Part 1 of this series focused mostly on the pre-meeting portion of the event. That was where people talked one-on-one with various PennEast reps about their concerns and issues.
For the rest of the meeting we all sat at our tables while PennEast gave their pitch, with many, many questions intervening.
A High School Student humbles PennEast
One questioner that blew me away entirely was Alexandra Switzler. In total her family had three generations represented at the meeting – herself, a high school student (!), her mom Angele, and her grandmother Vaughana. Alexandra spoke near the end of the meeting but she absolutely floored the entire assembly.
The words by themselves are strong enough:
I don’t give a damn about the money. This is my family. Yeah we’re losing 2/3 of our property value. I can understand how it’s horrible. But you’re coming in here with construction, you’re coming in here with all these horrible things, and putting my family in danger. And you’re expecting me to be OK with that because of money?
I’m young. I’m young and I understand I’m just a high school student right now. But this wrong. And this unity in…you can come in here with your fancy dinners, and you can come in here with your cheap coffee, and you can give us much coconut milk as you want. But that’s not going to change any of the unity we have here. Because this is our home.
But the video showing how emotional she was really demonstrates her impact on the room even better:
People are aware of the process now and not going to be tricked by PennEast’s banter
Alissa Harris asked at the start of the meeting how many people had NOT been to a Penn East presentation or scoping session. Only one person held up their hand. Everyone else in the room had by now had extensive contact with PennEast and FERC and done their research. You could see Alissa was very unhappy to have only 1 mark in the crowd to pitch to.
PennEast reps are either not aware of the facts, or deliberately deceitful
They started the formal session with their presentation but it was the same old presentation they’ve given many times before. Early into it when they kept talking about NJ and PA I raised my hand. I asked both representatives (Alissa and Mike), “Can you comment on the proposed MARC II pipeline from Crestwood Partners? They issued a press release that said they would be connecting the MARC II to PennEast to send gas to New England”.
This resulted in vehement denial by both PennEast representations. The look of shock and fury on both faces was obvious. Alissa said “Absolutely not!”. Mike shook his head and said “Not true, not true”. When I pressed him he said “That’s your opinion, not a fact”. When I tried to press them further Patricia very quickly said “We have a lot of ground to cover let’s move on”.
This tactic was used several times during the meeting by Alissa to get past questions they didn’t want to answer. Many times she rushed into the “next topic” to shut people up.
By the way, the aforementioned information is available in this press release:
The document states:
“The MARC II Pipeline will be a new 30-mile, 30” pipeline connecting the CNYOG MARC I Pipeline with the PennEast Pipeline and Transco’s Leidy Line. MARC II will connect the abundant supplies of natural gas directly connected to the existing CNYOG system with major regional end-user markets downstream of existing transportation bottlenecks, providing reliable, cost-competitive supplies of natural gas to consumers in the Mid-Atlantic and New England markets“.
The Purpose and Need is “our member companies are willing to buy gas from ourselves”
Mike from PennEast described the pipeline “purpose and need” as a “chicken and egg” process. How do you build a pipeline without gauging interest? And how can you gauge interest without having a pipeline to sell space on? They say to get around that they do a non-binding “Open Season” to gauge interest. If they get enough interest then they have justification for the pipeline. They make it very clear that to their eyes if they deliver on the “Open Season” promises then they have all the justification they need.
The problem of course is that the Open Season “Buyers” are mostly their other pipeline “midstream” partners. They’re justifying the pipeline by saying they’ll sell the gas to..themselves.
Rush, rush, rush and get the damn thing in the ground as fast as you can
Mike from PennEast mentioned that construction times run from April 1st to late October. They’re constrained to those months due to migratory species migration times. Most likely they also can’t dig effectively when the ground is frozen. The pipeline will be built in 4 or 5 concurrent “sprints” according to him- that is, they will be building five sections at once simultaneously. In addition the major river horizontal drilling will be done independently as well (Delaware, Lehigh, Susquehana). Their projected construction time is 7 months – exactly April 1st to late October. There was no mention of what would happen if they were late. If they hit delays do you think PennEast will wait 5 months for the next season to open up? Or do you think they’ll speed things up even more to hit the end of October Deadline?
