By JOE MAHONEY
The Daily Star
---- — COOPERSTOWN — Yielding to critics of the proposed Constitution Pipeline, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission decided Tuesday to extend the period for public comments on the environmental impact of the gas transmission system to Nov. 9.
The cutoff day for comments had been Tuesday, but opponents of the $750 million project have argued many landowners had only been informed in recent weeks of an alternative pathway — dubbed Route M — that would put a stretch of about 30 miles of the pipeline in Otsego County near Interstate 88.
In another concession to the opposition, the federal regulators said they will hold a fourth scoping hearing on the pipeline from 7 to 10 p.m. on Oct. 24 at the Foothills Performing Arts Center in Oneonta.
The first three hearings were held in Afton, Schoharie and in Susquehanna County, Pa. Pipeline critics said those locations were so far away from Otsego and Delaware County residents that it made it getting to the events difficult.
Reacting to the FERC decision, Constitution Pipeline spokesman Christopher Stockton said in an email to The Daily Star: “There were a number of public comments requesting another scoping hearing in this area. I think this is a good example of how the FERC listens to and takes those public comments very seriously.”
Robert Nied of Schoharie County, a member of the grassroots group Stop the Pipeline, welcomed the FERC decision.
“Giving people additional time to offer comments is absolutely critical,” Nied said. “We still need to some meetings in Delaware County. We have people just coming up to speed on this. We should give them an opportunity to get their hands around the issue and make appropriate comments to FERC.”
He also said the FERC decision underscores the criticisms lobbed last week y pipeline foes against the Otsego County Board of Representatives for endorsing the Interstate 88 pathway before the federal agency acted on the request to hold a local scoping hearing.
Richard Downey, a leader of the pro-drilling Unatego Landowners’ Coalition, said he expects the Constitution Pipeline planners will eventually be able to convince FERC the pipeline is needed for the nation’s energy delivery infrastructure.
Downey estimated that the town of Otego and its school system would reap a windfall of some $400,000 a year out of the projected $3 million in tax benefits that Otsego County would receive if the pipeline is run through the county.
“I’m looking at any revenue coming into our town as a positive,” said Downey, noting he does not see Tuesday’s decision by FERC as a setback for pipeline supporters.
The company is expected to file an application early next year for federal approval to build the project. The fate of the proposal will be decided by the five politically-appointed commissioners overseeing FERC.
Those same commissioners, if they are convinced the pipeline needs to be constructed, will also make the final decision on the route that it will take to send gas from Pennsylvania to the town of Wright in Schoharie County.
There, according to pipeline planners, it would connect with two existing pipelines to transport the natural gas to the Boston and New York City markets, where it would power some three million homes each day.
The company has said it hopes to have the pipeline operational by March 2015.
Also Tuesday, in a new filing with the FERC, the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation raised concerns with alternative routes that would cut through Mine Kill and Max V. Shaul state parks in Schoharie County. The pipeline route, at the Shaul Park, would would “disrupt park operation and hinder vehicular access” during construction periods, the agency said. At Mine Kill, the pipeline, as routed, would come close to an overhead power line and would “impact” Schoharie Creek by crossing it, the agency warned.
The parks agency also objected to the proposed Route M, as that would have taken the pipeline through Robert Riddell State Park in Otsego County.
After that fact was pointed out last month by The Daily Star, Stockton said the route would be altered to avoid the Riddell park.
Among numerous new comments sent to the FERC on Tuesday, representatives of the environmental law clinic at Pace University’s School of Law advised the federal agency that providing citizens with only a three-week window to make comments after the Route M was first defined was violative of their due process rights.
“A thorough analysis of the need for this project must be performed,” wrote Daniel Estrin, a supervising attorney for the Pace clinic, and Anne Marie Garti of East Meredith, a legal intern. “Existing contracts must be disclosed and consumer demand calculated to determine if there is sufficient capacity in existing — or already proposed — pipelines to meet the public’s need for natural gas in the United States.”