FERC says no environmental review for 'heavy-duty' vehicle use variance, says it will trust Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co.

Protesters were arrested after blocking this pipeline access road, "MA-3." Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. wants to use heavy-duty vehicles on two access roads, though when it got environmental approval, it was for light-duty use.

SANDISFIELD — Environmentalists are claiming a bait and switch after Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to allow "heavy-duty" vehicle use on two access roads that were given environmental approvals based on "light-duty" use.

And FERC said that because it already approved the project, additional environmental reviews won't be required.

The Kinder Morgan subsidiary filed with FERC for a variance on June 16, saying a "clerical error" in its original 2014 application for the project is to blame for the incorrect description of access roads MA-1 and MA-3 in Otis State Forest.

The company says it needs the variance approved by Friday, June 23, citing "an immediate need."

The roads are part of an easement for the company's Connecticut Expansion Project, a 13-mile natural gas storage loop. The ongoing project is still steeped in controversy after a legal ruling last year forced the state to give the company an easement for roughly two miles of protected land. The new line will run through a corridor that has two existing pipelines.

The variance request comes about a month after 24 anti-pipeline protesters were arrested for blocking two of the access roads, including MA-3.

The area around access road MA-1 is considered highly sensitive, as it abuts an ecosystem of wetlands, vernal pools and forest. As a result, the state Department of Conservation Resources told Tennessee Gas in 2015 to take great care with this area, and that this area should be included in the DCR's permit review process.

But in a response to the variance request filed with FERC, Massachusetts Pipeline Awareness Network's Cathy Kristofferson wrote that this DCR review was waived when, after a legal battle over the easement, the state settled with the company.

FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen told The Eagle as long as Tennessee Gas says there won't be any environmental ramifications from this change to heavy-duty use, FERC will not force the company to go through another review since the agency already vetted the project before approving it.

"It is our expectation that [Tennessee Gas] is going to tell us the truth," she said.

Tennessee Gas told FERC "light-duty" consists of "rubber-tired, non-tandem vehicles only."

While Kinder Morgan spokeswoman Sara Hughes declined to comment further on the variance or about what vehicles are considered heavy-duty, the company's FERC filing said the change would not cause harm, and that it would take precautions and repair any damage. Tennessee Gas has environmental monitors on site.

In its response, MassPLAN said it was suspicious of the company's strategy.

"Casting the access road classification that has stood for nearly three years, in multiple documents, as a `clerical error' would deprive all interested parties of a meaningful opportunity to reevaluate the access roads for a newly proposed use," Kristofferson wrote.

And Kristofferson pointed out to The Eagle that tractor-trailers and tree feller-bunchers have already been using both access roads, and wondered what could constitute heavier vehicles.

But FERC is the only agency that can address any of it at this point.

Sandisfield Conservation Commission Chairman Paul Gaudette said it is out of his hands.

State Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Catherine Skiba said while the agency does inspections for aspects of the project, "the permit we issued does not address equipment" on "existing access roads."

And DCR spokesman Troy Wall said the agency is aware of the variance request but "does not plan to intervene at this point."

Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871