Angele makes an impact
Angele Switlzler is well known to me. Or at least her writing is. She posts many comments to the FERC eLibrary as “Emma Switzler” (she’s got a lot of names!). She also is part of the three generations present at the meeting, her self, her daughter Alexandra mentioned above, and her mom Vaughana. Angele had a number things to say to PennEast that they did not receive very well.
I am concerned about safety. Recently the millennium pipeline, that has only been in service since 2008 had a leak, a 42 inch pipeline, the leak was only discovered because of bubbling in the creek. It didn’t become a major incident because the guy that discovered wasn’t smoking a cigarette. How many of us are going to feel really great about a backyard barbecue?
PennEast had no response to this. Later on she asked:
I am very scared about the arsenic that might be released into our wells. You say not to worry, but we have a famous geologist that predicts it is possible. When you have a state like California that we are going to need to help out because they support our food, and yet you guys are putting at risk our water!
What she’s referring to above is a Princeton University professor who wrote several detailed presentations to the FERC outlining the arsenic problem in Northern Hunterdon County, and how the pipeline construction could release a highly toxic version of arsenic into people’s drinking wells. PennEast assures us that this won’t be a problem – and if it is they’ll just keep getting us water somehow to “mitigate” any issues.
Finally, later in the meeting after several people had talked in very reasoned tones and insisted that PennEast people were just doing their jobs, and maybe disruptions were bad, Angele gave us her own take on the situation:
In what culture is it appropriate for victims to respond to their pillagers and marauders, the people who are going to leave them with a bomb on their property, politeness is not an appropriate response. You are classifying my family and my kids as second class citizens because you will be too cheap to put in the maximum thickness of pipe because your companies have done a cost benefit analysis that decides it is better to pay off our families if we are killed, if we have any family left than give us the safest pipeline possible.
At yet another exchange with PennEast, PennEast Mike offered her a chance to tour a pipeline route. He said he’d be happy to show her an existing pipeline that had been place for a couple of years. Alissa started talking about contacting people to get permission, but at the end of the exchange when it was somewhat loud Mike muttered “we own the right of way, we don’t have to ask anyone permission” while shaking his head. I don’t think many people heard him but he basically was offering guided tours on people’s land without even asking them or warning them first.
Hopefully they will get permission anyway though, and Angele has indicated she will take him on the tour if it’s real. If nothing else she can interview people who have endured pipeline construction and get an insiders take on what the construction is really like and how they deal with all the issues.
No dirt is removed from the site
When discussing restoration a gentleman in the audience asked “What happens to all of the displaced dirt from where the pipeline is placed. It’s 3’ wide, where does it go?”. Jeff England from PennEast replied “No soils is removed. It’s all compacted in place”. When asked for clarification around wetlands he said “We don’t compact there, instead the dirt is feathered into larger area”. Since the pipeline has to be at least three feet below the surface this means they’re distributing dirt from 3′ below the surface back up at the surface again. This dovetails with things I’ve heard about the topsoil never being the same after pipeline construction and yields plummeting.
PennEast reps get agitated
Around this point Patricia repeatedly got flustered and angry at questions and started cutting people off regularly. She clearly wanted to just give a nice clean presentation to a bunch of country hicks he didn’t know any better and probably still have manure between her toes. She obviously hated how informed the audience was and took it out on us on several occasions.
Deceptive pictures used to mislead the public
At one point in the presentation they were showing how effective restoration was with a series of pictures of pipeline routes several years after construction. Or at least that’s what they claimed. A gentleman raised his hand and said to go back a few slides. After a bit they found the correct slide. He shouted “How old is that picture?”. Mike said he didn’t know. The man then asked, “How big is that cut? Does that look like 50’ to you?”. Someone replied “No, maybe 25 if that.”. The man then asked “What size pipeline was put in there?” Mike replied he didn’t know but it may have been a smaller one. The flustered man shouted “Why are you showing us this picture? This is nothing like the requirements for a 36” pipeline!”.
