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Federal ruling finds no environmental impact in National Fuel pipeline project

A $455 million natural gas pipeline project in four Western New York counties will create no significant environmental impact, a federal agency ruled Wednesday.

The 487-page finding by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is not the final approval for National Fuel’s Northern Access 2016 project – that could come this fall – but the company was pleased.

“It is an important milestone for the project, absolutely,” National Fuel spokeswoman Karen L. Merkel said.

An attorney hired by the Niagara County Town of Pendleton to fight the project agreed the ruling is significant.

“It’s not a first step. It’s almost like a final step,” said attorney Gary A. Abraham.

There is a public comment period through Aug. 26, and Abraham said he will submit comments aimed at placing “a robust set of conditions” on FERC’s acceptance of the plan, or hoping that some comment will convince FERC to order the company to produce a time-consuming environmental impact statement.

“If FERC sees something it didn’t expect in the comments, it could go back to the drawing board,” Abraham said.

Among the conditions he wants would be a requirement that National Fuel would have to obtain local approval under Pendleton’s zoning code for two powerful compressors that would push the natural gas through the pipeline.

“I believe that is part of the plan anyway,” Merkel said. But a federal approval might pre-empt the town’s home rule powers, she said.

“This is a big gray area,” Abraham said. He contended that FERC pre-empts local control only if the local zoning code was drawn with the intention of delaying a pipeline project.

Pendleton is where opposition to the project has been most intense, with 670 written or oral comments submitted to FERC, but it’s far from the only community affected by the Northern Access project, whose purpose is to move gas from the fracking fields of northern Pennsylvania to Canada.

The project includes constructing 96.5 miles of 24-inch pipeline from McKean County, Pa., through Allegany and Cattaraugus counties to National Fuel’s existing Porterville compressor in the southern Erie County Town of Elma. Its compressor capacity, will be almost doubled with the addition of 5,350 horsepower. An interconnection with the existing Tennessee Gas Pipeline is to be built in the Town of Wales.

In Niagara County, an existing pipeline in Pendleton and Wheatfield is to be expanded with 2 miles of new pipeline in Pendleton. Two compressors, totaling more than 22,000 horsepower, are to be built on Killian Road in Pendleton, and a gas dehydration station, to remove the water vapor from the gas to meet Canadian import standards, is to be built on Liberty Drive in Wheatfield, on the way to link up with the Trans-Canada Pipeline beneath the Niagara River off Chippawa, Ont.

Despite objections from critics that the compressors and the dehydration station might lead to emissions of dangerous chemicals such as benzene, or might produce unacceptable noise levels, the FERC report rejected those contentions and found no environmental benefit would result from alternative sites for the Pendleton compressor or the Wheatfield dewatering station.

The report also said if National Fuel follows the plans and precautions it submitted to FERC, any potential problems cited by opponents of the project would be avoided.

Abraham said there are other hoops National Fuel must jump through, including an air emission permit from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and a construction approval from the Army Corps of Engineers.

But the FERC report said if approvals are granted, National Fuel could start clearing sites this November and complete the pipeline and associated equipment by November 2017. Merkel said the company is still in the process of acquiring the land or rights of way it needs.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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