A Problematic Pipeline


By Tanya Silverman

The Chelsea Piers on the West side of Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On Nov. 1, the New York-New Jersey Expansion Project, a natural gas pipeline, is scheduled to be completed. Owned by Spectra Energy, the pipeline will amount to a 20-mile extension that connects to the company’s existing systems — the Texas Eastern Transmission and Algonquin Gas Transmission pipelines — pumping natural gas through Staten Island, New Jersey, and into the West Village of Manhattan. Through its 30-inch diameter, about 800 million cubic feet of natural gas will be delivered daily.

Back in May 2012, the Federal Energy Regulatory System (FERC) approved this pipeline, and construction began that July. According to Spectra Energy, once operational, the pipeline will supply natural gas originating from the Gulf of Mexico, the Rocky Mountains, Nova Scotia, Pennsylvania, and the Marcellus Shale Formation to serve consumers in the New York Metropolitan region.

Spectra Energy and its supporters argue for the pipeline as a means for providing employment, increasing tax revenue, and reducing carbon dioxide emissions (by steering away from using coal as an energy source). The pipeline’s implementation would also reduce the current costs of natural gas transport.

“Spectra Energy has been providing natural gas to the NY/NJ region for more than 60 years,” Marylee Henry, representative of Spectra Energy, tells BTR. “The new pipeline is being built to meet or exceed all Federal safety regulations.”

NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg favors the pipeline, saying: “This vital new link in our energy infrastructure will help accelerate the City’s transition to the cleanest heating fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while bolstering our energy security and economic growth.”

Numerous residents of New York and New Jersey do not accept the Expansion Project so lightly, however, and plenty are wary of FERC’s regulatory standards that passed the pipeline, viewing them as too lax.

“Bloomberg says he’s an environmentalist, but natural gas actually creates as much global warming as coal, even if it appears to burn cleaner,” says Michele Fox, member of activist group Occupy the Pipeline. She points out that methane, the main component of natural gas, is a dangerous greenhouse gas, and alludes to Dr. Tony Ingraffea’s studies for scientific evidence.

Adding to concerns of natural gas and air pollution, locals have also been worried about being exposed to radon by living in proximity to an incoming natural gas flow. Gas derived from the Marcellus Formation is known to contain high levels of this carcinogen. FERC, however, denies that there is a hazardous measure of radon in this source.

The issue also ties into the overarching fracking controversy. Although “fracking” (a.k.a. hydraulic fracturing, a process that injects tons of water and chemicals into the earth to extract natural gas from rock) is banned within New York State, Marcellus shale gas is derived by fracking in other areas of the country.

The threat of a potential pipeline explosion is another source of immense unease. Residents in the densely-populated area surrounding the New York-New Jersey Expansion often cite the incident in San Bruno, Calif., where, in 2010, a similar pipeline suddenly burst, killed eight, injured dozens, and destroyed 38 homes.

With the combination of these risks, as well as skepticism over Spectra’s safety record, opponents are not satisfied with the guidelines that FERC permits the pipeline to be built.

Several environmental groups, like the Sane Energy Project, NYC Friends of Clearwater, and NYC H2O, joined Manhattan residents to sue the Hudson River Park Trust (which leased land to Spectra Energy at the Ganesvoort Peninsula to construct the Manhattan section of the pipeline) and FERC earlier this year. The legal challenge was partially over the principle that the pipeline proposal did not undergo a thorough enough investigation, and did not comply with the environmental regulations laid out by New York State. Their suit was denied, over the decision that the pipeline is an interstate matter, thereby a federal subject to federal authority, and does not need to meet NY state guidelines.

“I live right on the border of the West Village and Chelsea,” says Yetta Kurland, one of the lawyers who represented the plaintiffs. “I’m certainly concerned about radon.”

Kurland is a civil rights attorney, educator, and radio host. While she was well aware of the Spectra Pipeline being built in her part of Manhattan, many other residents were not.

Michele Fox describes what it was like participating in Occupy the Pipeline’s campaign to inform people about the pipeline’s construction in the West Village:

“The people in the neighborhood didn’t know about it. Even the fire department and the police didn’t know about it – and they would be the first responders [in event of explosion].”

Part of the reason for this lack of community awareness, Fox points out, was the absence of media coverage over the pipeline’s development. While there have been intermittent news stories, and several articles in Village Voice, Fox notes that the issue has not been given attention by many major sources like The New York Times. This has motivated Occupy the Pipeline activists to spread the word themselves about the New York-New Jersey Expansion project.

Taking a grassroots approach to raise awareness, Occupy the Pipeline put together the online video, “Radon in My Apartment”, which went viral throughout the internet, and has been streamed through outlets like Huffington Post and Upworthy. The group has also been involved with a number of similar protests in the past, including one that temporarily halted construction on the pipeline.

But away from Manhattan’s West Side, down in Staten Island, residents and elected officials were able to prevent the routing of the pipeline through Richmond Terrace, a densely populated and commercial area. However, pipeline construction still took place in the North Shore part of the island, and community members are concerned. A section of the Spectra pipeline goes though the Old Town Creek wetlands, which raises the risk of adverse environmental impacts threatening the swamp’s natural ecology.

Following the pipeline’s path under the Hudson and over into New Jersey, several environmental groups in New York state have also formed to bring more volume to their voices, like No Gas Pipeline. Former Jersey City mayor Jerramiah T. Healy had been an adamant opponent of the pipeline. During his term, he tried to stop the construction of the New York-New Jersey Expansion Project, and wrote letters of appeal to President Obama on the matter.

The Jersey City Mayor’s office did not respond to BTR regarding the position of Steven Fulop, Jersey City’s current mayor.

As for upcoming events advocating against the pipeline, protests will be held in New York and New Jersey on October 19th for the Global Frackdown, accompanied by a slew of other anti-fracking events that will also take place around the world.