By Rashid Binnur, Catherina Gioino and Nelly Mendoza
In recent years, awareness of the environmental hazards posed by pipeline projects has grown, driven in part by the possible construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
Now there is debate over a proposed pipeline that would pass through Princeton — a 1.3-mile stretch of the partly constructed 10,200-mile Transco pipeline, which would carry natural gas from Texas to New York.
New Jersey Senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, along with U.S. Representatives Rush Holt and Frank Pallone, called for an extensive review of the project’s environmental impact last month. A week earlier, Princeton’s town council had passed a resolution asking the federal government to reject the current pipeline plan. Between concerns over environmental damage and human safety, the project has some residents wondering: Is this pipeline a good deal for Princeton?
The proposal is now in the hands of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which had been scheduled to release an environmental impact assessment of the project on Aug. 8. On Aug. 7, however, a FERC spokesperson told the Princeton Summer Journal that the report would be delayed, providing no further explanation.
Chris Stockton — a spokesperson for the Williams company, the energy supplier that commissioned the project — said the corporation already provides 50 percent of New Jersey’s natural gas supply, but a nationwide abundance of cheap natural gas has created demand for even more miles of pipeline. One of its unbuilt portions passes through a 1.3-mile section of Princeton that sits on densely packed bedrock.
That section has proved controversial with a group of concerned residents who live along the proposed route. One hot, dry afternoon in early August, 58-year-old ecologist Patricia Shanley — a member of the Princeton Ridge Coalition (PRC), which opposes the pipeline — walked reporters from the Princeton Summer Journal through the forested area she says will be negatively impacted by the pipeline, just behind her house.
“It’s the only forest of its kind in the area,” Shanley said, carrying a red hedge clipper as she walked, naming species of birds and amphibians she says will be displaced by construction. “Cut the trees and you diminish the habitat.”
Other members of the coalition have voiced similar concerns about disrupting the Princeton Ridge, which they say is ecologically sensitive. The Ridge “plays an important role in mitigating downslope flooding, offsetting carbon emissions and mediating the urban heat effect of the central downtown area,” wrote Wendy Mager, president of Friends of Princeton Open Space, in a Trenton Times op-ed last year.
Bob Kiser, Princeton’s municipal engineer, echoed those concerns. “There would have to be extensive bedrock removed and disturbance to the water table and to the wetlands in the area as well as to the vegetative growth,” he said. “We think there will be irreparable harm done to the environment.”
Others are worried about safety concerns. The pipeline “is very close to people’s properties,” says Heidi Fichtenbaum, vice-chairperson of the Princeton Environmental Commission. The PRC has noted that the proposed route would pass within 2,000 feet of more than 150 homes and two schools.
What’s more, adds Richard Kuprewicz, a nationally recognized pipeline safety expert hired by the PRC to study the matter, construction of the pipeline risks damaging an existing, older pipeline that lies adjacent to the proposed pipeline site.
“They’re going to be trying to place this new line in a terrain that’s very rocky, very difficult, very challenging and gives a lot of threat potential to the [existing] pipeline,” Kuprewicz said.
Finally, some residents are concerned that Henkels & McCoy, a company being sued for its alleged involvement in a fatal March explosion in nearby Ewing Township, has also been contracted to build the pipeline running through Princeton. In the Ewing incident, a 62-year-old woman died after Henkels & McCoy workers struck a two-inch gas pipeline, leading to a gas leak. The company is currently being sued by the family of the deceased woman, and being investigated both by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office.
Stockton, the spokesperson for Williams, said he has full confidence in Henkels & McCoy, telling the Princeton Summer Journal, “There’s nothing more important to us than the safety of our pipeline.”
He also cited a number of PRC requests that Williams has met. “We went way above and beyond what we normally do to accommodate [their] plans,” he said. “We’ve done things like narrowing our normal construction corridor or not blasting during construction, and to take the [existing] pipeline out of service for three to six weeks while construction is in service.”
But some are still not satisfied. PRC has proposed an alternative route that would divert the pipeline out of Princeton into an agricultural area in nearby Montgomery Township. Kuprewicz, the safety expert hired by PRC, says farmland is far more suitable to pipeline construction than the rocky terrain under the Princeton site.
“The Princeton Ridge is a very challenging route,” Kuprewicz said. “Generally, agricultural fields are much easier ways through which to route the pipeline.” (He specified that more open spaces tend to have structures that are less rocky.)
Stockton said, however, that Williams studied alternatives proposed by the PRC. “The original route through Princeton Ridge had fewer environmental and public impacts than those alternatives that they had provided,” he explained.
Kuprewicz suggested another reason Williams might want to stick to the original route: Because it sits near the existing 56-year-old pipeline, it is legally simpler for Williams to build there.
Williams also doesn’t seem keen on PRC’s other proposal: building the pipeline using a technology called Horizontal Directional Drilling, a technique that might better inoculate the existing pipeline from damage. Stockton said he’s “not exactly sure” why the company seems unwilling to use the technology. Kuprewicz provided one potential answer: It costs more.
Opponents of the project have an ally in local government. “This is an example of a project where the town is taking a tremendous risk and not really receiving a tremendous benefit,” Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert said. “From [Williams’s] perspective, they’re trying to maximize their profits.” But Lempert acknowledged she can’t do much to scuttle the project.
Ultimately, those concerned about the pipeline fear that it’s not environmental, public health or safety concerns that will determine whether the project is approved. Asked what he felt would determine the fate of the pipeline, Kiser, Princeton’s engineer, had a simple answer: “dollars and cents.”