Frack opponents fight back by filing suit, blocking dig

Three anti-pipeline protesters on Sept. 6 briefly blocked a construction shovel from digging into Gansevoort Peninsula. Photo by Liza Béar

BY LIZA BéAR  |   Saying the Spectra natural gas pipeline — now being constructed underneath Hudson River Park at Gansevoort Peninsula — poses grave dangers to the West Village and the city at large, neighborhood activists and environmentalists are ratcheting up their protests.

Last Thursday, a five-person blockade prevented a digging machine from operating on the Gansevoort construction site. In addition, a lawsuit has been filed in State Supreme Court, seeking a temporary restraining order to force Spectra Energy Corp to cease construction.

Work on the pipeline began in July after Spectra subsidiaries Texas Eastern Transmission LP and Algonquin Gas Transmission LLC got a green light from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in June, over the objections of the environmental group Sane Energy Project and others.

Prime environmental concerns over the pipeline are the potential dangers of leaks and explosions and the presence of radon in the natural gas, which is “fracked” gas being transported from the Marcellus Shale. Extracted by hydrofracking, the gas is up to 70 times more radioactive than the natural gas from Texas and Louisiana that New York currently uses: It’s methane and contains radon. Radon is known as a “sink gas” because it’s heavy; it has a half-life of 3.85 days and takes two months to break down completely into (still-radioactive) polonium and lead.

However, Mary Lee Hanley, a Spectra spokesperson, said in an e-mail, “Texas Eastern, a division of Spectra, has measured the levels of radon in its system and in the natural gas supplied by Marcellus Shale producers. These samples were collected and analyzed by independent experts. The samples confirmed that the level of radon in this natural gas is at or below the levels assumed in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy reports, and the level presents no significant health risk. These findings and expert reports were submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in July 2012 and are available on the FERC Web site.”

The direct action by Monica Hunken, Sandra Koponen, Lopi LaRoe and two other activists took place as part of the Sept. 6 morning rally organized by the newly formed Occupy the Pipeline, an offshoot of Occupy Environmental Solidarity. (The rally was the first of two that day; the second, at 6 p.m., was twice the size.)

At the first rally, about 40 protesters, many wearing white lab coats or hazmat suits, stood behind the white outer lines on either side of the highly trafficked Hudson River Park bike lane, holding large orange mesh banners saying, “No Pipeline,” and cardboard signs bearing the radioactive symbol. They handed out fliers to joggers, skateboarders and cyclists.

As the crowd chanted, “New York City, Shut It Down, New York Ain’t No Fracking Town,” at 9:30 a.m., Hunken, Koponen and LaRoe waited for the backhoe to dump its load of rubble into a parked red pickup truck, then crossed the low concrete wall around the construction site, ran across the dirt and swiftly ensconced themselves right under the machine’s raised scoop, holding up signs and signaling to the operators not to swing down again. When asked to leave by a security guard and a park official, they refused. About eight police officers arrived shortly and discussed the situation with a National Lawyers Guild liaison while the three women, who had by now been joined by two men, held a mic check.

“I’ve never been so angry so early in the morning,” said Hunken. “I’m sick and tired of this filthy extraction industry taking and taking…destroying property values, our water, our homes.”

Koponen, a musician who lives at 14th St. and Seventh Ave., said, “I am here because I don’t want to live where the water is contaminated, the air is unbreathable and people don’t care for the environment. We should resist using fossil fuels, divest from fossil fuels and put it into energy that doesn’t destroy the planet.”

After all five had spoken, they stood up and left the construction site, but almost immediately Hunken and Koponen returned and were promptly placed under arrest and taken away in patrol cars. They were charged with trespassing and released from the Sixth Precinct after two hours.

On Wed., Sept. 12, activists returned to Gansevoort for more protest actions. Between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., six activists skipped past the security guard and entered the Spectra construction site. According to reports, some of them chained themselves to various equipment with bike locks. One man, Dave Publow, climbed onto the arm of a Caterpillar at the peninsula’s far end; firefighters used a ladder to remove him, and he was then arrested. LaRoe climbed onto the rocks at the property’s edge and held a “No Spectra” sign; she was handcuffed and carried away in a police car. The four others were also arrested.

