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State rejects proposed undersea natural gas pipeline

New York State regulators cited potential “water-quality violations” Wednesday night in rejecting an application for a contested natural gas pipeline to the region, but left room for future approval.

In a closely watched decision at 8:30 p.m., the state Department of Environmental Conservation denied the application by Williams Transco for the Northeast Supply Enhancement project, a nearly $1 billion pipeline contracted by National Grid to increase gas supply to the region by 14 percent.

“As currently conceived in the application, construction of the NESE pipeline project is projected to result in water quality violations and fails to meet New York State’s rigorous water quality standards,” the DEC said in a news release.

The DEC said construction of the project “would result in significant water-quality impacts from the re-suspension of sediments and other contaminants, including mercury and copper.” DEC said it would also “cause impacts to habitats due to the disturbance of shellfish beds and other benthic resources.”

Opponents who have seized on its potential environmental impacts were quick to declare victory, though the agency’s decision “without prejudice” meant the fight wasn’t over.

Lee Ziesche, an organizer for the Sane Energy Project who joined in a hunger strike this week to stop the project, said the decision “shows that New Yorkers are winning the fight against the Williams Pipeline.”

But she noted the DEC has left similar room to approve projects before, and said, “We’re going to stay vigilant and keep fighting until this pipeline is stopped.”

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer called the decision “a major victory in our efforts to deliver the greener and more sustainable future our children and our children’s children deserve.”

But Williams spokesman Chris Stockton called the DEC’s denial a “minor technical issue with our application,” and said the company’s team on the project “will be evaluating the issue and resubmitting” the application soon.

“We are confident that we can be responsive to this technical concern, meet our customer’s in-service date and avoid a moratorium that would have a devastating impact on the regional economy and environment,” Stockton said.

National Grid said it was “cautiously optimistic” the project would move forward, but added, “Until we have greater certainty” of DEC approval “we will continue to advise all new commercial and residential applicants that our ability to provide firm gas service is contingent on the timely construction” of the pipeline. 

Kyle Strober, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island, a developer group, said, “Everyday that goes by without an approval hinders small and mid-size businesses.”

In a letter to Williams, the DEC left open the prospect that the company could address issues with its application.

“Should [Williams] ultimately provide sufficient documentation to give the department reasonable assurances that construction and operation of the project would meet all applicable water quality standards, the department would first need to conclude that mitigation of these impacts is possible, and if so, that such mitigation is sufficient.”

Long Island Association President Kevin Law, a backer of the pipeline, said, “I trust the DEC will do the right thing and approve this project…because an outright denial would have worse immediate negative impacts on our region than the Amazon debacle.”

The project promised to bring an additional 400 million cubic feet of gas per day to Long Island and the metropolitan region, addressing what National Grid said is a critical shortage of supply.

When the state DEC rejected the water permit last year, the agency noted the application “showed potentially significant environmental impacts that raised serious concerns.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave its approval May 3. New Jersey has yet to rule on a water permit for the pipeline, a decision expected by June 20.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, at a press event in Queens Wednesday, said the decision by the DEC would be based “on the merits and the facts.”

“I told them [DEC regulators] to make the decision on the facts not on the politics, and that’s what they are going to do,” Cuomo said. “They will make the decision. I am not involved in the decision.”

The 24-mile gas project would encompass about 18 miles of pipeline under New York Bay and connect with existing infrastructure at sea beyond the Rockaways.

While some environmental activists were planning rallies to continue the fight Thursday, one prominent Long Island environmentalist was conspicuously quiet on the issue. Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, declined to comment on the decision, saying “We have not taken a position either way” on the National Grid pipeline.

“I’m involved in too many other things,” Esposito said. “I don’t have the resources to be involved in every issue.”

With Robert Brodsky

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