LENOX -- Local lawmakers are looking to Washington for more details about Tennessee Gas Co. plans to build a pipeline through seven Berkshire communities and up to 40 other towns across northern Massachusetts.
Following a letter from the Lenox Select Board urging intervention by state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, and state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, efforts are being intensified to involve Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, both Massachusetts Dem-
ocrats, and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, whose district includes Berkshire County.
Whether the state government would have any influence over the pipeline project is "the $3 billion question, because, that, we don't know," Pignatelli told The Eagle. "The only thing we definitely have control of is if it goes through state-owned land."
An amendment to the state constitution adopted in 1972 could set the bar high for the energy company to put down a new pipeline on restricted state land.
"I think we're the only state in the country that has this provision in its constitution," Pignatelli said. "If you do anything to alter state-owned land, it requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.
Originating in upstate New York, the 36-inch, high-pressure natural gas pipeline -- requiring a 50-foot right of way on each side of a 3-foot deep trench during construction -- requires approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). A preliminary application is expected to be submitted this fall.
"At the end of the day, if no matter what we do, FERC can step in and say, ‘Thanks for showing up, but we're making the decision for you,' that's what we want to know," Pignatelli said. "That's where the federal delegation has to step up to the plate, and I think it's time to get them engaged in this to get some answers."
Downing said he and the entire Berkshire delegation have heard "near-unanimous opposition" from residents and Select Board members along the proposed pipeline route.
"We've been trying to get answers and we haven't had sufficient answers," he told The Eagle in a phone interview. "Rep. Pignatelli and I have communicated our frustration with the project to Rep. Neal."
"We're seeking information from the company and working with state agencies to understand where the state has a role to play, and any leverage we have in the process," Downing said. He predicted that because the resolutions passed by a number of towns in opposition would have an impact on federal lawmakers, Warren, Markey and other Massachusetts congressmen along the route will weigh in "to varying degrees."
"I'm extremely disappointed in Kinder Morgan so far," he said, referring to the Houston-based parent company of Tennessee Gas. "It has not been forthcoming whatsoever with the real issues, and on that point, I don't trust them," Pignatelli said. "Berkshire Gas has not been forthcoming on the benefits to the Berkshires." He said a new flow of natural gas would be allocated by the company to Greenfield and other portions of Franklin County.
Pignatelli declared that following a meeting of lawmakers last week with Kinder Morgan and Berkshire Gas officials, "my frustrations boiled over." He called on the state's Washington, D.C., lawmakers to come to the table to clarify the role of federal and state agencies as project plans unfold.
Christopher G. Farrell, the Berkshire Gas spokesman, could not be reached for comment on Monday.
Opposition has been growing along the projected route -- in Berkshire County, the 250-mile pipeline is expected to affect parts of Richmond, Lenox, Washington, Dalton, Hinsdale, Peru and Windsor.
Kinder Morgan spokesman Richard Wheatley has stated that a "significant portion" of the Tennessee Gas pipeline extension could be dug and buried alongside existing pipeline or other utility corridors.
He also acknowledged that Kinder Morgan surveyors have been denied permission to map potential pipeline routes by about half of 1,650 property owners who were contacted. The other half have denied permission or did not respond.
Kinder Morgan could choose to seek permission from the state Department of Public Utilities to override the property owners' refusals. Several communities along the route, including Dalton, have denied permission for town land to be surveyed or have reversed previous approvals.
New England utility customers are expected to pay a surcharge on their electricity bills to help finance the project, according to the New England Governors Association.
To contact Clarence Fanto:
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What the state
law says ...
The following amendment to the state constitution was approved by a two-thirds majority of the state Legislature and ratified by voters in 1972:
"The people shall have the right to clean air and water, freedom from excessive and unnecessary noise, and the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic qualities of their environment; and the protection of the people in their right to the conservation, development and utilization of the agricultural, mineral, forest, water, air and other natural resources is hereby declared to be a public purpose.
"The general court [state Legislature] shall have the power to enact legislation necessary or expedient to protect such rights. In the furtherance of the foregoing powers, the general court shall have the power to provide for the taking, upon payment of just compensation therefor, or for the acquisition by purchase or otherwise, of lands and easements or such other interests therein as may be deemed necessary to accomplish these purposes.
"Lands and easements taken or acquired for such purposes shall not be used for other purposes or otherwise disposed of except by laws enacted by a two-thirds vote of each branch of the general court."
Source: Massachusetts state constitution (malegislature.gov/Laws/