By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star
---- — COOPERSTOWN — In the first concrete sign that potential legal action hovers over the proposed Constitution Pipeline project, the Delaware-Otsego Audubon Society says it has retained the public interest law firm Earthjustice to represent it in fighting the natural gas transmission system.
The local chapter of the National Audubon Society said it will intervene in the review being conducted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that will determine if the construction of the 122-mile pipeline is in the public interest.
If federal regulators give the project planners a license to build the pipeline, the Constitution Pipeline would acquire eminent domain authority that would allow it to obtain easements to tracts whose owners have signaled that they strongly oppose having the infrastructure placed on their land.
The local Audubon group’s co-president, Andrew Mason, said the organization has concluded the project would fragment the habitats for threatened bird species and have other harmful environmental impacts.
“Many species already in decline will suffer further losses from this corridor that will break up their breeding territories and allow predators and nest parasites into the forests,” Mason said.
Earthjustice is the same legal firm enlisted by opponents of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas to fight to uphold the home rule authority of local towns to ban gas drilling within their borders.
The Audobon group’s request for intervenor status comes amid a flurry of activity by environmental activists to convince landowners and others residing in the region to submit similar requests to FERC no later than the July 17 cutoff for such applications. Over the past two weeks, dozens of individuals have requested intervenor status, and more are expected to follow suit this week, said Anne Marie Garti of East Meredith, an organizer for the grassroots group Stop the Pipeline.
Intervenor status makes those individuals and organizations officially legal parties to the case before FERC, Garti said.
“If you don’t intervene, you can’t take them to court,” she said
Pipeline supporters Bruce Hodges of Oneonta, a business representative for the union representing workers at the Amphenol plant in Sidney, and Sidney Village Mayor Andy Matviak, said they were unaware of the upcoming filing deadline for intervenor status and conceded that the pipeline opponents appear to be better organized than proponents.
“It’s amazing to me that the energy companies aren’t more geared up for organizing support for the pipeline,” said Hodges, the former president of Local Lodge 1529 of the International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers.
Christopher Stockton, a spokesman for the Constitution Pipeline and an employee of Williams Partners, the Houston-based company that is the main investor in the project, said the pipeline license application will be granted if FERC is convinced the project is in the public interest.
“It’s not going to be determined in the court of public opinion,” Stockton said in a telephone interview.
Told that the local Audubon group is painting a picture of the project as a threat to birds in a fragile habitat, Stockton said, “We’ve gone to great lengths to avoid any threatened or endangered species.”
Wildlife experts retained by Constitution Pipeline have analyzed the project’s possible impact not only on birds but also on bats, turtles and other species, he noted.
“Our energy has been focused on putting together the FERC application and making sure it is thorough and comprehensive,” Stockton said.
Deborah Goldberg, managing attorney for Earthjustice, contended that the environmental surveys sponsored by the pipeline company have been narrowly focused on the pipeline corridor itself and have failed to address the potential impacts just beyond the immediate route. “They have not done anywhere near the amount of surveying that is required,” Goldberg said.
Garti said those who wait until after July 17 to become intervenors can still become a party to the matter, but the process will be more cumbersome, she pointed out.
“The longer you wait, the harder it is to get in,” Garti said.
In Sidney, Mayor Matviak said local residents are strongly supportive of the pipeline, especially since it has the potential to bring natural gas directly to the Amphenol plant through a feeder line that could run off a tap installed on the Constitution Pipeline.
“It’s going to be very beneficial to the community,” he said.
The pipeline would transmit shale gas harvested in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna County to existing interstate pipelines in the Schoharie County town of Wright. From there, it would be sent to the Boston and New York City markets, where it would supply enough gas to power up to 3 million homes a day, according to the project planners.
The Daily Star has reported that the pipeline route would cut through a state forest in Schoharie County as well as the Cannonsville/Steam/Mill area in Chenango, Delaware and Broome counties, an area that has been designated by Audubon as an “Important Bird Area.”
Mason said the site is home to a large number of nesting bald eagles, and for an assemblage of forest birds that are vulnerable to impacts from forest fragmentation.