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Pipeline Panel Discussion Aims to Educate Public On Proposed Project

A panel discussion at Princeton University next Wednesday will focus on the environmental, safety, and legal issues of the natural gas pipeline project recently proposed for a stretch of Princeton between Cherry Valley Road and the Coventry Farms development. While the emphasis of “Pipeline Education and Empowerment: A Panel Discussion” at McCosh Hall Room 46 is on the detriments of the plan, which is proposed by the Texas-based Williams Company, the object is not to stir residents into a frenzy.

“Our intention is not to create a rally and scream ‘nimby,’ or ‘not in my backyard,’” said Terry Stimpfel, who chairs the central group of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter. “Our purpose is to inform. From that, people will be able to take action and, hopefully, influence the process.”

The Sierra Club, Princeton University’s Students United for a Responsible Global Environment (SURGE), the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network are co-sponsoring the event. Several speakers will be co-moderated by Ms. Stimpfel and Isaac Lederman, co-president of SURGE.

“It’s important for the public to understand not only the potential impacts of the project, but what their rights are,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “People have to get involved from the beginning.”

It was in early February that the Williams Company announced its intention to seek federal government approval for a natural gas pipeline through a 1.5-mile section of Princeton as part of a project adding 13 miles of pipe through sections of Mercer, Hunterdon, and Somerset counties. Several residents expressed their concerns about the project at a presentation by the company early this month. Williams’ representatives were on hand to answer questions, along with a representative from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). But only preliminary queries could be addressed, because the project was still in the pre-filing stage.

Chief among the concerns raised at the meeting were the environmental impact and the safety of the project. Mr. Tittel said late last week that those worries are well founded. “First and foremost, there’s blasting. There is a lot of rock and bedrock you’ve got to get through,” he said. “There’s drilling to crack the ground open. So you have to get through all of that. But then, you get siltation and runoff, which impacts streams and wetlands. A lot of chemicals are used to make sure the pipes don’t corrode. And in the long term, you get a lot of venting. There is a lot of methane, which affects global warming and people with asthma.”

Chris Stockton, a spokesperson for Williams, said, “We have been operating safely in the Princeton area for many, many years. The pipeline infrastructure provides half the gas used in New Jersey.” He added that the environmental review process is “very substantial.”

Known as the Skillman Loop, the proposed pipeline is part of the Leidy Southeast Expansion Project that would bring Marcellus shale gas from Pennsylvania. The loop is on the Transco pipeline, which runs 10,200 miles from south Texas to New York City. The proposed line would run next to an existing line that was built in 1958.

According to Mr. Tittel, companies like Williams are building speculative pipelines because of the rush for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in Pennsylvania, the midwest, and potentially in New Jersey. “Instead of renewable energy, they’re trying to tie up a lot of capital. It really undercuts clean energy,” he said. “There’s a kind of gas boom that’s happening in parts of the northeast and midwest, where they’re going after the shale deposits. Transmission companies are rushing to put in infrastructure to capture that gas and bring it to export. It’s all about speculation — who can get to the gas first to bring it to market.”

Mr. Tittel recalled that in 1999, Williams proposed a line that was opposed by then-governor Christie Whitman, and it was stopped. “What companies are doing now to get around environmental review is segmenting the line into pieces,” he said. “What you’re seeing here is a small piece that they call a loop. But it’s really a parallel line. It’s a brand new pipeline to move massive volumes of gas to other places. They’re segmenting it to try to get around the environmental review process and public scrutiny and opposition.

Mr. Stockton countered that the loop system is a way to minimize environmental impacts. “What you’re doing, as opposed to building a brand new line, is taking in areas where you have existing easements and right-of-ways and adding infrastructure in those same areas,” he said. “It will be far less impactful than introducing it in an area where you don’t currently operate.”

Mr. Tittel said that renewable energy is a preferable alternative to natural gas. “New Jersey has been at the cutting edge of renewable energy, and we can do more with offshore wind, for example,” he said. “People don’t realize that in most of the homes built in New Jersey between the 1960s and 1980s, you can cut energy bills a lot by spending a few thousand dollars to replace windows and things like that.”

In addition to safety and environmental impacts, panelists plan to discuss construction techniques, legal issues, and options for effective involvement by individuals and groups. Participants include Kate Millsaps of the New Jersey Sierra Club, Faith Zerbe of Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Jennifer Coffey of Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association, and Alice Baker, an attorney with Eastern Environmental Law Clinic.

The event is Wednesday, March 27 from 7-9 p.m. at McCosh Hall Room 46.

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