In 1996, the Iroquois Pipeline Co. pleaded guilty to four felony counts and paid multimillion dollar fines for overseeing hundreds of criminal violations of the Clean Water Act during the construction of a 375 milelong gas pipeline across New York state.
A decade later, the construction of the Millennium Pipeline resulted in the same catastrophic erosion events and negligent destruction of aquatic habitats. State regulators once again levied fines and hundreds of enforcement actions as they sought to repair the wanton destruction of New York’s water resources at the hands of pipeline developers.
So when Cabot Oil and Gas, a notorious environmental polluter in its own right, announced plans to build the Constitution Pipeline, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation must have felt a horrible sense of déja vu. This 124-mile pipeline, designed to transport gas from the fracking fields of Susquehanna County, Pa., to Schoharie, presents the same potential catastrophic erosion risks that DEC officials were promised would never happen with the Iroquois and Millennium pipelines.
As proposed, the pipeline would rip a 125-foot wide scar from the Southern Tier along the Western slope of the Catskills, plowing through 277 stream crossings, clear-cutting more than 700,000 trees and destroying 1,800 acres of farmland and forest under many of the same steep slope and unstable soil conditions that lead to previous violations.
In an attempt to not repeat the past, DEC and other state and federal agencies urged Cabot to change the route and “use existing utility corridors and rights-of-way for all or most of the proposed pipeline route in New York.” Such co-location of previously disturbed corridors would drastically reduce impacts to virgin terrain and sensitive habitat. In addition, DEC asked that if streams, rivers or wetlands could not be absolutely avoided, then directional drilling should be employed to route the pipeline under these fragile aquatic resources, not through them.
But in spite of New York’s tragic history with pipeline water quality violations, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Cabot ignored DEC’s warnings and advice in the final approvals granted in December 2014. As proposed, the Constitution Pipeline will be constructed along the worst possible route, using the worst possible construction techniques. The only thing holding the project back is DEC’s required certification that this pipeline will not violate the laws of New York that protect our water resources.
It is clear the current plan is set up for certain failure. But the question remains: Will DEC learn from the past or sign off on routes and techniques they warned FERC not to pursue?
To make matters worse, another company, Kinder Morgan, has proposed a gas pipeline, the Northeast Energy Direct, that will run parallel to the Constitution Pipeline — as little as 50 feet apart in some places — doubling the damage to every stream crossing and clear cut forest under review. At the very least, DEC must take into account the cumulative impacts of both these pipelines together before any decision can be made.
In truth, DEC is under no obligation to fix the permitting nightmare created by Cabot and the FERC. With an ample historical record supporting it, DEC should deny Constitution Pipeline’s water quality certification and send this ill-conceived project back to the drawing board.
Roger Downs is the conservation director for the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, a volunteer-led environmental organization of 40,000 members statewide dedicated to protecting New York’s air, water and remaining wild places.
Published in September/October 2015 Save the Pine Bush Newsletter