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Local activists ramp up efforts as National Fuel proceeds with Northern Access Pipeline

SARDINIA—On Feb. 4, National Fuel Gas Company received news that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had approved their application to construct the Northern Access Project. This project has been a topic of controversy in the area, as local activists have been vocal of their opinions concerning the pipeline since the inception of the idea.

The project consists of approximately 97 miles worth of new pipeline, which will be constructed in Allegany, Cattaraugus and Erie counties, beginning in McKean County Pennsylvania, carrying fracked gas. The pipeline is beginning in Pennsylvania, as New York issued a statewide ban on fracking. The pipeline is intended to hook up with the already existing interstate lines, to connect to northeastern, mid-Atlantic and Canadian markets.

“The Project also includes the addition of compression facilities at an existing compressor station in Erie County and construction of a new compressor station and a new dehydration facility, both in Niagara County,” according to a National Fuel press release. “The pipeline will be integrated with the existing National Fuel pipeline network, providing for increased reliability to the Western New York natural gas markets.”

The reason why locals are against the project includes the fact that the pipeline is slated to cross the Cattaraugus Creek Basin Aquifer, which is described as a Sole Source Aquifer. A sole source aquifer is defined as one that supplies at least 50 percent of the drinking water consumed in the area overlying the aquifer, this area has no alternative drinking water source that could physically, legally and economically supply all those who depend on it for drinking water.

The potential of a leak, which could lead to disaster for residents in the area, has spurred groups like Wyoming, Erie and Cattaraugus Communities Act on the Pipeline to form and speak out.

Joe Gibson, a community organizer with the Clean Air Council of Western New York, and Lia Oprea, WECAP founder, Sardinia native and vocal environmentalist, were part of a Significant Impact Walk, which took place Sunday, March 19. The group traveled from Cuba to Sardinia, speaking with openly opposed landowners who would have the pipeline crossing their properties.

Oprea and Gibson have been campaigning against the pipeline, and are planning on continuing to do so by attending town hall and board meetings across Western New York, where they present their opinions and knowledge on the subject at hand.

Gibson explained that the pipeline “will have significant health and ecological impacts.”

“The chemicals released at the compressor stations will be toxic and significant, especially on days when we have weather like we did on Feb. 7 in Elma,” Gibson said, referring to the ventilation of gas in Elma. “Or when the temperature in Pendleton drops below 0 degrees, as we all know it often does. These gases include carcinogenic VOCs including formaldehyde, toluene and benzine, carbon monoxide and nitrous oxides – which are smog forming – as well as a strong potential for radioactive radon gas, which is additionally water soluble.”

As reported by the Springville Journal’s sister-paper, the East Aurora Advertiser, on March 1, local law enforcement and community leaders in that area have not heard directly from National Fuel about what caused the odor of natural gas on Feb. 7 throughout Elma and East Aurora, which caused somewhat of a panic. The utility company stated that it had been a routine procedure at the Porterville Compressor Station in Elma that had caused gas to be vented into the atmosphere. National Fuel was criticized following this event due to the lack of transparency and communication with local officials during the ordeal.

This lack of communication is also cited often by WECAP and local activists, as they continue to fight against the Northern Access Project. One such voice spoke up as an editorial in the East Aurora Bee after the event in Elma, stating that it is “alarming, when a major company such as National Fuel, which is also planning to build more gas lines through the area is not communicating with government agencies…”

Gibson argues the aforementioned toxins released at compressor stations would ruin prime cold-water fisheries by taking out trees, invertebrate and natural habitat, as well as threatening species on the endangered species list.

“[The pipeline] will cut through at least 50 miles of forested lands, felling trees that are hundreds of years old and digging straight through fens, streams and wetlands,” he said. “The $6 million one-time sales tax bump is nothing compared to the tourism that will be hurt and lost forever in our southern tier.”  

The potential for National Fuel to enact eminent domain over landowners’ properties also has activists up in arms.

“Eminent domain against unwilling landowners is wrong in this case,” Gibson said. “Western New York's demand for gas has been flat, along with the population, since the 70s. That will only go down with weatherization efforts and renewables like geothermal taking off to heat our homes. 

“Men like [local landowners] Joe Schuekler and Jim Mangus, who have spent decades working to live off the grid and be caring stewards of their land should not be forced to live with a pipeline on their property that they don't want,” Gibson said. “That especially for gas to be exported overseas for no local benefit, outside of local shareholders in National Fuel.”

One point Gibson and Oprea were both quick to clarify recently, was their stance on labor unions, since these men and women will be taking on the job of constructing the pipeline.

“National Fuel has been dismissing us as ‘activists and environmentalists,’ as if that’s a bad thing, but even worse, they have pitted the working farmers against the labor unions bidding for this pipeline,” Oprea said in a statement. “We are not against the labor unions. Out here in rural New York, the land is our work. We want the labor unions to have jobs- just not this one.”

Gibson reiterated Oprea’s stance, arguing that tradesmen and women are valuable and needed.

“We who are against this pipeline are all pro-labor. Many of us work in unions, including trade unions, and have family members that do too. Western New York was built by our skilled tradesmen. We want jobs for union members,” he said. “This pipeline is not the answer. It will provide a few months of a job for most people who work on it then be gone, but not without ruining our trout streams, woods and otherwise clean air.

“Instead, we want them to have good paying, long lasting jobs fixing all of National Fuel Gas's rotting infrastructure. This is no upgrade, it's an addition. Instead, National Fuel should be investing to stop leaks in existing pipelines and compressor stations, not building new ones. Furthermore, renewables supply at least three times more jobs than fossil fuels, we all want to see our welders, diggers and electricians installing geothermal heating systems, wind turbines and solar arrays.”

The Buffalo, Niagara County and Southwestern Building, and Construction Trades Councils reached an agreement with National Fuel on the use of local union labor for the project.

There will be more than a $930 million economic impact through the project, according to National Fuel, with approximately $735 million of that impact taking place in New York. The utility company also touts tax revenue for the four counties impacted, stating that annual property tax receipts for those counties would increase by around $11.8 million, with an additional one-time sales tax impact of approximately $6.6 million for those same counties.

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