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Fracking opponents shift focus to gas pipelines

Karen DeWitt
Assemblywoman Sandra Galef speaks before delivering 30,000 petitions to Gov. Andrew Cuomo seeking a study of expanded gas pipeline.

Hydrofracking has been banned in New York state for nearly a year now, but opponents of the natural gas extraction process have other concerns, including new pipelines.

Opponents of fracking are now focusing on gas pipelines that conduct fracked gas from other states underneath New York. 30,000 people signed petitions against doubling the size of the Algonquin Incremental Market, also known as the AIM pipeline. The 21-inch-wide gas conduit is located near the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. The federal government has already approved expanding the pipeline to 42 inches wide.  

 Assemblywoman Sandra Galef, whose Westchester district includes both the nuclear plant and the pipeline, said the project is a potentially dangerous mistake.

“Now this isn’t just any old nuclear plant,” Galef said. “It’s the one closest to the major metropolis area of New York City, and the one highlighted on September 11, when it appeared on terrorists’ maps.”

Paul Blanch is a nuclear expert who has served as a consultant to many of the nuclear plants in the Northeast, including Indian Point. He says he is not against nuclear power or natural gas extraction, but is concerned about the close proximity of the nuclear plant and the gas pipeline. Blanch says using the Freedom of Information Laws he obtained data from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission on the risk study they conducted, and what he saw concerns him. He says if the pipe ruptured and exploded, it would impact buildings up to two miles away. The Indian Point plan is half a mile away from the pipeline. He saysthe explosion could cause a power outage, which often happens in these instances.

“Not being an alarmist, it could literally melt down these two plants,” Blanch said. “Fukushima did not melt down because of an earthquake or tsunami. Fukushima melted down because it had no power. The exact same thing could happen here with a gas line explosion.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo also lives in Westchester and has said he’d like to see Indian Point close. Galef, along with anti-fracking advocates and pipeline opponents, hope that will give Cuomo more impetus to order a state  risk assessment through his own Department of Environmental Conservation. She says she’s always met with some Cuomo staff members.

“We want somebody who just can look at this and see whether it’s safe or not,” Galef said.

Galef says state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has also expressed interest in looking into the matter.

A spokesman for Cuomo says the governor is evaluating the group’s request for further scrutiny.

The state does not have the power to override the federal government’s decisions, but opponents believe a risk assessment that showed potential harm could persuade the federal agencies to change their minds.

State permits for the pipeline have already been issued. But, Cuomo’s Department of Environmental Conservation has rescinded permission for projects in the past after public outcry, including the building of an oil burning plant at the Port of Albany.

Westchester residents aren’t the only ones who are concerned about new or expanded pipelines.  Ruth Foster lives in Rensselaer County , near the route of a proposed Northeast Energy Pipeline.  It would pass underneath New York from fracked wells in Pennsylvania for delivery to New England states.

Foster says ironically, the pipeline would be built along the Marcellus Shale fields in the state’s Southern Tier, where fracking is forbidden by the Cuomo Administration. But she worries that building the infrastructure to ship gas in the Southern Tier could make it easier for a future governor to change the state’s ban on fracking.

“They’re going to have to feed the pipelines with fracked gas for 50 years to come,” Foster said, who said there are concerns that if Pennsylvania runs out of gas sometime in the future, New  York’s ban might be reconsidered.

That pipeline has not yet been approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and opponents continue to fight it.

Cuomo Administration officials say they don’t have any plans to revisit their ban on fracking anytime soon.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.