SAY NO TO THE PIPELINE. A group of federal regulators came to town Wednesday night and heard – with the exception of construction union members – that singular message from Jersey City residents, city workers, and elected leaders, echoed by hundreds of supporters. The same message was delivered by representatives from neighboring towns, and one development company raised a number of concerns.
Wednesday’s hearing at Ferris High School was among four held last week by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) regarding a proposed natural gas pipeline that Spectra Energy wants to build underground through northern New Jersey into New York.
Three other hearings were held in Bayonne, Manhattan, and Staten Island.
FERC, the federal agency with the authority to approve or reject Spectra’s bid to build its proposed pipeline, is expected to make a decision on the project in January.
If FERC approves current plans for the project, the proposed natural gas pipeline would include the construction and operation of 19.8 miles of new and replacement 42- and 30-inch-diameter pipeline, six new metering and regulating stations, and other related facility abandonments and modifications in Linden, Jersey City near the Hoboken border, and Bayonne. The pipeline would then cross the Hudson River into New York to connect the company’s existing pipeline infrastructure in the region to Manhattan and Staten Island to supply gas to Con Edison customers.
‘I am opposed [to] this gas line running through my neighborhood.’ – Melinda Vazquez
Much of the pipeline route in Jersey City would be built underground from 14th Street through to the 18th Street corridor – which is near the Holland Tunnel, Hudson-Bergen Light Rail tracks, the PATH tubes, and part of the Newport residential community.
Because of the pipeline’s close proximity to these areas, local activists and the administration of Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy have argued that a natural gas explosion could cause mass casualties and significantly damage important transportation infrastructure. In addition, Healy has noted that the potential hazards posed by a gas pipeline will hurt future commercial and residential development along 18th Street.
“We’ve offered alternative routes,” Healy said on Wednesday. “They already have existing pipelines under the Hudson River, by the Kill Van Kull. Our position is stay under the Hudson River. When you do a risk-benefit analysis, who gets the benefits? Our good friends on the other side of the Hudson River in New York City. Who runs the risk? The people of Jersey City. The final insult to the people of Jersey City, and to the people of New Jersey in general, is that the gas pumped through the six-and-a-half miles of pipe [locally] is going to be at a pressure of 1,200 pounds per square inch. That’s a very high pressure of a volatile substance. And yet, when it pops up on the other side of the Hudson River, on 14th Street in Manhattan, it’s going to be ratcheted down to 350 pounds per square inch.”
Despite broad opposition to the pipeline, many residents believe that FERC will approve it and they are already gearing up for a fight in federal court.
Unions: We can build it, safely
But the project would also create jobs. According to Spectra, more than 5,000 jobs would be created, including more than 2,300 in Jersey City alone. This detail has caught the attention and won the support of construction unions hard hit by the recession. About 30 construction union workers attended Wednesday’s hearing to show their support for project.
About a dozen union representatives spoke at the hearing. Several others signed up to speak, but left as the hearing stretched into its third hour and opposition to the project clearly outweighed support for it.
Union member Anthony Esemplare, however, stayed late to tell the community, “We are professionals at what we do. We are trained, skilled workers who know what we’re doing and we know how to build this properly. We can do this and we can do this safely.”
Richard Lipowski made a similar point, saying, “This is the safest design most of us have ever seen. The design for this pipeline already exceeds what is required by the federal government.”
If approved, the pipeline would be built, operated, and maintained by Spectra. But the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration would be the federal agency that would “retain regulatory oversight over the safety of the pipeline,” according to Karen Gentile, general engineer and pipeline inspector with the agency.
This would include periodic inspections to ensure the pipeline meets or exceeds federal standards.
But Healy said accidents can still happen, even with federal oversight, and he called the pipeline project, “a job killer, not a job creator. By virtue of future development and investment, there are thousands and thousands of jobs that will be coming here, once this economic malaise ends. No investment is going to occur if volatile natural gas is running underneath this area of our city. The few hundred jobs that may be created during the build out of the pipeline for 15 or 18 months will foreclose thousands of future jobs.”
Cunningham: Turtles more important than people?
A number of people who spoke at the hearing took issue with a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that FERC issued on the pipeline last month.
“After a review of your draft EIS, let me say, your report is a mockery of what an EIS is supposed to be,” said State Sen. Sandra Cunningham. “At best it is duplicitous. At worst, it is opinion masquerading as unbiased truth…Did you ever independently verify any of Spectra Energy’s claims?”
Cunningham questioned why FERC appears not to have considered other routes for the pipeline.
Spectra has rejected some alternative routes because, the company has said, there are underwater pilings in the Hudson River and elsewhere that would make it impossible to build their pipeline. But according to Cunningham, in the 1980s and 1990s, the Army Corps of Engineers spent millions of dollars to remove pilings in this area.
She also asked why the EIS only examined the impact the pipeline would have within a quarter mile of its path. “Please don’t tell me that a quarter mile radius was sufficient. It may be sufficient for a rural area. But it is not sufficient, advisable, or even professionally responsible to say that it is sufficient for a highly urbanized area such as Jersey City.”
The agency, she added, paid more attention to the possible impact of the pipeline on fish and turtles than its possible affect on the residents of Jersey City.
Resident Kristen Greene identified similar problems in the EIS and discussed some of them when she spoke out at the hearing.
