LENOX -- Fearing an impact on the town's watershed and on Kennedy Park, town leaders are mulling over potential options when the Houston energy giant Kinder Morgan's Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. selects a route for its proposed natural gas pipeline through the Berkshires and northern Massachusetts.
At the Select Board meeting this past week, member Warren Archey, who attended a recent forum in Richmond on the potential Northeast Expansion project, raised the pipeline issue.
"There's a long way to go before it can possibly be in place," Archey, a retired state of Massachusetts forester, told the Selectmen.
He described the presentation by Kinder Morgan officials in Richmond as "extremely general. Richmond voters were not happy."
Since two pipeline routes under consideration would follow utility corridors through the reservoir area on Lenox Mountain and the adjacent, town-owned Kennedy Park, Archey proposed that the Lenox Select Board meet with town attorneys soon "to learn what our prerogatives truly are on this issue."
He characterized the impact of any pipeline construction and its placement as "very substantial."
He also noted that any route would need to cross the Housatonic River. "I'm sure the EPA and General Electric will have some thoughts on that issue," Archey commented, a reference to the proposed, massive PCB cleanup of the river that could take up to 13 years if the EPA plan survives public reviews and potential legal challenges by GE, environmental groups, or homeowners.
"We've got a long way to go on how we deal with these issues, but we've got to pay attention," Archey urged his colleagues.
Selectman David Roche, acting as chairman of the Wednesday night meeting in Channing Gibson's absence, called for up-to-date briefings "so when we oppose it, we'll really have some teeth. That's what we want to have."
The Richmond session also was attended by Lenox Town Manager Christopher Ketchen, who reserved comment for the time being.
Previously, Ketchen declared that "every step of the way, the town manager's office will be trying to keep track of what the plans are to the extent that the town has a role to play. Wherever this goes, we'll make sure that the town's interests are protected."
Voters in more than a dozen Western Massachusetts communities, including Lenox, have passed non-binding resolutions at town meetings opposing a new pipeline.
Since approvals for the potential project are controlled by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which supervises interstate transportation of gas, it remains unclear whether a town could prevent a pipeline route through its land.
Homeowners who try to block Tennessee Gas surveyors seeking a potential route through their properties can be overruled by the state Department of Public Utilities.
Kinder Morgan, the nation's third-largest energy supplier, has described its potential new pipeline as a means of increasing supplies of relatively affordable domestic natural gas, which is in short supply but could ease energy costs.
The earliest construction start for the $2.75 billion to $3.75 billion project would be in April 2017, with completion by November 2018, according to Kinder Morgan officials.
The potential route would include portions of Richmond, Lenox, Washington, Dalton, Hinsdale, Windsor, Peru and about 40 other communities en route to its terminal in Dracut, north of Lowell.
MassAudubon has refused to allow surveyors on its Pleasant Valley Sanctuary in Lenox, another target of the possible pipeline route.
The natural gas for the pipeline would be extracted through the controversial "tracking" process from shale fields in southwestern New York and northern Pennsylvania. The entire 418-mile route runs from an existing line in Troy, Pa., to Wright, N.Y., where the 250-mile expansion project begins, entering Massachusetts in Richmond.
The company has stated that 3,000 jobs would be created by construction of the new pipeline, which would pump $25 million a year in tax revenue into Massachusetts and transport enough gas for 1.5 million homes. About half of the state's homes use natural gas for heating, and that share is expanding steadily as older coal and nuclear facilities are closed.
Opponents have pointed out that the purchasers of the supply provided by a new pipeline would be free to export it to Canada or Europe. Kinder Morgan acknowledged that the purchasers would make their own decisions on where to ship the natural gas.
Kinder Morgan spokesman Allen Fore told a community meeting of 300 residents in Pepperell that the company is pushing its pipeline proposal in order to satisfy demand. "The reason we're looking at the project in this region is because of what policy makers are telling us is necessary," he contended.
"This would be a gas super-highway across the most pristine lands in the state, family farms, old New England towns," said Richard Hewitt of Groton, a town on the proposed route.
At the well-attended Richmond forum on June 4, residents noted that five pipelines already run through the town. They voiced fears about eroding property values, possible leaks or explosions, and damage to forests, wetlands and watersheds.
"I think we lead the county in pipelines. It really wouldn't surprise me if we lead the state," said Richmond Zoning Board member Neal Pilson. "I think I speak for many people here: We're not really interested."
"This is my life we're talking about here," said Melanie Masdea, a Richmond resident since childhood. "I don't want a fourth pipeline in my backyard."
Information from The Boston Globe was included in this report.
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