Protesters stage 'funeral' as court prepares to grant Tennessee Gas access to Otis State Forest
PITTSFIELD — A Superior Court Judge said Monday he intends to authorize the settlement between the state and the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. to pay for acquiring additional conservation land and to compensate landowners for the granting of easements.
Opponents of the 13-mile pipeline extension project, which would run through about four miles of Sandisfield, including two miles of Otis State Forest, said Monday's decision does not make the project a "done deal," and plan to continue their resistance to it.
To that end, about 75 demonstrators held a mock funeral in Pittsfield's Park Square about an hour before the hearing, lamenting what they called the death of the forest and the Massachusetts Constitution's Article 97, which protects conservation land, but can be overridden.
"In 1972, here in Massachusetts, they voted to be able to create protected areas ... we grieve the turning of this protected land over for corporate purposes," said the Rev. Sarah Pirtle, of Shelburne Falls, who spoke at the rally.
Demonstrators donned funeral garb and bore a casket on their shoulders around Park Square, accompanied by the playing of bagpipes.
"A funeral is not only a time for grief, a funeral is a time for heightened awareness," Pirtle said.
Inside Berkshire Superior Court, about 40 observers sat in on the hearing before Judge John Agostini.
Agostini issued a ruling in May that allowed temporary construction easements to the gas company and a permanent 6-acre pipeline easement through Otis State Forest via eminent domain, arguing federal law overrides the state's Article 97 protections.
The company had gone to court for eminent domain, because state lawmakers must approve easements through conservation land.
The Legislature did not vote on the pipeline project and the Tennessee Gas Co.'s lawsuit was challenged by the state Attorney General's Office.
In late December, Attorney General Maura Healy announced a settlement between the state and the gas company.
Attorney James Messenger, representing Tennessee Gas, said the company and the state settled on $640,000.
From that amount, $300,000 will be paid to the Department of Conservation and Recreation to acquire additional nearby conservation land that, "provides ecological functions equivalent to the land impacted by the pipeline," according to the AG's office.
Another $300,000 will be used for improvements to Otis State Forest, including recreational improvements.
The remaining $40,000 will be used to compensate property owners who granted pipeline easements.
Messenger said all required legal notices were posted and all parties with a legal interest in the project were notified, with no objections received.
Agostini noted the court did receive an objection to the project, but it was submitted from a party without legal interest in the situation and was not considered in the case.
Tennessee Gas Co. is a subsidiary of Kinder Morgan Inc., which issued a brief statement regarding Monday's hearing.
"We appreciate the court's attention at today's hearing on the Consent Judgment and look forward to receiving its decision," it read.
Agostini said he would take the matter under advisement but said he "fully intended" to issue the order.
Kathryn R. Eiseman, director of the Massachusetts PipeLine Awareness Network and president of the PipeLine Awareness Network for the Northeast, spoke following the hearing and said, despite the approval of the settlement, a decision the project is not yet final.
"There's a lot still going on," she said.
Eiseman said there are still steps that need to be taken before Kinder Morgan can be granted permission from the Department of Environmental Protection to clear the trees from the areas in which it plans to expand the pipeline, for example.
"There are also ongoing tribal consultations that need to be completed under the National Historic Preservation Act," she said.
Meanwhile, a request for another hearing before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has been filed by Sandisfield Taxpayers Opposed to the Pipeline in opposition to the project.
"In the middle of all of this, FERC, has lost a commissioner, so they're down to two out of five and they don't have a quorum to take certain actions," Eiseman said.
Eiseman said a decision whether to grant that hearing can't be made without a quorum, which leaves that part of the process stalled for the time being.
Tennessee Gas is aiming to build the pipeline this year — following springtime tree-cutting — and put it into service on Nov. 1.
Reach staff writer Bob Dunn at 413-496-6249 or @BobDunn413 on Twitter.
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