“Promised Land” Comes to Princeton in the Form of a Fracked Gas Pipeline

Authors: Food and Water Watch

By Karina Wilkinson and Lauren Petrie

PipelineRecently a public meeting was held in Princeton to address a proposed natural gas pipeline project that would cut through the backyards of as many as 29 property owners in Princeton, NJ. The meeting, hosted by TranscoWilliams and two staff members from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) was eerily reminiscent of a scene from the new movie Promised Land where a natural gas landman, played by Matt Damon, makes a presentation to a Pennsylvania community in the high school gym. In the movie, an outspoken man sounds the alarm against the company’s proposal to purchase land rights for natural gas extraction from private homeowners and Matt Damon’s character fields his concerns without missing a beat. In Princeton, the plush seats of the council chambers replaced gymnasium bleachers and many of the “potentially affected” homeowners shouted out questions to the Oklahoma-based pipeline company and FERC representatives regarding explosions, property rights and a long history of TranscoWilliams safety violations.

The two and a half hour meeting began with one resident lambasting panelists about the proposal to build through a densely populated community. “What about explosions?” he yelled. Right off the bat, his outbursts delayed the opening slideshow and set the tone for the rest of the meeting. FERC, the agency that approves pipeline projects, boasted that this type of “unofficial” meeting was the first of its kind, but instead of praising them for the gesture, many homeowners were perturbed by the unofficial nature of the meeting; despite strong public turnout, none of the questions, comments or concerns were recorded for public record.

The proposed Leidy Southeast Expansion Project includes the Skillman Loop - a 6.4 mile long, 42 inch wide pipeline bringing natural gas from Pennsylvania through Princeton and Montgomery Townships – in which 1.3 miles will run through 29 potentially affected properties in a Princeton neighborhood. Not mentioned at the meeting was that one of the directly affected properties is the Stuart Country Day School  - where roughly 440 girls attend grades K-12.

The first big issue of the night was whether or not TranscoWilliams plans to use blasting to cut through boulders underlying the area.  An “abutting” property owner, convinced there would be a need, explained that a receding glacier had left the area littered with boulders and blasting would be the only option. The new pipeline will run parrallel to an existing one that was installed in the 1950’s and much concern centered around blasting so close to an existing 30 inch wide pipeline. TranscoWilliams claimed that they couldn’t be sure until they perform the proper analysis.

Homeowners were also unnerved that large tracts of trees would be cleared to make way for the construction zone running parallel to the pipeline. One woman talked about how she had spent the last 25 years abroad, watching large corporations clear-cut pristine forests and destroy communities.  She and her husband had purchased land in Princeton thinking that they would never have to deal with situations like the ones they had seen in other countries.  She expressed her shock and disappointment at the proposed project by saying that she always expected to have more rights in the U.S.  Their neighbor has one of the only two Redwoods in Princeton, and she wanted confirmation that it wouldn’t be cut for the expansion project. Transco made no promises as to whether the tree would be preserved, and reiterated the need for clear-cutting.

Through the Natural Gas Act, FERC grants companies eminent domain to ensure completion of pipelines. Property owners who refuse to negotiate have no recourse.  When asked whether FERC has ever denied any pipeline project applications in the last ten years the FERC commissioner rubbed his forehead and replied “no.”  Although this project isn’t approved yet, it is 100% ‘subscribed,’ meaning TranscoWilliams already has their customers lined up: Washington Gas and Light (DC based), Public Service of North Carolina, and South Carolina Electric and Gas among others. Before our eyes, this Princeton community turned into the rural townspeople from Promised Land except the property owners in the movie had a choice about whether to lease their land. If FERC approves the project, these Princeton property owners will not have a choice.  Federal law obviously needs to change.

The company included in its presentation the local head of its ‘integrity department’ who was pleased to show pictures of pipeline inspection devices, known as ‘pigs’ and inform us that pipelines are inspected every 7 years and luckily the existing pipeline is up for inspection next year.  One homeowner was concerned that through the construction process, with lots of heavy equipment, the existing pipeline could be damaged.  TranscoWilliams representatives did their best to convince the property owners that there would be no damage to the existing pipeline and offered that inspecting after construction was a good idea without actually making a commitment to do so.

Details of the proposed project can be found on FERC’s website  (Docket PF13-5). The company’s timeline involves filing their application in the Fall of 2014 and starting construction in December 2015.  It remains to be seen if the town of Princeton will try to fight it. “Princeton Township” is listed as one of the affected property owners, so it is likely that they have been or will soon be approached with an offer. Princeton’s Municipal Engineer told the Trenton Times that the town has no say in the matter.

We’ll be attending the first official public meeting in the form of an Open House on April 11th in Montgomery Township, along with Food & Water Watch supporters. Stay tuned!

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