There was much discussion back and forth and at the end the PennEast reps were abashed at being called out on such an obviously deception. In selling their 3′ wide pipeline it looks like they tried to show us the impact of a 16″ or 12″ pipeline and just pretend it was a 3 footer.
How wide is the construction zone?
During the above exchange Patricia said the construction easement would be 125’ – a contradiction to the official 100’ cited in their documentation. Was this an accidental slip by her? I’ve heard others say 125’ is more realistic.
What the heck is a Woodlands Assessment?
A man said “My lands are Woodlands Assessed. It’s my living.” Another man declared he had one too, and described how this impacted his taxes on a yearly basis – an $8,000 bill vs. a $30,000. PennEast didn’t understand his question. They had never heard of Woodlands Assessed. The man pushed on how he would get paid by PennEast to compensate and they couldn’t answer.
Related to the above I asked the question, “Do you ever make payments in perpetuity for issues that are variable over time, or do you only do one-time payments”. For example in this case taxes can vary year to year depending on property values and changes in law.
Jeff England responded that they only do one-time payments. So you’re basically guaranteed to get an unfair payout unless property values never change and neither do any laws.
PennEast can’t see the 800 pound gorilla in the room
I asked the question “Why don’t we address the 800 pound gorilla in the room: eminent domain. So far in this presentation there’s been on mention whatsoever of eminent domain at all. Can you address that now?”. Mike from PennEast hemmed and hawed and refused to give any answer. He did say “We don’t do eminent domain, the government does”. He was called out on that evasion by several people. I finally said “If you don’t want to discuss eminent domain that’s OK. Just say so.” Mike responded “We feel that this is not the proper time in the process to discuss eminent domain”. This was the most important thing on people’s minds at the meeting and they flat out refused to even mention it.
An appeal to reason
An extraordinarily eloquent and soft spoken man stood up and explained that he understood that the PennEast employees were just people doing their job. There was no ill will between them as people. But every town in Hunterdon county has voted a resolution against this pipeline. He said, “Perhaps you should recognize that we have irreconcilable differences. We will never accept what you’re asking of us”.
This was Vince DiBianca, I contacted him today and he expanded on his statements and his recollections of what he said:
This pipeline is nonsensical in almost every aspect. It damages our fragile planet’s Eco-system. We do not have the demand for the supply. The final product is being “exported” and offers little value to the communities being disrupted. It is transporting fracked gas which is highly undesirable. It is disrupting the most peaceful, picturesque communities in our state. The vast majority of the citizens are against it. Employment opportunities are grossly overstated and short-term. It would be better all-around if we created more permanent jobs while developing needed clean & renewable energy sources. It is dangerous to both the water and soil.
Not the least of which is it is proposed to come straight down my driveway on my property which houses my family, many animals and 1775 buildings. The construction process will be horrendous for my family, the forest will be ransacked and the animals (alpaca, llama, horses that I have on my property) dislodged . Property value will be decreased.
There are more reasons. Suffice it to say, our ommunity is absolutely resolute in its opposition to this pipeline project. We will continue to band together to fight this in every way possible including whatever legal means are necessary. We’ve already contacted eminent domain lawyers for their advice.
This is just not right. How much more loudly can people speak and stand up for their rights? Who’s listening?
Access roads not part of scoping
There was a discussion about construction access roads described by Jeff England. He said as a general rule if there is a “mile plus” between existing access points they will need to build temporary construction access roads. This is done “for the safety of the workers so they can get out of an area if a situation arises”. This was a somewhat accidental admission that pipeline construction is dangerous to all parties involved, including the people doing the construction.
They also mentioned that all of these sites are determined after the scoping period closes so the public has zero official say in it.
