Tennessee Gas Pipeline plans for Franklin, Berkshire counties generate groundswell of concern

Last modified: Thursday, March 06, 2014
HATFIELD — Plans for a Tennessee Gas Pipeline through Franklin and Berkshire counties have regional planners and state legislators seeking answers about the process, but landowners and local activists who oppose the project are not waiting to organize.

Officials in nine Franklin County towns — Ashfield, Conway, Shelburne, Deerfield, Montague, Erving, Northfield, Warwick and Orange — have been asking about the plans since receiving correspondence in early January from Kinder Morgan, which owns Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co., alerting them that its consultants would be approaching landowners along the path to survey their property. The 179-mile natural gas line would run between Wright, N.Y., and Dracut, just north of Lowell.

Meanwhile, residents and those from as far away as Ashburnham and Royalston gathered with local activists for a meeting on the project Wednesday. The group of 50 people at the Co-op Power headquarters in Hatfield shared information and tried to identify the best ways to block the pipeline and ensure it does not affect wetlands and other sensitive land in their communities.

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“We have to get organized,” Climate Action Now leader Susan Theberge told the group, which included abutters, lawyers, environmental scientists and clean energy enthusiasts. “We have incredible resources in this room.”

A similar meeting will take place at the Cummington Community House Saturday at 1 p.m. The group that met Wednesday decided to form a new coalition involving as many local groups as possible and set another meeting for March 15 at 3 p.m. The location is to be determined.

They also assigned relevant topics for people to research and identified ways to help, including starting a petition, mobilizing more potential pipeline abutters, enlisting the help of local conservation commissions, and pressuring politicians to take a stand.

Area legislators met last week with Kinder Morgan representatives to discuss the pipeline proposal, the process for which state Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, said his staff has been researching.

Kinder Morgan spokesman Allen Fore told legislators this “very preliminary” phase of the process would result in a refinement of the route, and would be followed, in a matter of months, with briefing sessions for Select Boards that have requested them.

Legislators were told that if the project proceeds, the company also plans to hold informational public meetings in the region and the process would be subject to state review under the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act, with the state Department of Public Utilities playing a role.

The DPU could become involved if property owners deny access for survey work to proceed, as has already occurred in Montague.

Kulik said it appears that where the pipeline route would affect state-owned conservation land or property on which the state holds development restrictions, a two-thirds vote of approval by the House and Senate would be necessary.

Kulik earlier in the week had said of the company’s failure to be forthcoming with details of its plans, “In the absence of good information, people suspect a lot of things.” But following last week’s briefing, he said it appears those details will be forthcoming.

Not everyone has had that kind of direct contact with pipeline proponents, however.

“We’re all sort of scratching our heads,” Franklin Regional Planning Board Chairman Jerry Lund said Wednesday, following a board executive committee meeting this week during which planners looked over U.S. Geological Survey maps to better understand the ramifications of the vague map that Tennessee Gas Pipeline presented the towns for its route.

While the company’s map would seem to be following east-west electricity transmission lines, Lund said, it is not clear what the reasoning was for its path across the northern and eastern portions of the county.

“It seems they drew a line across there without any clue of geography or topography,” he said, adding that regional planners were only able to guess at what the Houston-based pipeline company had in mind. Without the company being more forthcoming, he said, planners are looking into what role state environmental agencies will have in overseeing what is likely to be a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission-controlled review process.

“If they want to plant them up here, good luck,” Lund said, adding that plans to build a line to transport “fracked” gas through the region will likely “stir up a hornet’s nest,” especially if the purpose of building the line is to send gas obtained through the controversial hydrofracking process to the East Coast for export.

Opponents rally

At Wednesday’s meeting, Bruce Winn of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team showed a slideshow that included information he said Kinder Morgan presents to investors. It showed the pipeline drawing natural gas hydrofractured from the Marcellus Shale wells in Pennsylvania and described the project as “in active development.”

“I’m not a big fan of fracking and I definitely don’t want a pipeline by my house,” said Martha Elliot of River Road in Deerfield. “It would be going right through a wetland.”

Elliot said a company representative knocked on her door and asked her to sign something that would allow Tennessee Gas to survey on her property. “He was very slick and very convincing,” she said. “I took his information and sent him on his way.”

In his presentation, Winn also rebuffed the company’s claims that natural gas is a clean energy source and argued that a pipeline could destroy wetlands and be a public health risk because it could leak and explode.

Jim Cutler, an Ashfield resident who helped organize the meeting, said the proposed pipeline route in this part of the state would especially be at risk of exploding because it would run along the utility easements for high tension wires, which generate “enormous electrical fields” around them. “Then the pipe is nothing but a big wire,” Cutler said.

Theberge said one source told her that during the permitting process for the project, FERC would consider things including the impact on the community, the cost to taxpayers, the potential environmental impact, whether utility easements were being overbuilt, and to what degree it called for “an unnecessary use of eminent domain.”

No details yet

Tennessee Gas Pipeline spokesman Richard Wheatley said no information will be released until completion of the company’s “open season” for the Northeast Expansion, which runs Feb. 13 to March 28. That is for potential gas suppliers and customers to contract with Tennessee Gas Pipeline for what is an “open access pipeline” connecting various suppliers and users.

Those potential customers, according to the company’s formal “open season” notice, include local distribution companies, electric generators, industrial end users and developers of liquefied natural gas projects in New England and Atlantic Canada. The planned pipeline would be sized to provide between approximately 600 million cubic feet and 2.2 billion cubic feet a day.

No formal application has been filed yet, but Tennessee Gas Pipeline proposes to have its Northeast Expansion Project in place by November 2018.

He said the federal permitting process would include a review of “sensitive areas, archaeological sites and cultural sites.”

On the Web: http://www.kindermorgan.com/business/gas_pipelines/east/neupopenseason/