June 21, 2013

Scoping Meeting On Proposed Pipeline Draws a Crowd

Despite torrential rain and some local flood watches, a public scoping hearing held last week by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) regarding a proposed natural gas pipeline through the Princeton Ridge and nearby locations drew a substantial crowd of concerned residents. While many of those in attendance were critical of the proposal by the Transco company because of its effects of the environment and important natural resources, as well as safety, others who would be working on the construction urged FERC to approve the plan.

“The purpose of this meeting is to really hear from you guys,” Doug Sipe of FERC told those assembled in the auditorium of Hillsborough Middle School. No formal application has been filed yet by Transco, which is owned by the Oklahoma-based Williams Companies Inc. But FERC has begun to review the project, which would put 13 miles of pipeline through parts of Mercer, Somerset, and Hunterdon counties, Mr. Sipe said.

No further public hearings have been scheduled, a fact that disturbs those who want more detailed information about the plan. But Mr. Sipe stressed that comments can be submitted to FERC until July 1. Following that, once FERC completes its review, there is another 30-day comment period. A five-member commission will make the final decision.

Among those offering comments were Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert; Barbara Blumenthal of the Princeton Ridge Coalition; Matt Wasserman, chair of the Princeton Environmental Commission; Wendy Mager, president of Princeton Open Space; Carolyn Katmann, executive director of the Sourlands Planning Council, and Rob Goldston, former director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

There were repeated calls by speakers for a full Environmental Impact Statement instead of a less comprehensive Environmental Assessment. FERC issued a “Notice of Intent to Prepare an Environmental Assessment” last month, stating that the scoping process would help determine whether an EIS “Й is more appropriate for this project based upon the potential significance of the anticipated levels of impact.”

The plan as proposed would turn one forest on the Princeton Ridge into two, Ms. Blumenthal said. “This kind of bifurcation will be the end of the forest, and it will not come back,” she said. “The distance may be small, but the impact could not be greater.” The route, which would likely necessitate blasting within 500 feet of the Stuart Country Day School, where there are large boulders, “is entirely optional,” she said.

Also offering comments were Montgomery Township Deputy Mayor Patricia Graham and Readington Township Mayor Julia Allen, both of whom urged FERC to do a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIC). “We’re asking that our landowners’ concerns are respected and addressed,” Ms. Allen said.

A recent flash fire in Branchburg during construction at a compression station owned by Williams was another focus of safety concerns at the meeting. The fire injured several workers.

But most of the comments were about the environment. “The Princeton Council is deeply concerned that the installation of the pipeline through the Princeton Ridge as proposed will result in extensive, permanent damage to the delicate environment, complex ecology, and threatened and endangered species of wildlife that live there,” Ms. Lempert said during her turn at the microphone.

In a letter sent this week to FERC secretary Kimberly D. Bose, Congressman Rush Holt expressed his own concerns about the project. “I am primarily interested in the preservation of the important and sensitive environmental characteristics of the Princeton Ridge, which the Skillman Loop would transect, and I would like to ensure adequate opportunities for affected and concerned members of the community to affect the project,” he wrote.

Mr. Holt is among those who favor a full Environmental Impact Statement, which “… will provide for additional meetings on the project, allow for a sufficient public comment period, and provide interested parties an opportunity to comment on the findings of a draft EIS before the project is approved or denied,” his letter reads. “The EIS should consider an analysis of project alternatives, including a ‘no action’ alternative, in order to preserve the wildlife, the air and water quality, and the fragile ecosystem of the Princeton Ridge area, and along the other loops of the proposed expansion project.”

Those who spoke in favor of the project as it stands told FERC representatives that it would bring jobs to local workers and help the economy. Among them was Roger Ellis of Local 472, a highway and general construction union based in New Jersey. Mr. Ellis praised the Williams company as “the finest in the industry.”