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DEC denies National Fuel Northern Access Pipeline water quality permits

SARDINIA—Elated is the word Lia Oprea, Sardinia landowner and founder of Wyoming, Erie and Cattaraugus Communities Act on the Pipeline, used to describe the feeling she and other local activists are feeling after the  New York State Department of Environmental Conservation denied the water quality permits for National Fuel’s Northern Access Pipeline project on Friday, April 7. According to Oprea, the DEC is still deciding on whether the air quality permits should be approved or denied.

Although the denial is a victory for Oprea and her fellow activists, the war is far from over. National Fuel is taking 15 local landowners in Erie County, Oprea included, to court over eminent domain. These landowners have refused to sign over their property to the utility company, and on May 3, the cause will be taken up in Erie County Court in Buffalo. National Fuel is also summoning those in Cattaraugus and Niagara counties who have resisted eminent domain to court.

The denial means that National Fuel is not able to construct their pipeline. The DEC released their 13-page denial letter, outlining their reasons for their decision.

The letter, signed by DEC’s Chief Permit Administrator John Ferguson, summarizes that the almost 97-mile interstate transmission pipeline would transport fracked gas extracted in Pennsylvania through Allegany, Cattaraugus and Erie counties, ultimately delivering gas to New York, the Northeast and Midwest United States and Canada. The project consists of clearing a 75-foot wide right-of-way along the entire length of the pipeline in New York, according to the DEC.

“Construction and operation of the Project will cross 192 state-regulated streams and impact a total of 73.377 acres of federal and state wetlands, of which there will be 2.335 acres of permanent impacts to NYSDEC-regulated Class I and Class II wetlands,” the letter reads.

“The impacted streams and wetlands are home to a number of significant animal species, including trout (brown and rainbow) and the eastern hellbender, which is a State-listed species of concern; these water resources provide the necessary habitat to support their survival and propagation. The Project, as proposed, would necessarily impact these waterbodies and jeopardize their best usages that New York’s water quality standards were enacted to protect.”

Ferguson stated in his letter that if the pipeline project is allowed to proceed, the project would materially interfere with or jeopardize the biological integrity and best usages of affected water bodies and wetlands. He also stated that the crossing of multiple streams and freshwater wetlands within a watershed or basin causes a negative cumulative effect on water quality to that watershed or basin.

National Fuel Gas Company’s President and Chief Executive Officer Ronald J. Tanski responded to the permit denial in a press release on April 10. Tanski stated the new standard the DEC sets is one that could not possibly be met by any infrastructure project in the state that crosses streams or wetlands, whether it is a road, bridge, water or an energy infrastructure project.

Tanski continued to bring the DEC’s choices into question, as he outlined the approved demolition of the Miller Road-Cascade Drive bridge.

“What is perhaps the most troubling aspect of this decision is that the NYSDEC waited literally until the 11th hour to issue this denial, even though we had detailed discussions with NYSDEC staff over a 34-month period and undertook detailed engineering and environmental studies at the agency’s request, to support the stream-crossing techniques that now form the basis of their denial,” Tanski said in the press release.

While Tanski is troubled by the news of the permit denial, local landowners against the project are elated.

“This is fantastic news for us,” Oprea said. “It’s great news for the environment and for the local farmers. Now I don’t’ want to ruin the joy, but this is just part of the battle won,” Oprea added, referring to her summons by National Fuel to court over her refusal to sign eminent domain papers.

“National Fuel has tried to divide and conquer here, but we have begun to see that we aren’t alone. We came together as a community, and we connected, all the way up the pipeline. Our voice has been heard because we connected,” Oprea said.

Referring to National Fuel’s claim in their April 10 press release that the pipeline would have brought “increased reliability to the Western New York gas markets,” Oprea said that she has yet to see proof that energy would have been brought to Western New York through the project.

“If this was able to give us gas, to people here, we might not even be fighting this right now,” Oprea said. “But they’re not, it’s a transmission line.

“We neighbors in the Southern Tier, particularly here in Sardinia, are over the moon with the DEC’s decision,” she continued. “It feels like the tide is turning, and that our voices are finally being heard.”

Western New York Community Organizer Joe Gibson said in a press release that he was glad that the DEC did not “heel to National Fuel.”

“The denial of this pipeline following that of the Constitution Pipeline last year says to me that the governor won’t allow destructive fracked-gas pipelines through our state anymore. I hope he continues to stop the buildup of all fracked-gas infrastructure across the state,” Gibson said in the press release.

The half-billion dollar, privately-funded project, would have more than a $930 million economic impact, with approximately $735 million of that impact taking place in New York, according to National Fuel.

*Editor’s note: We reached out to National Fuel’s media spokesperson Karen Merkel to ask for a statement regarding the DEC’s decision and how it may affect residents in this area. Merkel replied with a link to their general press release.

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