“In the [EIS] it states that, ‘Outside forces, including excavations and natural events are the cause in 35.2 percent of significant pipeline incidents.’ Thirty-five percent of the accidents that happen to pipelines aren’t within Spectra’s control. So, regardless of what precautions they take, we may not be safe.”
Greene also noted that the EIS cites several studies on the impact of natural gas pipelines on property values. Most of these studies were underwritten by Spectra, and were not conducted in urban communities similar to Jersey City. Despite this, FERC accepted the studies’ conclusions that property values were not negatively affected by the presence of natural gas pipelines in the community.
“There is one page out of 900 that is devoted to terrorism,” said Greene. “A 30-inch pipeline, with a 1,200-foot blast radius, outside of the Holland Tunnel, next to a commuter railroad station, near a thriving financial center – but only one page is devoted to terrorism.”
‘A cruel joke’?
Yet even the remote possibility of an explosion, opponents argued at the hearing, would hurt property values and future development in the city.
Robert Antonicello, executive director of the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency, said he has seen the city “claw its way back” from the bleak 1970s when no businesses or developers were interested in building here. He added than an explosion along the pipeline would “set the city back 50 years. It would be a cruel joke to this city if it came back from that era, only to be set back again.”
Several residents later touched on his comments.
“I’m here to say that I am proud to be a Jersey City resident,” said resident Melinda Vazquez. “I’ve lived here for about 10 years now, and I’ve watched the slow but wonderful revitalization of Jersey City. Year after year, this city only gets better. It gets cleaner. It gets safer. More and more cultural organizations form. This community is a community, as you can see. You saw people come together tonight. I am opposed [to] this gas line running through my neighborhood.”
Vazquez added that for the past two years she has been saving up money to buy a property in Jersey City. If the pipeline is approved she said she will look elsewhere since she doesn’t want to see her home value decrease due to the presence of the pipeline.
Several representatives from the LeFrak Organization, which developed the residential properties in the Newport neighborhood, spoke at the hearing and voiced concerns they have about the pipeline project. Four Jersey City police officers had to be called into the hearing after union workers shouted down LeFrak’s Senior Vice President Marsilia Boyle when she took her turn at the microphone.
Rare show of unity
In a rare show of unity between a luxury condo developer and the city’s public housing entity, Maria Maio, executive director of the Housing Authority, noted that the pipeline route also lies very close to several public housing developments.
Six members of the City Council attended the hearing, with Steven Fulop, Ray Velazquez, Viola Richardson, Michael Sottolano, and Kalimah Ahmad all making comments in opposition to the pipeline.
Police Chief Tom Comey told the representatives from FERC that the pipeline should not be approved until two specific safety concerns are addressed. For security reasons, he would not identify at the public hearing what those concerns were. But he said that in meetings with Spectra he has asked that these security concerns be addressed. Thus far, he said that has not happened.
Greg Kierce, director of Hudson County Emergency Management and Homeland Security, spoke out against the pipeline, as did a member of the Jersey City Fire Department.
Carol Lester, vice-chairperson of the Jersey City Board of Education, said the city was initially told the pipeline route would be close to only two schools. In fact, at least 30 public, charter, and parochial schools are within a quarter or half mile of the pipeline path, she said.
Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer and Amanda Nesheiwat, chair of the Secaucus Environmental Committee, also spoke out against the pipeline, lending the support of two neighboring towns.
Noting that Hoboken has, per capita, the highest number of mass transit users in the nation, Zimmer said, “I see no economic benefit to this pipeline.”
“Jersey City politics and government as a whole in Hudson County, is a very rough and tumble, bare knuckles sport,” Fulop told the FERC representatives. “And there are very few issues that have united the city like this, because the people who know best, know that this is not right.”
Preordained to be steamrolled?
Despite four hours of mostly anti-pipeline comments from residents and officials, some said they believe FERC will approve the project anyway.
“I was born and raised in Jersey City…I’ve watched my city decline and I watched it come back. The potential of this city is in its people,” said Greenville resident Jeff Kaplowitz. “You’ve listened to our councilmen, our mayor, our representatives on the state level, and messages from our representatives on the national level. You’ve listened to advocates for special interests, from the neighborhoods, from public housing, from public education. You’ve listened to the people from [No Gas Pipeline], from the city, black, white, Hispanic, Asian. Over and over again, there is the feeling that we are being steamrolled. I don’t know much about FERC. But I do know this: You are an appointed commission that is not answerable to the people. The people say they don’t want the pipeline. Our representatives echo our opinion…I feel like I’ve sat here and it’s preordained what the decision will be.”
Specifically, Kaplowitz believes that FERC will approve Spectra’s plans to build the pipeline, a belief that is shared by Dale Hardman, cofounder of the grassroots Jersey City group No Gas Pipeline.
“I tell you now, that they will rule in favor of Spectra,” Hardman told residents during the hearing Wednesday. “We are the only ones in Jersey City prepared to take them to court and sue them. That is the only way you can win. FERC has never stopped a pipeline.”
Healy recently said the city has retained a law firm in Washington, D.C. to help block construction of the pipeline. It is likely the city is planning a legal fight should current plans for the pipeline be approved.
To read the full draft Environmental Impact Statement from FERC, visit http://www.ferc.gov/industries/gas/enviro/eis/2011/09-09-11-eis.asp.
The federal agency will continue to accept written comments from the public regarding the EIS through Oct. 31.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.