SANDISFIELD - Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. Thursday got a permit to start using explosives to blast rock out of the trench path of a third pipeline planned for the existing corridor, raising fears of a possible rupture of one of the existing lines, something that happened during blasting for a second pipeline in 1981.
Residents who live near the corridor were given notice Friday of the Kinder Morgan subsidiary's plans to begin blasting from approximately June 12 to July 14. The company said it would blast in daylight hours, between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
Tennessee Gas also said the state fire marshal had been notified, and that the company will take safety precautions during this phase of its Berkshires section of the Connecticut Expansion Project.
But residents are nervous. In 1981, the company's blasting shot a boulder into the first pipeline, installed in 1951. Residents of the surrounding area were evacuated.
"My big concern was that I had 50 sheep and I couldn't evacuate them," said Roberta Myers, who lived at Cold Spring Farm on Cold Spring Road, which runs along the state forest. "I took the dogs, the cats and the kids, but I had to leave the sheep."
The company's $93 million, 13-mile tri-state loop will add about 4 miles of 36-inch pipe into the corridor here, two miles of which run through a part of Otis State Forest owned by the state and protected under Article 97 of the state constitution.
Residents and anti-pipeline activists have been after the company from the get-go, raising questions about everything from the need for this extra gas, to environmental worries, to what they say is the stacked deck in favor of pipeline approvals by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Safety has been mentioned, but so far has not been the center of the controversy that has focused on the company winning an easement of state-protected land in court, and cutting trees very near a stand of old growth hemlocks.
"What we want to know now, is what's the evacuation plan?" said Ron Bernard, a Cold Spring Road resident, as he watched as the last of his 200-year-old stone wall was dismantled by company workers to add this third line. "We are clueless. And we've got two 30-year-old - maybe older - fire trucks here."
The pipeline corridor is about 250 feet from Bernard's 18th century farmhouse.
"I don't plan on having a rupture," said Sandisfield Fire Chief Ralph Morrison, when asked if he had an evacuation plan. "I will be there every time they blast."
He's supervised blasting before; for a pipeline and highway work, he said.
He said in the event of a rupture from fly-rock, he would use the state's evacuation plan.
"We'd follow the guidelines for that depending on how bad the rupture is, the location, and which way the wind is blowing," he said.
State Fire Marshal spokeswoman Jennifer Mieth said Morrison had approved the company's blasting analysis and plan, issued the permit, and told the agency he will have a detail at blasting sites during that work.
Blasting regulations, Mieth added, "have significantly improved and changed since 1981, and since I got here in 1984."
Tennessee Gas hired Connecticut Explosives Co. Inc., a third generation company out of Branford, Conn. The company is licensed in Massachusetts, and understands and must adhere to all state regulations, Mieth said.
Mieth noted that vibration levels will be "significantly lower than permitted levels ... because the right of way contains existing pipelines."
She also said while there aren't any structures within the distance to require a pre-blast survey to owners, Tennessee Gas is offering the surveys to homeowners beyond the immediate pipeline area.
But Bernard is still worried. And so is his wife, Jean Atwater-Williams.
"We're in the incineration zone," she said of what might happen if there is a pipe rupture combined with a spark, and she lifts her laptop to display a video of a gas line explosion in West Virginia.
"In 1981 they said, `don't worry - we have mats and modern techniques,'" Bernard added.
That's what the company says now, too. It's original project documents say it will install blasting mats "in congested areas, in shallow waterbodies or near structures that could be damaged by fly-rock," among other precautions, like making sure workers man the valves for the adjacent pipelines in case of a rupture.
Kinder Morgan spokesman Richard Wheatley previously told The Eagle that the new gas loop will have auto shutoff valves in case of leaks or ruptures.
And Kinder Morgan spokeswoman Sara Hughes said Friday the company has all sorts of reasons to blast with care.
"The work is designed with public safety and protection of our existing pipeline assets as top priorities, and we only blast where absolutely necessary," she said in an email. "We continue to work closely with local and state agencies, and we remain in full compliance with the Massachusetts state codes."
The company's documents said vibrations will be controlled by staggering charges, reducing the size of charges and using charge delays.
The original plans for the project said it was unlikely blasting would be necessary, after a U.S. Department of Agriculture-Natural Resources Conservation Service Web Soil Survey for the Berkshire and Hampden County sections of the project revealed no shallow bedrock.
But the company also said it was possible that during what is expected to be a total six-month construction period, it might encounter rock, and that, depending on the "strength and hardness of the rock," would "attempt to use mechanical methods such as ripping or conventional excavation" before resorting to blasting.
Susan Baxter is Myers' daughter, and she takes care of Cold Spring Farm since her mother moved to California. Baxter said she watched company workers drill for rock and find it. The video she took of the procedure shows a cloud of white dust rising from the ground.
Baxter, who with Myers and Bernard is a member of Sandisfield Taxpayers Opposed to the Pipeline (STOP) said she had seen a company map that indicated "an extensive area in Otis State Forest that may need blasting."
"I'm not feeling reassured," she added, given that 1981 accident, and noting that her attempts to get more information about the blasting plans from Tennessee Gas officials at the company's local headquarters has been fruitless on this issue.
But Fire Chief Morrison isn't worried at all.
"Because I'm going to be there," he said.
Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871