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Meetings planned in Hatfield and Cummington on Tennessee Gas Pipeline project

Two meetings are planned this week in Hampshire County by groups already raising concerns about a proposed natural gas pipeline through Berkshire and Franklin counties.

The Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. plans the pipeline from the Marcellus shale fields in western Pennsylvania to eastern Massachusetts to feed the growing demand for natural gas.

The first meeting will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Co-Op Power’s offices, 15A West St. (Routes 5 and 10) in Hatfield, and the other is at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Cummington Village Church.

The meetings have been called by ad hoc groups coming together because of the dearth of information from pipeline proponents, whose only contact with officials has been in the form of a letter sent to Select Boards and town Planning Boards alerting them they seek to contact property owners for permission to survey the right of way. That in most cases follows the Western Massachusetts Electric Co. power line right-of-way through Plainfield, Ashfield, Conway, Shelburne, Deerfield, Montague, Erving, Northfield, Warwick and Orange.

Regional planning agencies in Berkshire and Franklin counties said they know little about the proposal but hope to gather information and provide information to towns about the federal regulatory process that would apply.

Franklin Regional Council of Governments Planning Director Margaret Sloan said the planning board’s executive committee would be looking at the proposal next week and hopes to provide information to the full board. She has seen no information about the proposed pipeline, but she expects that it will come before the Planning Board at its March 25 meeting.

Sloan said, “It’s hard to say” whether any environmentally sensitive areas of the region would be compromised by the pipeline’s proposed path. She added that because the federal government has jurisdiction over interstate pipelines, she does not know whether the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act could be used to review the proposal, or whether it would come under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Berkshire Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Nathaniel Karns said planners there are “scratching our heads” over the proposal, and over the fact that Tennessee Gas did not do the kind of analysis of Geographic Information Systems data that’s publicly available and that would seem to be the first logical step for anyone planning a project on this scale.

Based on his conversation with the project manager and his review of what he called the “cartoon maps” of the region, Karns said, “They drew a straight line, found the power line that approximates it and started the process,” without seeking information from planners or local officials familiar with the terrain and features such as aquifer protection districts along the route.

As a result, the delineated path crosses an “area of critical environmental concern” in southeastern Pittsfield with a “significant concentration of rare and endangered species,” as well as an area that’s contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls.

“Our understanding is that this would primarily increase natural gas supplies in New Hampshire, Maine and Connecticut,” he said of the proposal, which has not yet been formally filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Farmer Tom Clark of Deerfield, who said he was approached for permission to survey a 400-foot right-of-way through his peach orchard, said the map he saw would have it crossing the Deerfield River near the Red Rock area, traveling through the North Meadows near Old Deerfield, following along the area near Keets Road and crossing the Connecticut River near McClelland Farm Road into Montague.

“We didn’t really want them to go through there,” said Clark, about the orchard at the top of his hill. “My original thought was why not let them go through? But if I don’t really want them there, why get them thinking about it?”

The pipeline would be set 5 to 6 feet below the surface, Clark said, except for traveling beneath “major things” like rivers, Interstate 91, and railroad lines, where it would be set deeper.

On the Montague side of the river, Laura Chapdelaine of Greenfield Road said her husband, like Clark, had denied the access to the right-of-way agent. Chapdelaine said she believes the route planned would be jeopardized by its proximity to the East Deerfield Rail Yard. Frequent coupling and uncoupling of rail cars across the river causes “shuddering … like an earthquake” throughout the entire area, she added.

Other Montague residents, and the Town of Montague, have also denied requests to allow access to town-owned land, although project proponents can file with the state Department of Public Utilities for authorization to access those properties.

Meanwhile, organizations such as Climate Action Now have begun rallying around the pipeline issue as an extension of the issue of hydrofracking, in which water and chemicals are injected under high pressure into underground rock formations to release trapped gas.

The group’s website proclaims, “No way! Not here!”

Jim Cutler of Conway, one of the organizers of Wednesday’s meeting, said he and some Ashfield residents have refused to allow surveying of their property.

“There’s a fair amount of cohesion on the ‘no’ side,” said the Beldingville Road resident. “Nobody I’ve talked to has given permission, with one exception.”’

Among Cutler’s concerns is that the construction of several natural gas pipelines proposed through New England would empower the industry to continue the process of “fracking,” a process that opponents assert releases greenhouse gases, including large quantities of potent methane, into the atmosphere and damages water supplies. He also raised concerns about the gas lines running along electric power line rights of way, “energizing” the pipes with electrical current that pose a danger of explosion.

Cutler also raised concerns about the leakage of the greenhouse gas methane from gas pipelines, and also permitting liquified natural gas terminals at various points along the coast from which pipeline gas will ultimately be exported, dramatically raising domestic gas prices to global levels.

“By selling this gas overseas, it’s going to distort the pricing structure, and it could actually raise prices for domestic use,” he said. Communities do not have a lot of power other than being united along this corridor, said Cutler, who emphasized that this week’s meetings are not planned to tell people to reject the pipeline, but rather to study all of the issues before allowing it to be built.

Elsewhere in Ashfield, Brian Clark said he agreed to allow surveyors on a woodlot that he owns with his brothers in neighboring Plainfield.

“I think there’s a place for natural gas here on the way to solving our global warming problem, but not the way they’re doing it today. It’s almost as bad as coal, with all the leaking they’ve got,” said Clark. “I think it’s just a matter of forcing them to clean their act up.”

He said he’s concerned that rushing to get natural gas to market will mean doing a “sloppy job.”

But Clark added, “I have problems with some of the activists and how they get so black and white about it, especially when they’re also involved in shutting down nuclear and opposing wind and opposing PV (photovoltaics). People want to have their cars and electricity and all the benefits of industrialized society, but don’t think they have any impacts from it are just naive.”

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Fantastic article! The meeting in Cummington has been moved across the street to the Cummington Community House - 33 Main St. Environmental professor Bruce Winn of Berkshire Environmental Action Team will be giving a presentation on the pipeline, its environmental impact, regulatory issues and more, followed by discussion time. At least one state legislator will be in attendance and we hope to hear from more.

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