Environmental group: Pittsfield mayor's energy firm ties create conflict in gas pipeline debate

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PITTSFIELD >> The Berkshire Environmental Action Team contends that Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi has a conflict of interest concerning the proposed $6 billion Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. project, which he has publicly supported as needed in the Berkshires.

The group on Monday filed a formal complaint with the state Ethics Commission, contending that the mayor should immediately recuse himself from the ongoing permitting process.

Bianchi, who has prepared a written disclosure statement concerning the situation, said the conflict allegation is baseless, and he doesn't plan to bow out of the debate.

In a prepared release by BEAT, group Advocate Michael Muadin said in part, "He [Bianchi] needs to immediately recuse himself from any formal executive actions related to this pipeline."

Muadin said during a subsequent telephone conversation that while the mayor may have filed a disclosure statement, "it is after the fact," and the alleged conflict has existed until now.

The organization's press statement notes that the mayor was the Pittsfield office manager for Global Montello Group prior to his election in 2011 and has continued part-time as a consultant for the energy services firm.

The release said Global Montello has done business with Tennessee Gas Pipeline, adding that the mayor "remains in bed with the energy industry that is trying to force this pipeline on the people and their land."

Muadin added that Bianchi "needs to immediately and publicly disclose the exact nature of his relationship with Global Montello and whether or not any communications concerning the pipeline, verbal or written, have passed between himself and Global Montello."

Bianchi has been a consistent supporter of the project, saying it would benefit the county and Western Massachusetts economically by lowering fuel and electricity costs. In his conflict of interest disclosure form, released Monday, the mayor contends that he has no conflict because no actions involving the proposed pipeline will be required of him as mayor.

"I have no ability or responsibility to stop or to assist in the laying of the gas pipeline described above; nor have I used my position as mayor to influence the affected landowners one way or the other, " Bianchi stated in the form.

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He added, "I have no affiliation or relationship with Kinder Morgan," referring to the parent company of Tennessee Gas. "I do perform some consulting work for a company called Global Montello Group, but my consulting work is not being performed on city time nor does it enhance or hinder the ability of Kinder Morgan to lay a pipeline in the city of Pittsfield."

The multi-state energy distribution giant seeks to build a new natural gas line from upstate New York through Richmond and then north and east through the northern sections of Massachusetts to Dracut. A large number of officials and residents in the communities along the proposed route have come out in opposition.

Permits are being sought for the project through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and Kinder Morgan is expected to file its formal permit application with a final design about a year from now.

The issue of the pipeline could resurface before the Pittsfield City Council on Wednesday, as a petition from Jane Winn, BEAT's executive director, remains on the council agenda under unfinished business. It was tabled at a prior meeting so that business groups would have more time to offer comment.

The petition seeks to have the council take a nonbinding vote on the project.

Winn said in the group's release that the mayor "needs to recuse himself from saying anything further on this subject given that he has worked for, and apparently still works for, a company that stands to profit from this pipeline at the expense of everyone else in the Berkshires."

She said the issue affects all residents of the region because of the environmental impacts and impacts on "our Beautiful Berkshire Brand as a naturally clean, creative, and critter-filled place that should not be marred by the biggest gas infrastructure project we have ever seen."

At past council meetings, Bianchi has spoken of what he sees as a strong need for more natural gas in Massachusetts and New England, saying shortages at gas-fired generation plants during peak electricity demand periods already are causing spikes in electricity rates.

Bianchi and several local business leaders have said firms seeking to expand or locate here are at a disadvantage because natural gas is more plentiful and cheaper in other regions, including nearby New York.

Environmentalists and others say the state is at a point where it should steer away from fossil fuel dependence toward renewable energy sources and energy efficiency efforts.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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