Kinder Morgan begins mapping Otis State Forest for gas pipeline

A Kinder Morgan surveyor at work in Otis State Forest last week, mapping the route for the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co.'s Connecticut Expansion Project. The company states that it has permission from the state and from private landowners to conduct the surveying work even though the project lacks a final go-ahead from federal regulators.

Despite a thicket of legal and permitting tangles, Kinder Morgan surveyors are mapping the path of its new two-mile natural gas pipeline through Otis State Forest in Sandisfield.

The $86 million Connecticut Expansion Project, designed to increase Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. supplies for three distributors in the state, still awaits a "notice to proceed and construct" from federal regulators, said Kinder Morgan's communications director Richard Wheatley.

Permission for surveying and planting of flags along the pipeline route's right of way had been granted by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation as well as private landowners, Wheatley stated in an e-mail to The Eagle.

No clearing of land was involved, he pointed out, adding that the surveying and flagging "helps us delineate the right-of-way path while protecting and preserving old growth in the process."

Tennessee Gas, an affiliate of Kinder Morgan, won preliminary approval for the project from federal regulators last March. The pipeline expansion involves three loops — in Bethlehem, N.Y., Sandisfield, and in Agawam, extending into northern Hartford County, Conn.

Opponents of the project have argued that the old-growth forest is protected by the Massachusetts constitution, since the land was acquired by the state for conservation a decade ago at a cost of $5.2 million.

Wheatley acknowledged that the company still needs several environmental permits in order to gain the final go-ahead signal from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Tennessee Gas must obtain several additional federal and state permits "before the commission staff can give the green light to begin construction of certain portions of the Connecticut Pipeline Expansion Project," said FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen.

These include compliance with or a waiver from a section of the Clean Water Act administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and a similar authorization or waiver from the state of Connecticut, she stated in an e-mail to The Eagle. The company has received those waivers from Massachusetts and New York. Also required is completion of "tribal consultations" under a section of the National Historic Preservation Act.

Finally, the project awaits a final order from Berkshire Superior Court Judge John Agostini granting Kinder Morgan an injunction allowing tree-cutting and other construction activity along the four-mile pipeline route through Sandisfield, including 2.3 miles in the Otis State Forest.

Agostini had granted preliminary approval in a May 8 court memorandum, but delayed the final injunction until July 29 to see if state lawmakers would vote to exempt the state forest from the protection of the Massachusetts constitution. The Legislature declined to revisit the issue.

The current holdup involves negotiations between Kinder Morgan and the town of Sandisfield for monetary compensation to cover potential repairs to roads, bridges and other infrastructure that may be caused by the project. A status conference is slated for Aug. 30 in Superior Court.

Even if the compensation matter is settled — Wheatley declined comment on that — a 60-day appeal period would begin once Agostini's ruling becomes final.

Whether state Attorney General Maura Healey would intervene against the project is uncertain.

According to Chloe Gotsis, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, the court must determine compensation before the decision is finalized, triggering the appeals period. Currently, she added, the office is continuing to evaluate its legal options going forward, including an appeal of the court's decision once it becomes final.

Further muddying the waters, two opposition groups — the Pipeline Awareness Network for the Northeast, based in Cummington, and the Berkshire Environmental Action Team in Pittsfield — have appealed the state Department of Environmental Protection's approval of a water-quality permit for the project.

The groups have told FERC that pending the outcome of the appeal, tree-cutting or other construction activities that could discharge dredged material into Spectacle Pond, the Clay River and surrounding tributaries in the state forest are prohibited by state and federal law.

"Otis State Forest has become a flashpoint for a lot of people," stated Kathryn Eiseman, president of the Pipeline Awareness Network. "We all want to make sure that the natural resources here are protected and that DEP and Kinder Morgan follow the letter of the law."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.