Three generations of Stanton dairy farmers took the Cobleskill-Richmondville high school auditorium podium in opposition to the proposed Constitution Pipeline during a public comment session Monday night.
“The pipeline would cut through my land,” said Ken Stanton. “With eminent domain, there’s nothing I can do. It doesn’t feel like America anymore.”
Constitution Pipeline is requesting permission to build a 124-mile-long natural gas pipeline from Pennsylvania to the Schoharie County town of Wright. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released a draft environmental impact statement last month, detailing repercussions the project might have on the area. It ran in excess of 900 pages but pipeline opponents said it glosses over potential impacts of the project.
Now, near the end of the public-comment period on the statement, FERC is hosting a series of hearings across areas that could be impacted by the pipeline.
The first, held Monday, nearly filled the 600-seat Cobleskill-Richmondville high school auditorium.
“Some of the projects we review are more controversial than others,” said FERC Devision of Gas and Environmental Engineering Branch Chief Dave Swearingen.
On one side of the issue were the Stantons.
Ken, his daughter-in-law Lisa and granddaughter Kayla were just three of a string of speakers at the hearing laying out fierce arguments on either side of the pipeline issue. According to Lisa, the family is looking to expand their 400-cow, 1,500-acre dairy operation, which already stretches across Cobleskill, Middleburgh and Schoharie.
With all the government regulations already in place, Lisa said a pipeline would so complicate things they might not be able to further expand.
For Kayla, that’s a big problem. She’s 17, grew up on the farm and is looking to return to the family business after college.
“If we can’t expand,” she said, “where is my spot in the business?”
Near one of the exits, Matt Swift, Constitution Pipeline’s project manager, stood watch.
Once the FERC draft statement is tweaked using public comments into a final environmental statement, the whole thing will head off to a specially appointed committee for approval. The committee will decide whether the project should move forward. Swift said the Army Corps of Engineers and state Department of Environmental Conservation also will have to sign off.
There’s still a long legal road ahead, but Constitution is already taking delivery of pipe. “It’s a calculated risk,” he said, “that it will get approved.”
Signs dotted the auditorium — skulls and crossbones and anti-pipeline slogans — but didn’t make Swift too nervous. Members of area labor unions came out in force, dressed in orange T-shirts for easy recognition.
“This is going to bring in jobs, and tax revenue,” said Thomas Quackenbush.
Quackenbush is chairman of the Montgomery County Legislature, as well as a business agent for Teamsters Local 294. He brought a lot of people with him, people who clapped hard when Tom Toomey spoke.
“People who oppose this pipeline don’t know what they’re talking about,” Toomey said.
He owns a beef farm in Unadilla, but works on pipelines in Pennsylvania. He said farmers in that state aren’t actually concerned about hydofracking and pipelines. “What you hear on the news from down there,” he said, “90 percent lies.”
Gas, he said, and the pipeline to carry it are necessary parts of the American infrastructure.
According to Swearingen, it’s the controversial projects that bring out the crowds, and Constitution Pipeline qualifies.
“Half the crowd is wearing union shirts,” he said. “There are a lot of opinions.”
A few members of the crowd though were careful to withhold judgment on the pipeline itself. Jeff Buel came with a few of his students from the heavy equipment program at Capital Region BOCES’ Schoharie campus.
“We’re not taking a position on the pipeline,” he said. “We just think it’s a bad idea to run it through our classroom.”
By classroom, he means a roughly 30-acre lot on the BOCES campus used by students to practice on heavy excavating equipment. The current plan puts the pipeline directly below that plot. A backhoe, Buel said, would easily cut through the 30-inch pipeline if a student lost track of where he was digging.
Whether such a lapse would result in a gas leak or explosion is up to chance.
“It depends if there’s a spark,” said heavy equipment student Taylor Brown.
Swearingen said there is some flexibility in a pipeline, and Constitution could slightly redirect the line.
Thus far, FERC has received hundreds of letters regarding the environmental impact of the proposed pipeline. Swearingen said they’ll roll the comments into a final draft after April 7. Then it’s off for approval or denial.
Depending on their decision and the decision of a handful of other agencies, Swift hopes to break ground in January of next year and be pumping gas by the heating season of 2015-16. About half the auditorium held the same hope. The other half was steadfastly against the line.