PITTSFIELD >> Farmers, conservationists, activists and others came from all over Massachusetts on Friday to occupy Park Square and protest Kinder Morgan's request for an injunction to facilitate one of its natural gas pipeline projects.
Nearly 200 people turned out, some hoisting signs asking the company to "go frack" itself and condemning the taking of land for private gain. People took to a portable microphone to condemn the company's goal of acquiring acreage protected by Article 97 of the state constitution to construct its planned local gas line projects.
"We're not a lot of loose cannons — look at this crowd," said Plainfield farmer and wetlands biologist Ed Stockman. "There's a lot of gray-hairs and a lot of gray-beards. These are people who have been around, who are solid in their communities. There's a lot of wisdom standing out here."
He added, "I'm retired; I can be here. Young people like my sons are working today."
The protesters found much sympathy from passing motorists, as the sounds of blaring horns filled the air during much of Friday's hour-plus demonstration, which preceded a hearing on the matter in the adjacent Berkshire Superior Court.
Leigh Youngblood, executive director of Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, which serves 23 towns in Worcester and Franklin counties by protecting more than 29,000 acres of public conservation land, said Friday's court hearing held enormous importance.
Though the case concerns Kinder Morgan's more modest proposal in Sandisfield for the Connecticut Expansion Project, the ruling could prove a precedent-setter on more consequential matters, Youngblood said.
She referred to the company's $5 billion Northeast Energy Direct pipeline project, which would extend through the Berkshires and across the state.
"[The case] is a unique challenge, where [Kinder Morgan] has said the federal Natural Gas Act pre-empts our [Massachusetts] Constitution," Youngblood said. "It's a direct, basic challenge of our constitutional rights. They want to win at any cost."
Under state law, use of conservation lands for any other purpose requires a two-thirds majority vote by the state House and Senate, Youngblood said, but the company contends federal law concerning such interstate projects trumps state law.
Naturally, Youngblood contended, Kinder Morgan's Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. would prefer to deny a public that seems overwhelmingly opposed to the project a say. It's all but certain, she said, that elected representatives would vote the wishes of their localities and reject both proposed pipelines.
"They haven't proven there's a need [for the gas], and they also haven't thoroughly explored alternatives, and that is a requirement," Youngblood said. "If they had, they would have discovered lots of alternative ways to get the energy."
She added, "There's about 11 different parcels that we directly conserve that would be affected [by Northeast Energy Direct], and about 100 Article 97 properties affected in Massachusetts."
Walt Cudnohufsky, an Ashfield landscaper, said he heard through friends the company has already sent notices to abutters in Sandisfield that tree-cutting would begin today.
"Two thousand trees a day for a week," Cudnohufsky said. "They of course have to reissue it, because it's invalid, but it's about intimidation."
On Thursday, the state Department of Environmental Protection submitted an affidavit to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission protesting that Kinder Morgan allegedly misrepresented its position on tree-cutting in the Otis State Forest in Sandisfield in communications with FERC. In so doing, it refused the company's request to begin the cutting immediately.
Another farmer, Nort Salz of Steady Lane Farm in Ashfield, said protesting Kinder Morgan for him is a matter of the highest importance. If NED goes through, he will lose 24 of the 72 acres his farm contains to a staging area. The business would undoubtedly go under, he said.
"Farming is a challenge as it is," Salz said. "The amount of land they're planning to take would knock us out of business. And my land is under agricultural restriction. It can only be used for agricultural purposes."
Jane Winn, of Berkshire Environmental Action Team, said, "If the judge shuts this down it will be a huge win. If not, we'll appeal it."
Salz and Cudnohufsky said hundreds of people plan to engage in civil disobedience to block the pipeline if in fact it does get approved by FERC.
Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.