They were billed as public meetings on the much-debated PennEast natural-gas pipeline project, but virtually all of the talking occurred in private behind black curtains.
If members of the public wanted to comment on the draft environmental impact statement for the project, they had to wait until their number was called. Then they sat down with a stenographer and an employee of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency reviewing the project.
They were given three to five minutes to register their comments.
Thus unfolded the first series of meetings on a big milestone for the 118-mile project that begins in Luzerne County, PA, crossing under the Delaware River and traversing Hunterdon and Mercer counties in New Jersey.
Like everything else about the project, the meetings quickly became embroiled in controversy.
“FERC has once again demonstrated its tremendous bias for, and partnership with, the pipeline industry,’’ said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper. “Recognizing that public hearings which allowed the public to hear one another testify was a valuable source of community education and mutual support, FERC is now forcing people to give their testimony, with only a transcriber to hear their words.’’
In a meeting Monday night at Penn’s Peak, a concert venue outside the town of Jim Thorpe, PA, Alisa Lykens, chief of FERC’s Gas Branch 2, denied there was any attempt by the agency to limit public comment or control opposition to the pipeline.
“Not at all,’’ Lykens said. “We came out with this format to be able to hear as many people as possible.’’
Previous meetings to discuss the scope of the PennEast project had drawn about 300 people. In order for all their views to be heard in the time available, the agency opted for the one-on-one format this time and at other sessions. Another meeting was held Monday in Bethlehem, PA; two were held last night in Lahaska, PA, and Clinton Township in Hunterdon County.
Miffed by the format, opponents of the project held a brief press conference prior to the session in Clinton to speak out against the proposal, echoing criticisms voiced for the past few months. These ranged from describing the project as unneeded because there is a glut of gas already available in the region, to the environmental harm the pipeline will cause, to potential abuses relating to eminent domain and taking of private property.
Critics also complained there was too little time to review the draft environmental impact statement, 1,174 pages long and released less than a month ago. In it, the agency found the pipeline, if built, will cause some adverse ecological impacts, but they can be reduced to less than significant levels. The public comment on the draft statement ends September 5.
“FERC’s draft environmental impact statement is a disaster,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “It is a rush job which deliberately excludes environmental impacts all across the Delaware River watershed and it was released to minimize public input.’’
According to the statement, the pipeline would impact 1,163 acres in the two states and cross more than 250 bodies of water and 56 acres of wetlands.
The project is backed by business and labor groups — the former citing the steep drop in the cost of natural gas used by manufacturers and other businesses due to the tapping of vast new supplies in Pennsylvania and other states.
PennEast is hoping the federal agency makes a final decision on the project in 2017, but it would still require other regulator approvals, including from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.