SANDISFIELD — The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has denied citizen and other requests to stop work in Otis State Forest because "justice" did not require it.
In a letter dated Saturday, acting FERC Chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur said none of the groups showed they would "suffer irreparable harm or injury in the absence of a stay."
Her letter came in response to two U.S. lawmakers representing Massachusetts who wrote the commission last month asking it to review pending requests before allowing Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. to begin cutting trees to expand an existing pipeline corridor for a third line.
U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey said a stay was warranted by FERC's lack of a full quorum of members needed to issue the notice to start tree cutting, and by a rehearing requested by Sandisfield citizens over a year ago — but never held — to revisit the company's permission to build the pipeline.
LaFleur said FERC staff had "performed a thorough, independent evaluation" of the company's Connecticut Expansion Project, and had considered environmental and other concerns raised by Sandisfield Taxpayers Opposed to the Pipeline (STOP) after the company was granted its permission to build its tri-state, 13 mile natural gas storage loop.
Trees already have been cut for the Sandisfield part of the $93 million project. The two existing lines were installed in 1951 and 1981, before the state purchased 900 acres here for $5.2 million and put it under protection of the state Constitution's Article 97.
It's been a controversial undertaking from Day One, with the state fighting the company last year to stop tree cutting on roughly 6 acres and 2 miles of state forest, and delaying the project by a year.
In the last few weeks, 24 arrests have been made during protests as the cutting began. That tree work is already done, and the construction phase is about to begin.
Warren and Markey, and later U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, told FERC last month it should not have issued the company, a Kinder Morgan subsidiary, a notice to proceed with tree cutting and construction until it reviewed the concerns made by STOP. FERC had said those concerns had "substantial merit" but were never addressed.
LaFleur said FERC denied the requests because "impacts will be adequately minimized or mitigated, and parties have not demonstrated that they will suffer irreparable harm or injury in the absence of a stay."
STOP had questioned FERC's granting the company permission to build this pipeline on a number of grounds, including the company's gas demand projections for Connecticut, where most of the gas is headed, as well as "the project's subsidization by ratepayers."
LaFleur said with all federal permits in place, the commission could issue the order, and that the company will have to stick to all the environmental and other rules. She also said FERC staff will monitor the work with "regular compliance inspections of the project rights-of-way."
LaFleur did not address the quorum issue. But FERC spokesman Craig Cano has previously said while quorum is necessary for rehearing requests, it isn't needed to issue a notice to proceed with tree cutting and construction.
The response from LaFleur comes after a month of silence after Warren, Markey and Neal wrote her. The lawmakers could not be reached for comment Monday, but after tree cutting began early this month, Markey expressed frustration that the process hadn't been fully exhausted.
"It is unacceptable that FERC staff would allow this to move forward without a quorum and an ability to hear the pending challenges," Markey said in an email. " It's been made clear — stop clear-cutting until these challenges can be heard by FERC. We shouldn't be cutting short the process before cutting down trees."
STOP member Jean Atwater-Williams said LaFleur's response is "predictable but disappointing," and that FERC should have held the rehearing request.
"[FERC] is ignoring the concerns and objections of our legal team and of our federal elected representatives," she said, "and we think that is outrageous."
Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871.