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Pipeline plan praised, panned at local hearing

To some, the Constitution Pipeline represents an environmental nightmare. To others, the 124-mile natural gas transmission line will help to reduce carbon emissions in the atmosphere while making the United States more energy self-reliant.

Both sides of the divide of the controversial project were stated and restated Tuesday night as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hosted a second public comment meeting at Oneonta High School on the draft environmental impact (DEIS) issued in February by agency staffers. About 425 people turned out for the often tense forum.

Anne Marie Garti, an organizer of the grassroots opposition group Stop the Pipeline, said many critics of the project proposed by a consortium of energy companies view the DEIS as “riddled with industry bias.” She also branded the document as incomplete because it is “not site-specific.”

“It’s your responsibility, not ours” to ensure all environmental impacts are thoroughly reviewed, Garti told the panel of federal officials before a cadre of pro-pipeline trade union workers interrupted her with jeers when her four minutes of allowed speaking time had expired.

And so it went for the first 75 minutes of the lengthy meeting — with each side trying to rein in speakers from the opposing viewpoint — until a FERC official threatened to cut off the meeting unless the audience members piped down throughout the parade of presentations.

Some pipeline opponents accused the project planners of trying to make it appear the project enjoys broad support by bringing in the union workers, identifiable by their bright orange pullover shirts, from the Albany area and Pennsylvania.

But the project was not without local supporters. Michael Zagata of Davenport, a former state environmental commissioner under Gov. George Pataki, argued the clearing of a pathway through forests to make way for the pipeline would benefit songbirds and other species of wildlife that had thrived when much of upstate New York was farmland.

The elimination of some trees, Zagata said, will provide those species with “early successional habitats” and expand opportunities for people to view them at the edge of the forest.

Michael German, the chief executive officer of Leatherstocking Gas Co., said his company has secured franchise agreements with eight local governments that want to be provided with natural gas. In all but one of those communities, the decision to award the franchise was unanimous, he said. German said the projects would be regulated by the state Public Service Commission, and the applications to provide the service in those communities have not yet been filed.

German’s company wants to supply the Amphenol Aerospace plant in Sidney with natural gas from a tap that would run from the Constitution Pipeline. The company is also mapping plans to provide gas from the pipeline, if approved by FERC, to communities that want gas service.

One of the project’s opponents, Gene Marner of Franklin, said the frequent use of the word “mitigation” in the DEIS documents smacked of “Orwellian use of language.” He contended the negative environmental impacts will be far worse than what the FERC staff has described.

Addressing claims that the pipeline could help stimulate job creation in the region, one of the intervenors in the FERC proceeding, Robert Lidsky of Andes, said: “No one should get a job by stealing land. Eminent domain is theft.”

Most of the landowners in Delaware County whose property would be traversed by the pipeline have refused to sign easement agreements, setting the stage for potential eminent domain proceedings against them should FERC issue a certificate of public convenience and necessity to the pipeline planners.

Russell Honicker of Cooperstown noted that many local towns have revised their zoning laws to ban shale gas drilling. “We understand FERC is a sham,” he told the hearing panel. “The people will stop this at all costs.”

In defense of the pipeline project, George Busch, an executive with Mang Insurance Co., said he checked with several insurance providers and found none that were poised to cancel policies or raise rates if owners grant easements for the gas pipeline.

Retired teacher Dick Downey of Otego, representing the pro-drilling Unatego Landowners Association, drew a rousing cheer from the union workers when he observed that about half the homes in the U.S. are now heated with natural gas and noted that gas is now replacing coal at many power plants.

Jerry Ackerley of Downsville, an operating engineer who has worked on pipeline projects as a member of Local 825, said workers installing pipelines are careful to avoid any actions that will harm the environment.

“Everything that can be done to protect the environment is done,” he said.

State lawmakers from the region did not attend the meeting, nor did they attend the first FERC meeting on the DEIS, held Monday in Richmondville.

A third FERC hearing on the DEIS will be held at 7 p.m. tonight at Afton High School. FERC is also accepting written and emailed comments on the DEIS. Its deadline for taking comments is Monday.

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