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Agencies ask FERC to extend pipeline review

State and federal environmental agencies are urging government regulators to extend the public comment period on a bulky report analyzing how the Constitution Pipeline would impact the land and streams it would cross.

The additional time to weigh in on the controversial natural gas transmission line is being sought by the Department of Environmental Conservation, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The state DEC, in its latest filing with FERC, expressed concern that the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) — the subject of the comment period — had no information on a plan announced last week by the Leatherstocking Gas Corp and the Constitution Pipeline to have four taps installed on the system to supply businesses and communities with natural gas through a network of feeder pipes.

“NYSDEC staff is concerned that the additional plans for local gas distribution represent a significant expansion of the scope of the proposed project and that this information should be presented in a revised DEIS and made available for review and comment by all parties,” Patricia J. Desnoyers said in a letter to FERC. Secretary Kimberly Bose.

Desnoyers asked that the pipeline planners be given until April 30 to provide information that she contended is lacking from the DEIS and to give the parties to the proceeding until May 30 to comment.

The EPA, in urging an extension, cited a “paucity of key review staff at this immediate time, combined with the large geographic scope of the project, intricate nature of its elements, and copious documentation.”

Extending the comment period could potentially delay not only the $683 million proposed project but also Leatherstocking’s plans to connect new customers to natural gas in Delaware County communities and potentially in the Unadilla area.

The decision on whether to extend the comment period will be made by FERC staff, said Tamara Young-Allen, s spokeswoman for the federal agency. She pointed out that the parties have had since Feb. 12 to respond to the draft impact statement.

A local pipeline supporter, Uni Blake of Worcester, said the parties have had “plenty of time” to comment on the DEIS, but noted a time extension would not jeopardize the pipeline.

Blake also questioned why the state DEC is now making an issue out of Leatherstocking’s plans to acquire gas from the pipeline, saying feeder lines within the state would not be regulated by FERC but by the state Public Service Commission.

She said that because of the complexity and the multitude of technical details discussed in the hundreds of pages of DEIS documents, the parties may have a legitimate need for additional time to analyze the report. On the other hand, she added, “I hope it’s not political.”

Opponents of the project have also been clamoring for an extension to the comment period, with many criticizing the conclusions the FERC staff reached last month when it determined the pipelines “adverse environmental impacts” could be reduced to “less-than-significant levels” through an array of mitigation steps.

Robert Nied of the Center for Sustainable Rural Communities, a group aligned with Stop the Pipeline, said the said the new requests from three government agencies for an extension adds a new dynamic to the DEIS process — a critical part of the proceedings in the pipeline planners’ quest for federal approval.

“This puts a different flavor on things,” Nied said, “and it is going to be interesting to see how FERC is going to handle this. If these agencies end up being at loggerheads and can’t agree, the project can’t go forward.”

The deadline for comments to FERC is now April 6, although Young-Allen said the agency would still consider them if they arrived after that date.

She added that the review of the extensions requests will not alter the schedule of upcoming scoping meetings at which the public will get to sound off on the DEIS.

The first public comment meeting on the DEIS will take place at 7 p.m. Monday at Cobleskill-Richmondville High School in Richmondville.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, the DEIS hearing will move to Oneonta High School, and the following night, at the same time, the scoping session will be held at Afton High School. The final meeting will be held April 3 at Blue Ridge High School, New Milford, Pa.

FERC now plans to issue a final environmental impact statement on June 13, although that date would be postponed if an extension is granted. The deadline for the subsequent 90-day federal authorization decision is now set for Sept. 11.

The major stakeholder in the Constitution Pipeline is Williams Partners of Houston. Joining Williams in the project are Cabot Oil & Gas, Piedmont Natural Gas and WGL Holdings.

Many landowners whose tracts would be traversed by the proposed route say they are concerned about the potential for eminent domain proceedings to be initiated if they continue to refuse to grant easement rights to their land.

The pipeline planners say that the project will be “a key piece of natural gas infrastructure in the U.S. Northeast” and will help spur economic growth and be a source of millions of dollars of new revenue for local governments in the counties that it would cross. The pipeline would run from Susquehanna County, Pa., to the Schoharie County town of Wright. ___

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