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Proposed gas pipeline expansion in Tompkins raises climate change fears


Photo by Michael Smith/The Ithaca Voice

ITHACA, NY - On Tuesday, the Tompkins Legislature passed a resolution requesting the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) hold a public hearing for a proposed natural gas pipeline expansion in Ithaca.

Plans are in the works to expand the Dominion New Market Pipeline, which runs through a compressor station on Ellis Hollow Creek Road in Dryden. Ithaca environmental group Toxics Targeting recently revealed that there were uncleaned spills along this pipeline, including in Ithaca.

The project would expand on that station and others along the pipeline, to allow for greater pressure and volume of natural gas to be moved through the pipeline. This would most likely involve hydro-fracked gas being moved other states, like Pennsylvania, through New York and into markets further east, like Massachusetts.

The resolution proposed by the legislature called on the DEC to provide for a public hearing in Tompkins County before issuing any approvals. Hearings in three other affected areas have already occurred.

More than a dozen residents spoke during the public comment period, all stating their opposition to the project. While concerns were expressed about the potential safety issues associated with the pipeline expansion, for many who spoke the primary concern was much broader -- the impact of continued use of natural gas on climate change.

"By building infrastructure that enables other states -- Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio -- to move its fracked gas through New York State, we are still enabling, in fact encouraging that to happen elsewhere," said Susan Molter of Ithaca.

Pamela Mackesey, a former Tompkins County legislator, was one of several who urged the legislature to take an even stronger stance on the issue, and amend the resolution to state that the legislature was officially opposed to the project. Mackesey spoke about how during her time in the legislature, the county took a strong stance against fracking and she felt that the same approach was needed here.

"We visibly moved New York State toward a more environmentally responsible that didn't include destruction and deterioration of our amazing environment. It feels as if there isn't that focus and intensity now," Mackesey said. "This is a part of the same battle.... This is an unrelenting effort by a large a powerful industry to get its way in New York State. Vigilance is what we need, and a clear stance about where we stand."

Why not officially oppose the pipeline?

Two additional amendments were added to the resolution. The first asked that the DEC perform a study on the capacity of the pipeline to withstand the additional pressure and volume that would be generated by the expansion. The second requested a similar study on the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions from the expansion.

While sympathetic to the requests for a harder stance, legislators Dooley Kiefer and Anna Kelles both stated that they felt that adding that language to the resolution would undermine the whole thing. They reasoned that if the county was already on record as opposed to the pipeline, the DEC would have little reason to follow through and hold a hearing here.

"What we want is for them to come so we can have the greatest influence, because no phone call or letter will be as powerful as saying something in person," said Kelles.

Kelles attempted to find a middle ground by proposing an amendment that would state the legislature was opposed to the project if the requested public hearing and studies weren't completed, but that amendment failed with four in favor and ten opposed.

The final resolution, with the two amendments requesting studies, passed unanimously.

"A bunch of keystone cops"

However, legislator Mike Sigler expressed a number of issues with the way the arguments against the pipeline were framed. In particular, Sigler said he felt that people were perhaps being too dismissive of the regulatory agencies and companies behind these projects.

Sigler said that it wasn't as if the people who would build the pipeline would out of their way to make a leaky or malfunctioning pipeline, and it wasn't as if the agencies charged with environmental protection didn't care about the environment.

"This idea that the DEC is just a bunch of keystone cops running around and they don't know what they're doing, and we know better than they do... and FERC, they're just a bunch of appointed people who paid their way into those jobs, they don't know what they're doing either," Sigler said.

"I gotta tell ya, I'm at a loss. Who do I believe? ... These guys, this is what they do. I can't believe the people in the EPA have any less concern about the environment than our planning department here in Tompkins County. That's a big stretch. And I haven't lost that much faith in our government that I can make that leap."