May 1, 2013

Town Releases Documents On Transco Pipeline Project, Citizen Group Is Formed

Ever since it was announced last February, area residents have been voicing concerns about the proposed expansion of the Williams Transco gas pipeline, which would affect more than 30 properties along the environmentally sensitive Princeton Ridge. Among the most recent complaints was a reaction to the news that the Williams company did not want the town to release maps for the project. Town attorney Ed Schmeirer said at the April 22 meeting of Princeton Council that the company did not want the documents made available to the public because of security concerns.

But following Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests from four individuals, the first of whom had to be responded to by last Friday, the town decided to release the documents. “We considered Williams’s position and took a look at the OPRA law, and we concluded that the materials filed were public documents and were to be released,” Mr. Schmeirer said Monday. “We told Williams we had to respond to the first of the OPRA requests, and we have received no objection from them. The document was released last Friday.”

The maps are now available for inspection in the Engineering Department on the second floor of the Municipal Building between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays. The documents can be photographed or copied, and there is a charge for copying them.

Meanwhile, a citizens group has formed to voice concerns about the proposed expansion project. Calling themselves the Princeton Ridge Coalition, the group of homeowners and other area residents want to make the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) aware of the impact the project, as proposed by the Williams company, would have not only on the ridge, but on the extended region.

“This isn’t just any forest we’re talking about,” said Ridgeview Road resident Barbara Blumenthal, a member of the group, on Monday, the morning after its first meeting. Ms. Blumenthal, who said 12 people attended the meeting and the organization has an e-mail list of 70, was referring to the probability that the project would involve cutting down many trees. “This is a particular forest that will not recover if more trees are removed.”

Saving the trees is one among several concerns that the citizens’ group, along with environmental organizations such as Food and Water Watch and the local branch of the Sierra Club, have expressed since Williams announced its plan last February. The project could affect migratory birds, endangered species, water pollution, and other situations, residents have said.

The section of the pipeline known as the Skillman Loop is part of Williams’ Transco Leidy Southeast Expansion Project, which would affect Princeton, Montgomery, Branchburg, and Readington.

The Williams company is still in the pre-filing stage, and plans to present its proposal to FERC this fall. An information session requested by the municipality of Princeton was held by Williams in February. The company has also held two open house events. The Sierra Club sponsored a forum on the plan at Princeton University last month.

Williams’ Transco plan was on the agenda last week at a meeting of the Princeton Environmental Commission (PEC), which was attended by several homeowners as well as representatives of environmental groups. “The pre-filing stage is a very decisive time,” Terry Stimpfel, who chairs the central New Jersey group of the Sierra Club, told the PEC. She urged the commission to request that an Environmental Impact Statement, rather than the less conclusive Environmental Assessment, be required of Williams.

“Their mission is to facilitate licensing of the pipeline, not to protect the environment,” she said of FERC. Ms. Stimpfel also encouraged the PEC to request that at least one scoping meeting be held in Princeton and Montgomery.

Karina Wilkinson, organizer with Food and Water Watch, recommended to the Commission that they officially intervene, which they would be required to do while the project is still in the pre-filing stage. Intervenors are individuals who obtain the court’s permission to enter into a lawsuit which has already started between other parties and to file a complaint stating the basis for a claim in the existing suit.

The PEC passed a resolution at the meeting stating to FERC that they request a scoping hearing to be done locally, and that an Environmental Impact Study, rather than an Environmental Assessment, be conducted. The Commission will meet once more, taking into consideration a resolution drafted by the citizens’ group, before sending it to the Council and also directly to FERC.

“What we’re trying to do is make the ‘whereas’ statements in the resolution more topical to Princeton, to talk about the impact on the ridge,” said PEC chairman Matt Wasserman this week. “Also, we not only want a scoping hearing to be local, we want it in Princeton and we want more than one.”

The PEC and the Princeton Ridge Coalition are on the same page, Ms. Blumenthal said. “The PEC was every bit as appalled as we are. They understand better than anybody else the real consequences of this,” she said. “It’s not just the loss of the forest, but what happens to the municipal infrastructure with storm runoff, storm sewers, and damage to roads. The town functions because there is this capacity for water absorption on the ridge. Without that, there are ongoing consequences that would be very expensive to fix.”