Raucous Crowds Flock to Final Public Hearing on Proposed Natural Gas Pipeline Through Jersey City

Hundreds of Jersey City residents — and more than a dozen elected officials, candidates and department heads from the city and surrounding area — filled much of Ferris High School’s auditorium for last night’s public hearing held by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

The four-hour hearing over FERC’s draft Environmental Impact Study that largely approved Spectra Energy’s natural gas pipeline plan often grew contentious, with both supporters and protesters shouting at each other across the auditorium and booing speakers who would often go well beyond their allotted speaking time. The hearing, which was meant to allow for the public to voice its concerns with FERC prior to a final decision on whether the pipeline would be allowed to be built, turned instead into an emotional public debate. Politicians and candidates in attendance were sometimes treated worst of all, with booing and accusations that they were using their speaking time to “run for office.”

While the vast majority in attendance were opposed to the pipeline — with residents both holding signs and wearing shirts that read “No Gas Pipeline” — there were about 50 supporters in orange shirts, many of them union representatives supporting the pipeline for the jobs that would ostensibly be created.

The first speaker of the evening was Mayor Healy, who called on FERC to prevent what he described as an unsafe, economically devastating pipeline from ruining the city’s future prospects. Echoing much of what he had said at a press conference held by the city earlier in the month, the mayor had to stop in the middle of his speaking time when supporters of the pipeline drowned him out with shouting. After order was restored by the often ineffectual moderators, Healy took the opportunity to make his public safety plea.

“The first mission of any government at any level is the safety of its citizens. That is our big objection to this pipeline, the safety of our citizens is going to be put in terrible jeopardy,” he said, referring to the gas pipeline explosion in Edison in the mid-90’s and the one in San Bruno, Calif. last year.

Noting the significantly denser population in Jersey City than the sites of these two explosions, Healy said a pipeline accident here would be “nothing short of full-blown catastrophe.”

In addition to personal safety, the mayor said he was concerned about economic development and the potential environmental hazards that could also result from the pipeline. “The future economic viability of the city is going to be stomped on if this pipeline goes through,” he said. “What business or developer would want to build around a volatile substance like natural gas underneath the city? The bottom line is it’s going to cost the city untold millions of dollars in lost tax ratables and cost our city thousands upon thousands of future jobs that would have been here had investment and development been able to flow along this strip.”

“The myth is this pipeline is a job creator,” he went on. “It’s not just dangerous, it’s a job killer. The folks here who wants jobs here, there may be 400 jobs in the 15- to 18-month construction of the pipeline. What these gas pipelines do is bring their own crews up from Texas and they get the work, and whatever crumbs are left go to local people.”

Members of the city council, rarely aligned, took the opportunity to note that for once the city stood uniformly against something, with Ward E Councilman Steve Fulop saying, “Jersey City politics is a bare-knuckle sport, and there are very few issues that have ignited the city like this to bring everyone together.”

State officials also joined in, with local State Sen. Sandra Cunningham harshly criticizing the independence and accuracy of the commission’s study, a theme throughout the night.

“After review of your draft Environmental Impact Study, let me say your report is a mockery of what an EIS is supposed to be. At best it’s duplicitous, at worst it’s an outright untruth,” Cunningham said. “I could not find any real independent thinking or any critical analysis in this document [of Spectra’s claims].”

The questions over the document’s soundness were expounded on by various city officials such as City Engineer Chuck Lee, who said his questions to FERC remained unanswered, a complaint also made by Jersey City Chief of Police Thomas Comey about sensitive safety concerns.

While the speakers’ list was stacked early with politicians, officials and opponents of the pipeline, supporters also had their say, often reiterating the findings in the draft EIS, which had been released in early September and stated that the environmental and safety concerns were largely negligible. Critics of the draft EIS, however, argued the study took too many of Spectra’s findings at face value and failed to act as the independent body it purports itself to be.

Ken Hoffner, the assistant director of New Jersey Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund, said that safety measures would be taken well before construction actually begins.

He added that Spectra had listened to public concerns and had opted to choose a higher class of safety for the pipe that went beyond what was required by law.

“They’ll be patrolling the pipeline daily, monitoring deliveries 24-7 and [utilizing] a corrosion prevention program,” Hoffner said. “From a safety standpoint, much is being done that exceeds the standards.”

Added union worker Anthony Esemplare, “No, I’m not running for office today. The only thing I run for is trying to find a job. I don’t know if any politicians ever dug a hole, but with the training we have, safety is number one. Know the facts, learn about construction and how it’s done.”

As the meeting progressed, it began to look unlikely that all of the 100-plus would-be speakers would get the chance. The police were called in to calm people down when a fight looked like it might occur between the pipeline supporters and some residents. By the end of the four-hour hearing, the auditorium was largely empty, however, and there was little sense of how effective the pipeline opponents’ pleas had been.

“We are hopeful that FERC will listen to the concerns raised by Mayor Healy and all of the elected officials, as well as the hundreds of residents and business owners, who have registered comments on this project throughout the process,” said city spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill. “It is unprecedented for a pipeline of this size and pressure to be run through a city as dense as Jersey City, and we believe that FERC needs to re-evaluate the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, conduct thorough and independent research, and fully weigh and respond to the city’s concerns. If that is done, we believe that FERC will see what we already know, that this is not the best route for the pipeline to run and that an alternative route must be considered.”

Dale Hardman, the co-founder of NoGasPipeline.org, the most prominent resident-opposition organization, was not convinced that the process would be effective, and felt the only way to defeat the pipeline would be to take legal action.

“The elephant in the room is that while this is a reasonable and rational process being heard by a regulatory commission of the federal government, the one thing not being said is that FERC has never stopped a pipeline. They rubber stamp every pipeline going through,” Hardman said.

“The only way to beat Spectra and FERC is to be a legal intervener. When FERC makes its decision in January, you must sue them in court. Not even the city has said they will do this and I hope they will,” he continued. “We are the only ones in Jersey City willing to take them to court and sue them for as long as it takes. That’s the only way you can win.”

Photos: Steve Gold

Matt Hunger

is a former staff writer for the Jersey City Independent.