Washington, D.C.– Two and half years after asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to reverse its decision to permit construction of the “Algonquin” Pipeline Expansion, residents are finally getting their day in court. Ellen Weininger from Westchester County, New York made the trip to DC Circuit Court for oral arguments Thursday. “From its inception Spectra’s massive Algonquin pipeline expansion violated federal law to avoid a full review of its cumulative impacts. While the courts finally hear oral arguments on the case today in D.C., tens of millions of people in New York and across New England, living and working in the pipeline’s path, continue to remain in harm’s way.”
FERC approved the first phase of Spectra Energy’s massive pipeline expansion in March of 2015. The project, dubbed the “Algonquin” Incremental Market Expansion (AIM) was just the first of a three part expansion designed to increase the volume of fracked gas carried by the “Algonquin” system to facilitate export of ‘natural’ gas overseas. From April of 2015 until January 2016 a “Tolling Order” issued by FERC blocked residents from proceeding with legal action to challenge the approval. Since then, residents from New York to Massachusetts have been waiting for their day in court. Today, lawyers representing grassroots organizations, including SAPE, the non-profit organization Riverkeeper, the City of Boston, and the Town of Dedham, MA will present oral arguments in the case.
In the intervening two and a half years much has happened. The AIM segment of the expansion was built despite being fraught with delays and violations of environmental law, plagued by whistleblower accusations of cutting corners to speed up construction. Spectra, parent company of “Algonquin” Transmission was purchased by Canadian oil and gas giant Enbridge, a partner in the Dakota Access Pipeline. The second segment of the expansion, dubbed Atlantic Bridge because it will serve as a “bridge” to carry fracked gas through New England to Canada, was approved by FERC, and just last week, despite missing numerous permits in Massachusetts, Spectra began work in New York and asked FERC to put certain portions into operation. The third segment of the pipeline expansion, Access Northeast, was halted due to an unconstitutional attempt to pass construction costs onto electric ratepayers in Massachusetts.
Despite all of this, residents and environmental groups persisted in their fight to stop Spectra on the grounds that the approval of the AIM project violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and endangered millions living around Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant in Buchanan, NY. “Every day we live with the risk of this pipeline next to the elementary school, the nuclear power plant, the church, and before we can even get our day in court, FERC gives Spectra permission to pick up where they left off with AIM by just changing the project name to Atlantic Bridge. Same pipe, same place, same project,” said Courtney Williams, a resident of Peekskill, NY.
NEPA requires that FERC consider the cumulative environmental impacts of the projects it considers. Challengers contend that the AIM project was merely the first step in a massive expansion of the pipeline, arbitrarily broken into the parts to avoid a full accounting of the impacts it would have. Indeed marketing materials for the projects show they follow-on one another in time and location like pieces of a puzzle, clearly interconnected.
There is precedent for this kind of wrong-doing being overturned in the District Court. In 2015 Delaware Riverkeeper challenged FERC’s approval of the Northeast Upgrade project on the Tennessee Gas Pipeline on the grounds that it didn’t consider the cumulative environmental impacts of other expansion projects being considered at the time. In the case of the “Algonquin” expansion, while the tolling order was in place on the AIM project, Atlantic Bridge was under consideration and Access Northeast was in ‘pre-filing’ with FERC. “All three projects had FERC docket numbers simultaneously. FERC can’t pretend they didn’t know that Spectra intended to enlarge the entire length of the ‘Algonquin’ Pipeline,” said Williams, a scientist and member of SAPE from Peekskill.
The other major concern of New York residents involved in the legal challenge is the proximity of the pipeline to Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. The new segment of the “Algonquin” Pipeline runs underneath the Indian Point property and passes only 105 feet from critical safety infrastructure at the plant. “The approval of the Spectra AIM project was based on a faulty analysis by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) of the co-location of the gas pipeline and the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. FERC ignored Richard Kuprewicz, the nationally recognized pipeline safety expert’s conclusion that the risk of a pipeline rupture could cause a catastrophic release of radiation,” said Susan Van Dolsen, a co-founder of SAPE. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo agreed, ordering an as yet unreleased risk assessment be conducted by state agencies and asking FERC to halt construction. FERC refused, and the risk assessment, ordered in February 2016 has still not been released by the Governor.
Located only 35 miles north of New York City, a pipeline accident at Indian Point could endanger upwards of 20 million people who live and work in the New York metropolitan area. Pipeline ruptures are a routine occurrence in the United States, with new pipelines built since 2010 failing at higher rates than older pipelines. Despite elected officials at the local, state, and Federal level calling on FERC to halt construction and conduct an independent risk assessment, they were ignored and construction continued. Even as New York State works to shut down Indian Point, 2700 tons of irradiated spent fuel will be stored on the site indefinitely. A rupture of the “Algonquin” pipeline burning that nuclear waste would rival the worst nuclear disasters in history.
Residents say they are not surprised that these critical legal and safety issues were overlooked. They cite extensive reporting by investigative journalist Itai Vardi at DeSmog Blog which has revealed numerous conflicts of interest, with FERC commissioners having vested financial interests in the pipeline companies or those hired to conduct environmental reviews.
Nancy Vann, whose Reynolds Hills community had property taken by “Algonquin” by eminent domain drove home the need for reforming the system that approved this project, “We are finally getting our day in court (actually just 20 minutes) after four long years of struggling to bring FERC’s attention to the unconscionable danger posed by this unnecessary project. We must not let our rights to a clean and safe environment be further eroded for the profits of a handful of fossil fuel company executives. We need elected officials who will stand up for us on every level of government to stop the slide toward nuclear catastrophe, irreversible climate change and planetary devastation. The world is watching us.”