Concerns over the well being of miles of hiking trails in High Point State Park slated to be traversed by the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co.’s natural gas pipeline expansion project competed with worries over explosions and mudslides from residents at last week’s public hearing in Montague.
Tennessee Gas is installing a new, 30-inch gas pipeline over 128 miles in seven looping segments in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The public hearing held Wednesday was regarding permits to begin the five-mile section of the project that will traverse High Point State Park.
Vernon residents passed out photos detailing recent damage from rainstorms and mudslides that hit the municipality and washed sediment from pipeline work into residential neighborhoods.
Vernon Mayor Victor Marotta said Tennessee Gas crews were quick to respond and fix the muddy mess.
However, the quick response to the Vernon issue did little to quell concerns from hiking trail advocates, who fear such land disturbance will be a death-knell for the park’s premier pathways.
Chris Ingry, from the New York/New Jersey Trail Conference, raised concerns over the closing of federally protected trails such as the Appalachian Trail for the pipeline construction, and the long-lasting effect the expansion project will have on trails.
“I know (Tennessee Gas) is going to make a lot of money off of this project, and we know there is going to be a lot of damage to the trails,” Ingry said. “There are people who can fix the damage, but we are going to need money. People don’t go to our state parks to see scars like this.”
Judeth Yeany, the chief lawyer for the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Legal Services and Stewardship Division, said the state will get between $7 million and $8 million for the lease of more than 30 acres in three state parks affected by the pipeline project. This revenue will be funneled into the general budget of the state park system’s operational accounts, Yeany said.
“We don’t need the High Point State Park to generate revenue that will just be sent to Trenton,” resident James Guimes said.
The proposed lease agreement will require Tennessee Gas to purchase 120 acres that will be added to state Green Acres rolls as a replacement for the land taken from the state parks. However, the additional acres are not required to be adjacent to High Point State Park.
Mike Helbing, from the Metro Trails Crew division of New York/New Jersey Trail Conference, said the list of trails identified by the Tennessee Gas report left out a number of pristine hiking paths, including the Highlands Trail, that are under federal protection through the National Trail System Act.
“There are sections of these trails that have incredible pieces of archeological history,” Helbing said. “Why are these trails conveniently left off the list?”
Dan Gredvig, the manager for the Right of Way and Permitting division of El Paso Corp., the parent company of Tennessee Gas, said the initial list of trails is a “work in progress,” and the input from the speakers at the meeting will be reviewed by the company.
“What do the trails have to gain from this project?” Helbing said. “Is the company going to offer grant money to repair the damage?”
The phase of the pipeline project that will run through High Point State Park will clear trees from a five-mile long, 125- foot wide swath of land. Michael Cee, of Vernon, asked what the company will do with the tons of lumber that will be generated by the clear-cutting.
“There are two possibilities for the use of the lumber,” Gredvig said. “Most of the lumber will be appraised at market value, and the state will receive compensation for it. Also, some of the trees will be chipped and hauled off the site so it will not impede on the work space for our crews.”
Gredvig told Cee that the possibility of cutting the lumber and making it available for residents as firewood would impact the work space of pipeline crews and would not be feasible.
Sandyston resident Debbie Brick raised safety concerns of a possible explosion of the pipeline.
“Has your company ever had any pipeline explosions in the past?” Brick said.
Gredvig said Tennessee Gas has had incidents where portions of the company’s pipelines, which run from the oil fields near Houston up into New Jersey, experience leaks and explosions.
“To answer the question, yes,” Gredvig said. “We monitor and maintain all of our pipelines 24 hours a day. We are trying to use all of the safety methods and requirements specified by the federal regulations to ensure the pipeline is operating as best as it can.”
Beverly Budz, vice chairman of the Vernon Township Environmental Commission, raised concerns over the impact the pipeline work will have on the state park as well as current issues rising out of the ongoing pipeline work that is cutting through Vernon.
“I have walked the pipeline work sites that were only supposed to use a minimum of 30 feet to install the pipe, but I measured 200 feet at parts,” Budz said. “They use the word minimal a lot. But we are talking about the loss of trees and damage to our wetlands. How do you put a price on this?”
Budz passed out recent photos of the mudslide that washed sediment from the pipeline work site onto residential roadways in condominium developments at the Great Gorge Resort in Vernon during recent heavy rain storms.
Marotta said the mudslide did not affect any municipal roads and was confined to the resort area. He said crews from the Tennessee Gas immediately responded to the incident and were able to clear the debris from the roads once the storms relented.
“We were hit with an absolute downpour and I think (Tennessee Gas work crews) got caught in a situation,” Marotta said. “It happened and it was repaired. From what I have seen, the people working on the pipeline are doing a professional job. They take every precaution to ensure safety. I have spoken to many of the local merchants who are very happy to have the crews in Vernon. The guys working on the pipeline spend a lot of money here.”
According to a Rutgers University study on the economic impact of the pipeline expansion project, the construction of the pipeline will bring 695 jobs into New Jersey for the three years the project is expected to run. The state will see an additional $63 million in revenue through increased retail sales and tax revenues the project brings with it.