State cites failure to address water impacts in Constitution permit refusal

By Brian Nearing

For the second time in a week, a major natural gas pipeline project in the state appears to have hit the rocks.

Late Friday, the state Department of Environmental Conservation denied critical water quality permits for the planned $750 million Constitution pipeline, which was envisioned to carry hydrofracked natural gas from Pennsylvania into New York, crossing through Broome, Chenango, Delaware and Schoharie counties.

The state permits were the final approval needed for Constitution’s developers, which already had approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

On Wednesday, backers of the $3.1 billion Northeast Energy Direct pipeline announced they were shelving their project, which would follow Constitution’s route to Schoharie County before continuing through southern Albany and Rensselaer counties en route to metropolitan Boston.

Anti-pipeline advocates praised Gov. Andrew Cuomo, noting that Friday was Earth Day, while a state industry lobbying group decried the Constitution decision as anti-business. First proposed in August 2013, the project drew 15,000 public comments to DEC.

On its route in New York, the pipeline would cross 250 bodies of water and clear 1,000 acres of forest containing 700,000 trees. More than 700 parcels of land are affected by the proposed pipeline, and 120 landowners face losing property to the gas company under eminent domain.

According to DEC, the agency had “repeatedly requested that Constitution provide a comprehensive and site-specific analysis of depth for pipeline burial to mitigate the project’s environmental impact — but the company refused, providing only a limited analysis of burial depth for 21 of the 250 New York streams.”

“Many of those streams are unique and sensitive ecological areas, including trout-spawning streams, old-growth forest, and undisturbed springs, which provide vital habitat and are key to the local ecosystems,” according to the DEC statement. “Additionally, DEC received reports that landowners, possibly with Constitution’s knowledge, clear cut old-growth trees along the right-of-way for the pipeline, including trees near streams and water bodies, even after FERC ruled that Constitution could not cut trees in the right-of-way.”

In a letter to the Houston-based company, DEC permit administrator John Ferguson said the project application “fails in a meaningful way to address the significant water resource impacts that could occur from this project and has failed to provide sufficient information to demonstrate compliance with (state) water quality standards.”

“We, the people, won through a mix of strategic planning, focused organizing, and sheer determination — against all odds,” said Anne Marie Garti, a founding member of the group Stop the Pipeline and an attorney volunteering with the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic. The group is “extremely grateful to Gov. Cuomo, the DEC, and those who believed in our goals, and worked to make this happen.”

Environmental Advocates of New York Executive Director Pete Iwanowicz called Constitution “an environmental disaster waiting to happen. For years, through a campaign of scare tactics and misinformation, the oil and gas industry has made expanding fossil fuel infrastructure seem like the only choice. And industry’s economic gain has come at the cost of our water, air, and health.”

Actor Mark Ruffalo, a member of New Yorkers Against Fracking, said the state had put “protection of our precious water and the public health and safety of New Yorkers ahead of the special interests of the oil and gas industry. This is what real climate leadership looks like.”

The Business Council of New York attacked the decision, while Houston-based Constitution had no immediate reaction.

“We are incredibly disappointed that the administration allowed fear-mongering to once again lead the way,” said council President and CEO Heather Briccetti. “The decision to deny the approvals necessary for the construction of the Constitution Pipeline will have a direct and immediate negative impact on our state’s economy. Today’s decision also places numerous jobs in jeopardy and puts further strain on our already overworked energy grid.”

Constitution is a partnership of Cabot Oil and Gas Corp.; Williams, an Oklahoma-based energy company; Piedmont Natural Gas; and WGL Holdings.

Developers have maintained the pipeline is needed to meet state energy needs, is environmentally beneficial and will not ultimately be used to ship natural gas overseas.

The proposed pipeline would connect to the Iroquois pipeline in Schoharie, where owners are considering whether to reverse the flow of gas so it would flow north toward Canada. From there, gas could move in other pipes, potentially flowing toward potential export facilities on the Atlantic coast.

bnearing@timesunion.com • 518-454-5094 • @Bnearing10