Driving the natural gas “gold rush” are two assertions: that natural gas is clean, and that supplies are basically inexhaustible.

Among the public health hazards cited by environmentalists are the hydrofracking process itself, which was developed by Halliburton. The fracking fluid injected into a minimum of 1.7 million gallons of water per well contains 596 toxic chemicals, including benzene, toluene and glycol ethers, which are known carcinogens. This toxic fluid is pumped at high pressure into the ground and used to break up the shale. A high percentage of these toxic chemicals remains in the gas as it then travels.

However, Hanley, the spokesperson for Spectra, said the company has a good track record.

“Spectra Energy has been operating safely in the New York-New Jersey region for more than 60 years,” she said.

While Spectra previously claimed that natural gas resources in the U.S. would last 100 years, the Energy Information Administration released a report this January with drastically lower estimates. The agency’s 2012 estimate of 482 trillion cubic feet of shale gas in the America is down 40 percent from the 2011 estimate of 827 trillion cubic feet. And the revised estimate for natural gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale, which runs under parts of New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, is now 141 trillion cubic feet of gas, representing a 66 percent drop from the 2011 E.I.A. estimate of 410 trillion cubic feet.

The proposed 20-mile, high-pressure, 30 inch pipeline, would extend the existing transmission network at Bayonne, N.J., through Staten Island and Jersey City, cross the Hudson River at Linden, N.J., where there is an “M and R” (metering and regulating) station, and emerge on the Gansevoort Peninsula in Manhattan, before tying in to the Con Ed distribution system. Con Ed, whose pipes are 24-inch maximum, would construct the last 1,500 feet of the pipeline.

According to documents Con Ed filed with the New York State Public Service Commission in 2009, 32 percent of its 4,300 miles of gas mains in the city and Westchester County were cast iron and 30 percent were unprotected steel. Special precautions must be taken with gas pressure fluctuations operating in very old gas pipes, as New York’s are.

The petition filed last Wednesday by lawyers on behalf of Sane Energy Project and five other organizations, along with individual petitioners, in New York Supreme Court seeks a temporary restraining order against the Hudson River Park Trust; Spectra Energy Corp; Texas Eastern Transmission, LP; and Algonquin Gas Transmission, LLC. The petitioners include United for Action, Village Independent Democrats, NYC Friends of Clearwater, NYH2O, Food and Water Watch and seven West Village residents, one of whom, Ynestra King, is disabled and already inconvenienced by the construction because she uses her wheelchair on the park’s bike path as an alternative to riding it on crowded sidewalks or dangerous streets.

Among the lawyers representing the petitioners are Yetta Kurland, a civil rights activist and Chelsea resident.

Basically, the petition attempts to override federal approval for an easement granted to Spectra by the Trust with a lawsuit at the state level because due process was not respected. The State Environmental Quality Review Assessment (SEQRA) was not conducted and construction of a pipeline is not a legitimate park use, the petitioners charge.

Clare Donohue, a founder of the lead plaintiff Sane Energy Project, said, “During the public comment period there were 5,000 comments, of which only 22 were in favor of the pipeline, among them Mayor Bloomberg, and all the others except one were people involved in the construction of the pipeline.”

The Trust received $2.8 million from Spectra for a 30-year easement right to run the pipeline under Gansevoort Peninsula.

“The existence and operation of the Spectra pipeline itself, and the pipeline connection to Con Ed’s existing distribution system, will result in permanent and significant safety hazards, to residents of the area, those who use the park, and those who drive or commute via West St., which runs along the park,” the lawsuit says.

In related news, the state Department of Environmental Conservation was expected to decide on whether high-volume hydrofracking can be done safely in New York. But on Mon., Sept. 10, Governor Cuomo announced on an Albany radio station that there are no immediate plans for a decision on whether to allow hydraulic fracturing in New York State and that, whatever the decision, he expects lawsuits to follow it.

Critics of the Spectra pipeline believe that what drives Mayor Bloomberg’s approval of the proposed Gansevoort easement is a desire to promote hydrofracking here and create a need for natural gas. There are newly enacted city laws banning the use of No. 6 heavy-duty oil fuel and replacing it with No. 4 by 2013, and the much more refined No. 2 by 2015, or with biodiesel or natural gas. However, critics believe that the efforts should go into renewable energy sources instead.

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