By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
TIVERTON, R.I. — Natural-gas company employees vastly outnumbered residents at a public meeting Sept. 24 for a proposed pipeline expansion project in Tiverton, Little Compton and Fall River, Mass.
The proposed project seeks to triple the capacity of natural gas flowing along a 2.2-mile stretch of existing pipeline that runs through urban neighborhoods, farmland and wetlands.
The owner of the pipeline, Spectra Energy, only sent notice of the meeting to abutters of the proposed project and didn't advertise it in any way. Although the meeting was held at Town Hall and open to the public, it wasn't listed on the town's website.
A second public meeting will be held Sept. 25 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at Little Compton Town Hall.
The informational meeting consisted of about 20 aerial maps of the proposed project, and at least a dozen Spectra employees were on hand to answer questions. The meeting also included handouts about natural-gas pipelines and their safety features. There was an abundance of free food and kitchen accessories with the Spectra logo. The branded items included ice cream scoops, oven mitts and spatulas, as well as lip balm and flashlights.
Ninety minutes through the two-hour meeting, no more than two visitors had signed in at the registration table. One of the attendees, Town Council member Bill Gerlach, said he was concerned that the meeting wasn't advertised to the broader community. The proposed project, he said, was worrisome because it runs through the polluted, yet densely built, North Tiverton area. For decades, the neighborhood has struggled to recover from contamination caused by a coal degasification plant in the 1940s.
Gerlach said he doesn’t like that the pipeline expansion would carry more natural gas from fracking fields in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
“That doesn’t feel good,” he said. “We should be investing in renewable-energy infrastructure rather than fossil fuels."
A spokesman for Spectra Energy said the meeting was the first opportunity for the public to learn about the project and offer feedback. The company is expected to submit a pre-filing notice to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) by November. If the proposal advances, FERC will likely hold public hearings on the project. The proposal could be approved in 15-18 months.
The East Bay project is part of a massive natural gas pipeline expansion in the Northeast. A contentious public hearing for the expansion of a compressor station in Burrillville was held Sept. 16. Other communities in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts are fighting the project. The Burrillville compressor station pumps the gas toward Boston and through eastern Rhode Island. After running through Tiverton and Little Compton, the pipeline runs under the Sakonnet River to Middletown.
Spectra Energy officials have said pipeline expansion is needed to meet the growing demand for natural gas, especially during the winter when demand is highest. Opponents say the project increases environmental and health risks. The demand for natural gas, they claim, can be met through increased energy efficiency and the development of renewable energy.