Attorney General's 'listening session' takes aim at Kinder Morgan, GE plans

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Photo Gallery | Energy and Environmental Bureau Listening Session

PITTSFIELD — About 70 area residents attended a state Attorney General's office "listening session" on Thursday — aiming to fight giants like Kinder Morgan and General Electric.

Though physically at the Ralph Froio Senior Center in Pittsfield, most minds seemed in the Otis State Forest, on protected lands Kinder Morgan hopes to traverse for its Connecticut Expansion Project natural gas pipeline expansion project.

Many of the other attendees vented about GE's Housatonic River cleanup plan — deemed weak and likely to leave most of the PCB-contaminated material in the river.

Much of the session took on the character of a brainstorming session between residents and a very sympathetic trio of AG consumer advocates, on potential legal avenues to defeat Kinder Morgan on the pipeline or garner concessions from GE.

"This is the most incredibly legally astute audience I think we've ever had," Melissa Hoffer, AG Environmental Protection Division chief, said at one point, earning laughter from the audience. "You should all come work for us."

A majority of the residents there became educated fighting Kinder Morgan's now-abandoned Northeast Energy Direct pipeline proposal and now have shifted that energy toward blocking CEP expansion.

The 13.42-mile expansion of an existing gas line route — 3.81 miles in the Berkshires and 2.3 within Otis State Forest — won federal approval in March, and authority to access the site was upheld in Berkshire Superior Court. Eminent domain for an approved project was upheld as overriding the state's constitutional conservation protection in Judge John A. Agostini's ruling earlier this month.

In the case, AG office attorneys — including Assistant Attorney Gen. Matthew Ireland, who was present Thursday — argued that Article 97 of the state constitution prohibits such use of protected conservation land without a two-thirds vote of the state Legislature.

The dominant message residents sought to convey on Thursday was: Appeal the decision.

"I want my state to protect Article 97 lands," Jean Atwater-Williams, of Sandisfield, said. "The [Otis State Forest] had been identified 15 years before its purchase as a 'key acquisition' for the state. It paid $5.2 million for it. If this land cannot be protected, what land can be?"

Ireland seemed doubtful about the prospects of an appeal, but also assured the audience. "This isn't over," he said.

Residents were also concerned about the weight of the trucks Kinder Morgan would bring onto Otis and Sandisfield roads, the one million gallons of water the company plans to remove from Spectacle Pond to flush the line, and the prospect that Agostini's decision could become a precedent-setting case upon which more pipelines will be approved.

Regarding the latter, Ireland said, "It's not a binding precedent. That's an important point for people to understand."

Other residents looked at a bigger picture.

Williamstown resident Shira Wohlberg said that since the natural gas such pipelines propose to supply is of dubious necessity — an AG report saying as much about NED — then perhaps the federal law that permits interstate gas projects should be repealed, referring to the Natural Gas Act of 1938.

"It was created at a particular moment in history," Wohlberg said. "Now is not that moment."

Renewable energy sources, energy efficiency and conservation,and a better knowledge of the environmental harm caused by pollutants, necessitate a new approach, Wohlberg said.

"I'd like to see Massachusetts step up and help dismantle that law that really shouldn't exist anymore, so we can move forward to the kind of future that we need," Wohlberg said.

GE, on the other hand, was attacked as a "multi-billion dollar corporation that pays virtually no taxes and wants to save a few dollars here in the Berkshires" by scrimping on the cleanup of the contaminated Housatonic River.

Susan May of Lenox said the company's PCB dump site near Allendale Elementary School and wishes to dump the additional waste at more local sites, "shows exactly what kind of commitment they have to the health and well-being of the residents here."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has strongly recommended against the local dumps, proposed for Lenox Dale, Lee and Great Barrington.

Another resident said GE's recent headquarters move to Boston should become a factor in necessitating a more robust cleanup.

The AG employees present said they would take these and other GE concerns back to Boston.

GE previously entered into a consent agreement in 2000 to pay for PCB work around its former industrial facilities in Pittsfield, and a similar agreement now is being negotiated for cleanup of contamination in the Housatonic south of the city center. GE has objected to aspects of a plan approved by the EPA and could appeal to federal courts.

Other residents who attended the session sought ways to make residential solar easier and strongly advocated for a commuter rail to Boston.

The AG represents state residents on consumer issues surrounding water, electricity, gas and a wide array of other concerns.

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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