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Residents tell state to make decision on duelling Dunkirk plant pipeline plans

The state Public Service Commission drew about 100 people Thursday to a hearing on a pair of competing proposals to build a natural gas pipeline to the Dunkirk power plant being converted from coal.

But the more than a dozen people who spoke at the hearing weren’t so much interested in favoring one proposal over the other.

The message they had for the PSC was far simpler: Hurry up and make a decision – and above all else, don’t do anything that would prevent the converted power plant from beginning to generate electricity from natural gas next fall.

“I’m not here to choose between the gas lines,” said Chautauqua County Executive Vincent Horrigan.

Instead, he urged the PSC to pick the pipeline proposal – one from the power plant’s owner, NRG Energy, and the other from local utility National Fuel Gas Co. – that “makes the best economic sense” and also would be ready by the September 2015 targeted completion date.

“These gas line projects are crucial to the way of life for our Chautauqua County citizens,” he said.

Both National Fuel and an affiliate of NRG, Dunkirk Gas Corp., have filed competing plans with the PSC to build 16-inch pipelines that would transport natural gas to from the Tennessee Gas Pipeline that runs through Chautauqua County to the generating station.

The NRG plan would run for 11.3 miles and connect with the Tennessee Gas Pipeline in the Town of Pomfret.

The National Fuel proposal calls for a shorter pipeline that would run for 9.3 miles and connect with the Tennessee Gas Pipeline near Skinner Road in the Town of Arkwright.

National Fuel estimated that its pipeline would cost $34.5 million to build. NRG has not disclosed the estimated cost of its proposal, asking the PSC to treat its projected project expenses as a trade secret.

Michael Sommer, NRG’s director of asset management, said the project’s cost would depend on the results of the bids that the company currently is seeking for a developer to build, own and operate the pipeline.

NRG officials stressed that the company has been conducting extensive preparatory work for the project to meet the detailed environmental and regulatory studies required by the PSC. They noted that National Fuel has not done much of the site work and other preliminary studies that NRG has done.

National Fuel officials stressed that their project, because it would run for less than 10 miles, is subject to less severe regulatory oversight and would be on a much faster track for approval than the NRG plan.

Bruce D. Heine, a National Fuel vice president, said concerns that the company’s pipeline proposal, which was filed with the PSC earlier this month, would not be able to be put in service by next September were “unwarranted.”

The competing pipeline proposals – only one pipeline will be selected – stem from plans to convert the Dunkirk plant from coal to natural gas and avert a threatened shutdown of a facility that NRG said was no longer economically competitive because of rising coal prices.

Under the $140 million conversion plan, three coal-burning units will be upgraded so they also can burn natural gas. Once the upgrade is completed, the Dunkirk plant will have the capacity to generate 435 megawatts of electricity, creating the need for a new pipeline to supply the generating station with its new source of fuel.

While most of the speakers at the hearing did not state a preference for either proposal, two union officials said they supported the NRG plan, citing the company’s relationship with organized labor at the Dunkirk plant and their belief that the energy company would use union labor to build its pipeline.

But Fredonia resident Gus Potkovick said it was more important that whatever company is picked to build the pipeline is able to do it within the existing timetable.

“Let’s just get that shovel in the ground and get this project going as soon as possible,” he said.