An eloquent, moving lesson in history and the rights of the people in America
I hope someone recorded this woman. She was an older woman, frail of stature by with a vibrant air about her, who made what may have been the most eloquent speech of the night. She spoke of the landowners being forced to be part of PennEast’s solution, when none of them ever wanted to be involved with PennEast’s problems to start with. She spoke of eminent domain and the way it’s been perverted over the years. She spoke of the Constitution and how eminent domain is such a clear violation of its spirit and letter. She finished discussing how negotiations always must involve trust on some level or they will never work. Given the way PennEast has treated landowners how could they ever believe that trust on any level could be achieved?
This one was one of several speeches that visibly rocked PennEast representatives back on their heels. They’re not all drones and not all evil energy executives. Some of them are doing this just as a job, and you could see the impact some of these stories and narratives were having on them. I doubt any one story would make a difference to them but the cumulative impact on them must be real. I think it shocks the more honest PennEast employees to their bones when they hear people of this caliber criticizing the very core of their existence and what they’re doing to people in the way of their plans.
Why oh why does it have to be so big?
A man stated that several construction projects of similar scope were done on much smaller easements. They asked why PennEast’s ROW has to be so much larger than those. He cited recent permanent right of ways that were down to almost 25′ for an equivalently sized pipe. PennEast predictably had no answers.
We’ve been here before
A woman stated that we as a community are not looking at pipeline issues for the first time. The region has extensive experiences with pipeline proposals and construction and can extrapolate future pipeline issues from what they’ve personally witnessed in the past. They mentioned Leidy and Pilgrim pipeline as two examples where the pipeline had been destabilized in a very short time and that PennEast hasn’t shown any evidence that their construction methods are any better. She concluded that PennEast’s constant assurances don’t match the hard-won experiences we’ve had with other pipeline companies.
Well, one day we’ll actually secure the right away. We’re working on that…
She said that she did not believe PennEast’s assertions that they had secured a right of way from JCP&L, and so she called up the JCP&L manager in charge of their easements. The land management manager there said they had never spoken to PennEast. She turned to Mike and said “Mike, I’ll tell you right now. You’re a liar”. Mike hemmed and hawed (as he is wont to do) and admitted that maybe he had slipped up a bit and that they were “still negotiating” with the power company on the easement. So even though they call this their “preferred alternate route” they still don’t even have a guarantee they can colocate like they claim they can.
The eldest Switzler family, Vaughana, spoke several times. On one occasion she said “You’re going to ruin a big part of my life here….You invite me here and I can’t even raise my voice to defend my life and my family’s lives”.
On the latter part she was referring to her run-in with the state troopers at the event. She had gotten very emotional and started yelling at the PennEast reps. A state trooper took her aside and told her to keep it civil. She understandably was not happy with this – as she implies, this isn’t a Sunday social she’s at, she’s fighting for her family here.
In another part of the night she said:
I have had two real estate agents tell me that my property will be reduced by 1/3 in value and that value will never be restored, nobody wants to buy a farm with a pipeline on it. This is an investment for my family.
At another she spoke of the other members of her family not present. A number of them have severe health issues and PennEast is going to impact them severely. In particular she talked of her son.
My son had a traumatic brain injury from the 82nd airborne, defending people like you, and you are going to take away the only place he has peace, walking his dogs.
We know very little of New Jersey
In a rare candid interlude two of the PennEast reps admitted, “We know very little of New Jersey. It’s all new to us. We’ve never heard of these programs”. This happened after repeated questions about the Woodlands Assessment tax issue.
Both Alissa and Mike and Jeff England went into great detail about how they don’t know much of anything about the various laws and issues in our state. Pretty much everyone in the room was shaking their head with their mouth open. These people presume to build this massive pipeline in our state and they don’t know jack squat about anything.
What a great way to end a meeting “We haven’t a fracking clue what we’re doing here, but trust us anyway!”.