National park at center of battle over NJ pipeline
Tuesday, September 4, 2012
MONTAGUE, N.J. (AP) — George Feighner can drive a few miles from his house in this bucolic corner of northwestern New Jersey and cross over an underground pipeline that has sent gas flowing to New Jersey and the rest of the Northeast for more than 50 years.
That pipeline, and a new one planned to capitalize on increased production from Pennsylvania's new gas fields, are at the heart of a battle involving two states, a gas company, dueling decades-old documents, the federal government and Feighner, whose property sits smack-dab in the middle of the new pipeline's route.
It's a position the 86-year-old Feighner, who worked in the oil industry as a chemist for more than two decades, never thought he'd find himself in — and one he doesn't appear to relish.
"I'm not opposed to the pipeline," he said last week as he pointed to a spot a few yards behind his barn where a 50-foot-wide trench could be dug. "I'm in favor of getting the price of gas down. All I want them to do is put the pipeline where it belongs."
Defining where it belongs depends largely on the half-mile-long ribbon of land where the predecessor of Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. laid the original pipeline in the mid-1950s.
In the 1960s, the land became part of the National Park Service's Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, a fact that informs the current dispute.
TGP's proposed route for the 17-mile pipeline that is part of its Northeast Upgrade Project runs alongside the existing line — except for the half-mile segment through the park east of the Delaware River.
The new line would detour along the river on the Pennsylvania side and then southeast through New Jersey, and Feighner's property, before rejoining the existing line a few miles farther east. The proposal was approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in late May.
Feighner called the route around the park "divorced from reality." In a letter to the National Park Service, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., questioned the logic of using the route when it would "cause such useless destruction."
The reality is more complicated, according to John Donahue, superintendent for the park.
TGP would need to widen the existing path through the park to build the new pipeline next to the existing one, and only Congress has the authority to approve a new right of way through national parkland, he said. Donahue said he made it clear to the company from the outset that the Park Service would oppose an attempt at new legislation, and the company didn't pursue that option.
"At this point there seems little reason for NPS to support legislation the project proponent does not appear to want and that could only result in impacts to land that Congress has told NPS it must preserve unimpaired for future generations," Park Service northeast regional director Dennis Reidenbach wrote in a June 25 response to Toomey.
David Wallace, an attorney representing Feighner, contends that the historical record in the case is incomplete and that, for example, TGP never properly recorded the easements that allowed the pipeline in in 1955. A deed prepared by the government in 1974 as part of a later-abandoned dam project reserved rights of way for gas pipelines, Wallace said, stressing the plural.
"The U.S. government walks over people's rights every day. Why is this such a bloody big deal?" he asked.
The gas company claims the easements it acquired from the two property owners in 1955 authorized the building of just one pipeline. In legal filings, it reiterates that it is legally barred from going through the park.
Because a route through the park is currently prohibited and because the Park Service would oppose any attempt to change the law, "it is not a reasonable alternative," the company's attorneys wrote.
The energy regulatory commission is reviewing whether to grant requests by Feighner and several New Jersey environmental groups to reconsider its May decision approving the pipeline route.
If it doesn't, Feighner will have little recourse. Under federal law, gas companies whose projects have been approved are empowered to acquire land by eminent domain if they can't reach agreement with property owners. TGP already has offered Feighner $17,000 for the right of way through his land, according to a court filing.
Meanwhile, Feighner and his wife sit out on their back patio at night and gaze at their unspoiled hillside of dense forest that soon may be forever altered. Feighner said he wouldn't have taken on such a daunting legal challenge if he didn't feel there was a clear alternative.
"I've asked myself that a lot, and I honestly have to say I would have taken the advice of my friends and relatives who've basically told me I'm on a fool's errand with this and that I can't prevail over Tennessee Gas and the government," he said.
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