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Angry Protest Fails to Stop Work on Controversial Natural Gas Pipeline

Delaware River Basin Commission tells protestors to take complaints to states responsible for pipeline.

Noisy protestors failed on Wednesday to persuade the Delaware River Basin Commission to rethink its approval of a natural gas pipeline application that would take gas from Pennsylvania through New Jersey to New York.

The DRBC, an interstate regulator charged with ensuring water quality in the Delaware River Basin, rejected impassioned appeals by about 100 environmentalists who attended an afternoon meeting here.

“The time for appeal of the action has elapsed and the commission is not entertaining appeals or requests for rehearing on that final action now,” said Commission Chair Kelly Heffner, in a statement read to the meeting.

Commissioners reordered the meeting to meet protestors’ demands for a “people’s meeting,” allowing more than a dozen personal speeches by people who accused the commission of failing to exercise its legal responsibility to conduct a full environmental review of the Northeast Upgrade, a section of pipeline that would transmit gas from the Marcellus Shale in northern Pennsylvania.

Workers for Tennessee Gas Pipeline last month began felling trees in northeastern Pennsylvania in preparation for the line, sparking public protests. The project has been approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees interstate pipelines.

In addition to the permits from FERC and DRBC, Pennsylvania and New Jersey have also approved plans for the pipeline to cross streams and waterways, the parts of the project over which states have jurisdiction.

Pennsylvania's permit is being challenged in court by Delaware Riverkeeper. Meanwhile, the pipeline is awaiting approval by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers which oversees any project that crosses a wetland.

Environmentalists such as Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, argued that a full environmental review would halt work on the Northeast Upgrade, and would submit future pipeline projects to more rigorous scrutiny.

“We beg you to take action,” said Jolie de Feis, a resident of Milford, PA, where some of the tree-clearing has been taking place. “We know this is in your jurisdiction.”

Members of the commission, representing New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware plus the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, sat stony faced as a succession of environmentalists urged them to reconsider their approval of the project.

As protestors held up signs such as “Stop the Chainsaws” and “Ban Fracking Now,” speakers argued that the commission has not fulfilled its responsibility to conduct a full review.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said such a review would have halted work on the project. “We are here to say to the DRBC: ‘Do your job,’” he said.

Tittel said after the meeting that the commission’s refusal to reconsider its approval for the project was not a surprise. He said the meeting was intended to put pressure on the governors of the commission’s four member states to conduct full environmental reviews of future pipeline applications.

Current and future pipeline projects anticipate the eventual lifting of a current DRBC moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” the controversial method of extracting natural gas that has enabled a recent gas boom across the U.S., Tittel said. If the ban is lifted, thousands of gas wells are expected to be drilled in the basin.

Critics say fracking may contaminate drinking water with chemicals that cause illness, and that allowing fracking in the Delaware River Basin would endanger drinking water supplies for some 15 million people in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

The gas industry contends that there is no evidence of a link between fracking and water contamination, and that chemicals are shielded from aquifers by steel and concrete casings before being released thousands of feet beneath drinking water sources.

At Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners were unable to conduct an open discussion on two-dozen items on the agenda because attendees shouted and sang protest songs such as “This Is Our Land,” drowning out the commission members.

But the commission’s executive director, Carol Collier, said in an interview that members had made decisions on agenda items despite the protestors’ noise.

Collier said the commission has responsibility for water-related matters, but that states within the basin regulate other areas such as erosion, sediment control, and wetland crossings.

Protestors should appeal to the states, rather than the commission, which has a limited mandate, to address the issues that the states are responsible for, she said. “We are not going to duplicate what they do,” she said.

In November 2011, the commission abruptly canceled a meeting that was due to make a decision on whether to lift the fracking moratorium, saying it needed more time to study the issue.

Officials are continuing to discuss fracking but don’t expect to make a decision on it any time soon, Collier said.

Jon Hurdle is a Philadelphia-based freelance reporter who covers energy, environmental, and general news for national and regional media.

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