, which is compromised of five presidentially-appointed members who will make a decision on the project. Whether to approve it including the recommendations from staff and the environmental assessment or whether to host a hearing on some aspect of the proposal or to reject the proposal.”
Young-Allen says there is no set timeframe, but it typically takes a year to 18 months for FERC to vote on an application. Tennessee Gas applied July 31. A portion of the identified four-mile loop in Sandisfield would go underground on land near Spectacle Pond once privately owned, but now protected by the state of Massachusetts. Smitty Pignatelli represents Sandisfield in the Massachusetts State House.
“I think it’s the wrong proposal,” Pignatelli said. “It’s the wrong place. I think, being state-owned land, it’s going to trigger Article 97, constitution land. It’s nothing that I’m going to file as a legislator to encourage them to put the pipeline there. My attitude, very simply, is keep it in Connecticut.”
As Young-Allen explains, if FERC approves a project, eminent domain takes effect, which applies to both public and private land.
“That means that the commission has found that project is in the public interest and in the public need,” Young-Allen explained. “The project can then take the land needed to construct and operate the project.”
Young-Allen says FERC does not get involved with eminent domain disputes, which instead are handled by state courts.
In discussing their expansion projects, Kinder Morgan representatives have cited expressions of need by energy companies for more natural gas capacity and infrastructure. Twelve distribution companies have signed onto to the Northeast Energy Direct Project alone. Young-Allen says FERC considers each application individually, while Kinder Morgan’s Vice President of Public Affairs Allen Fore says the company has a very good record when applying with FERC.
“I am not aware of a project that after we start the process that we have pulled out of, unless there’s a commercial change of some sort, or that FERC has rejected,” Fore said. “Because we’re not like every other company. Some companies may go through an application process simply to test the waters. We don’t do that. Once we start this process, we plan to finish the process.”
The $86 million Connecticut Expansion Project is expected to create 175 construction jobs with plans to be in service by November 2016. FERC will hold scoping meetings Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Sandisfield Arts Center and 7 o’clock Thursday at Bethlehem Town Hall. While she’s not aware of much opposition in Connecticut or New York, Atwater-Williams says S.T.O.P. members plan to gather before the meeting in Sandisfield.
“When is enough enough?” Atwater-Williams said. “Because we have gas pipelines should we just expect to get more gas pipelines? Where does it stop?”
Meanwhile, Spectra Energy and Northeast Utilities expect to have a $3 billion New England pipeline expansion in service by November 2018.