Pipeline opponents get legal boost
College clinic steps in to help group’s efforts
SCHOHARIE COUNTY A grassroots citizen group formed to oppose the Constitution Pipeline has garnered the support of the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic.
Stop the Pipeline, or STP, is holding its first Schoharie County meeting in Richmondville this evening to organize efforts and work on strategy in dealing with the largest construction proposal for the Schoharie and Susquehanna valleys in decades.
Since it formed in Delaware County in June, STP has developed a website and organized letter-writing campaigns and demonstrations looking to halt what members see as unnecessary destruction of pristine land and private property.
Nationwide energy giants Williams Partners and Cabot Oil & Gas created the joint venture Constitution Pipeline Co. earlier this year and began a pre-filing process with the goal of building a 30-inch natural gas pipeline 120 miles long from Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, up to the Schoharie County town of Wright.
The company’s primary proposed route suggests the pipe be planted from Pennsylvania through Broome, Chenango, Delaware and Schoharie counties. Alternate routes suggested so far would also pass through Otsego County.
Faced with an uphill battle against the monied corporations able to spend $750 million to build a pipeline, STP is now drawing support from the Pace Environmental Law Clinic based at Pace Law School in White Plains.
The clinic, created by attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., takes on environmental and land use cases pro bono and brings the college’s law students into the mix.
The clinic fights for environmental groups and associations of people “who are sort of outmatched or outgunned in terms of resources,” said attorney Daniel E. Estrin, an adjunct professor at Pace Law School and supervising attorney at the law clinic.
“We thought that this was a worthy cause and that these folks are going to need all the help they can get,” he said.
Estrin perceives that the biggest concern among those in the pipeline proposal’s path is the federal government’s ability to approve a project and strip property owners of control over their property.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is charged with reviewing the proposal, and a decision to approve it would give Constitution Pipeline the power to build its pipe on private land regardless of landowner opposition.
“It’s very scary. A lot of folks who live up there choose or chose to live up there because they want to be away from the industrial world, so to speak,” Estrin said.
Such a proposal, he said, could lead to the industrialization of a natural area.
“Putting a pipeline like this in, over such a long stretch, is going to create an industrial zone,” Estrin said.
In one of its first steps, Pace Environmental Law Clinic outlined a host of detailed points in response to FERC’s call for comment on what the agency should focus on during its environmental review of the proposal.
“There are so many impacts that need to be studied during this environmental review process,” Estrin said.
One basic question yet to be answered in detail, he said, is whether there’s a need for a new pipeline.
Ann Marie Garti, a Delaware County resident and intern at the Pace Environmental Law Clinic, urged the organization to put its legal capabilities to work for residents targeted by the proposal.
She said anger, not fear, is helping to galvanize residents against the prospect of having their lands torn up with the blessing of federal regulators.
“Many of us own property, and the idea that somebody can step in and take it causes a lot of anger,” Garti said. “It doesn’t just threaten the people whose land might be taken. It threatens most people in the community who enjoy the character of the whole community in which they live.”
She said she believes that citizens, if they come together for a common purpose, can make a difference.
“I do think it’s going to matter. If the landowners say no to Cabot and Williams and form a united coalition to say no to Cabot and Williams and the community joins with them, they have a big problem.”
Stop the Pipeline found a partner in the Center for Sustainable Rural Communities, formerly Schoharie Valley Watch, a nonprofit that sees the Constitution Pipeline proposal as a magnet for another issue that’s galvanizing environmentalists — hydrofracking.
Environmentalists say fracking and the pipeline are the biggest threats to local communities in generations.
Growing pressure to tap into natural gas deposits in the Marcellus Shale that sits underneath Schoharie and other New York counties, added to the proposal to build a pipeline through several of these counties, makes it seem like Schoharie County and its neighbors are a target, center co-director Bob Nied said.
“It strikes so immediately on so many people’s lives,” he said.
“It’s really galvanized a whole wide spectrum of people to be interested in things that are related to the environment but are really related to their community,” Nied said.
He said historically, stopping pipeline proposals of this size has been very difficult, but he sees momentum and support growing.
“If anyone stands a chance of stopping a pipeline, it’s us in this case. I think there’s a really, very good possibility that we can stop this pipeline,” he said.
Constitution Pipeline spokesman Christopher Stockton said in an email that the company is aware of the community’s concern about the project.
“We take all of those concerns seriously and are committed to working to address those issues the best we can. We’ve also heard from a lot of people in the community who support the project,” he said.
As far as eminent domain, Stockton said the company wouldn’t be taking anybody’s land — it’s seen as a process of valuation.
“We don’t take title of the land as might happen during a highway or other infrastructure project. In our case the landowner still owns the land. The judge simply determines fair compensation for the easement, which gives us the right to install the pipeline underground. We are going to work hard with the landowner to try to reach an agreement that is mutually beneficial,” Stockton said.
Stop the Pipeline, which has drawn roughly 100 people to meetings in other counties, will be meeting at 7 this evening at the Richmondville Firehouse at 288 Main St.