The Constitution Pipeline project got a significant boost Wednesday when federal regulators concluded that its “adverse environmental impacts” could be reduced to “less-than-significant levels” through an array of mitigation” steps suggested in a draft environmental impact statement.
The voluminous statement, released by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, triggers a public comment period that will conclude April 6. A series of public comment meetings will be held starting March 31.
The draft document addressed two related projects — the pipeline and the construction of a transfer compressor facility adjacent to an existing compressor station in the Schoharie town of Wright that is owned by Iroquois Gas. The Constitution Pipeline would connect to two existing pipelines in Wright, the Iroquois pipeline and the Tennessee Gas pipeline, allowing the gas to flow to markets in the Boston and New York city regions, according to project planners.
FERC’s draft environmental statement, issued by the agency’s staff and not its commissioners, said suggestions to co-locate the pipeline within the existing corridor for Interstate 88 were reviewed. It concluded that placing the pipeline within the I-88 median was “not technically feasible” and said locating it in the highway corridor was “not preferable” to the 124.4-mile route being advocated by the pipeline company.
FERC said it also examined other ways of transmitting the gas that would entail co-locating the project with existing pipeline infrastructure. It cited a variety of concerns in concluding that the Constitution Pipeline project would have either lesser impacts or was preferable to those alternatives for a variety of reasons.
The federal agency has been assessing the controversial proposal using the standards spelled out in the National Environmental Policy Act. FERC is expected to decide whether to license the project being touted by a consortium of energy companies led by Williams Partners of Houston, which holds a 41-percent stake in the Constitution Pipeline.
In a statement, the project sponsors said: “We are very pleased with the findings reflected in the draft Environmental Impact Statement. This is a significant milestone for the project. The Constitution Pipeline would become a key piece of natural gas infrastructure in the U.S. Northeast.”
They added: “The pipeline project supports the region’s goals to bolster overall reliability and diversification of energy infrastructure and helps the nation realize the full benefit of abundant, domestically-produced, clean-burning natural gas.”
The project has drawn fierce opposition from numerous landowners along the route of the transmission line, which would stretch from Susquehanna County, Pa., to the town of Wright in Schoharie County, traversing many towns in Delaware and Chenango counties along the way.
Anne Marie Garti of East Meredith, one of the key strategists for the grassroots opposition group Stop the Pipeline, said she was declining to comment until she completes her review of the lengthy document.
“But I’m glad that FERC is going to be holding public meetings on this,’ said Garti, an attorney affiliated with the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic.
The FERC document appeared to yield to Constitution’s plan to cross many parcels with agricultural businesses, including organic farms and wood lots, as well as two state forests in New York, Melondy Hill in Chenango County and Clapper Hollow in Schoharie County.
Regarding the organic farms, FERC said it was recommending that Constitution “revise its Organic Farm Protection Plan to require use of only organic straw/hay for mulch in certified organic agricultural land.”
FERC also rebutted an argument made by many critics of the project by contending that claims that the pipeline would cause local real estate values to drop are “not supported by the literature.”
The agency also addressed suggestions that some insurance companies would cancel homeowners policies for those with houses close to the pipeline.
“There is no literature available regarding the potential effects of pipeline proximity on property insurance, nor were we able to resolve this issue through our independent research,” the FERC document states.
The agency directed the pipeline company to document any insurance problems that might arise for two years following completion of the project and work with landowners in an attempt to mitigate complaints.
“The long-term socioeconomic impact of the projects is likely to be beneficial based on the increase in tax revenues that would accrue in the counties affected by the projects,” the draft statement said. “Based on the analysis presented, and our recommendations, we conclude that the projects would not have a significant adverse effect on the socioeconomic conditions of the project area.”
As for special status or protected species of wildlife, the FERC statement noted two nests of bald eagles were found a half-mile away from areas where blasting would take place during construction. It called on the pipeline company to work with federal and state wildlife experts to shield the raptors from impacts.
FERC also said it studies several alternatives to the site for an expanded compressor station in the town of Wright. The agency said siting the compressor on the existing Iroquois compressor station was “preferable to construction on a previously non-industrial site.”
Many landowners have refused to sign easement agreements allowing the placing of the pipeline on their property, a fact that is expected to lead to eminent domain proceedings should FERC license the project and it survives expected court challenges.
Among those who have denied pipeline surveyors to enter their property is the Kernan Family Trust, consisting of several siblings whose father, forester William Kernan, created the Charlotte Forest, a wood lot of nearly 1,000 acres in Harpersfield. An environmental consultant for the family, Steve Gross, called the draft environmental statement “quite premature.”
“It is lacking substantive information required to perform a meaningful review, which robs both the public and agencies of their right to comment on a complete environmental analysis of the proposed action,” Gross said.
He said “the long list of missing information” includes an upland forest mitigation plan, a slope stability analysis, geo-technical feasibility studies, site-specific blasting plans and approval from the state Department of Environmental Conservation for proposed water withdrawals, among other items.
The reaction of the pipeline sponsors was upbeat. “We look forward to the issuance of the final Environmental Impact Statement this summer,” they said in a prepared statement sent to The Daily Star. “We are committed to working to ensure that the Constitution Pipeline is constructed in a responsible, environmentally-sensitive manner so that we can deliver much-needed additional natural gas supply to New York and New England,” the project sponsors continued.
The agencies that cooperated with the FERC staff in the production of the draft statement included the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Highway Administration, and the state Department of Agriculture and Markets.
FERC is planning to issue a final environmental impact statement on June 13. The deadline for the subsequent 90-day federal authorization decision is now set for Sept. 11.
The companies that have joined Williams in investing in the project are Cabot Oil & Gas, Piedmont Natural Gas and WGL Holdings.
FERC will conduct four public comment meetings on four successive dates beginning March 31, when a forum will be held at Cobleskill-Richmondville High School in Richmondville.
The April 1 hearing will be held at the Oneonta High School . The April 2 forum will be held at Afton HIgh School. The fourth and final meeting will be held April 3 at Blue Ridge High School, New Milford, Pa. All of the meetings will begin at 7 p.m.