Friday, May 11, 2012

Gas Pipeline to Mahwah Set Off Alarms


Gas Pipeline at Lake Lookover            (photo/Jan Barry)

The Tennessee Gas Company is looking to extend a portion of their pipeline that runs through Northern New Jersey. Bulldozers, construction equipment and a gas pipeline have already sliced through the once pristine woods in Wawayanda State Park just outside of Vernon, N.J.

Over the last two years, Tennessee Gas Company has been working on a gas pipeline that goes through the highlands region of northwest New Jersey. This pipeline has already caused a number of different problems including the loss of thousands of trees and cascading run-off into Lake Lookover in  West Milford, near Wawayanda State Park.

In January 2012, Tennessee Gas announced its plans to extend the pipeline further, approximately 7.6 miles through some of northern New Jersey’s most environmentally sensitive areas. Residents have expressed  concerns and disapproval of the project, and aim to stop its expansion.

“It makes me nervous that they would do something that could affect us, or that could eventually harm us in the future,” said Kathryn Bruno, a student at Ramapo College.

The proposed line, called the “Northeast Upgrade,” would run parallel to the existing line to increase its capacity. It picks up where the 300 Line expansion ends, just west of the Monksville Reservoir and it would continue east to Mahwah, according to a press release on the Tennessee Gas Co. website. Representatives from Tennessee Gas say that this will help to stabilize prices, because there will be more gas getting to more costumers.

The proposal for the extension has been the subject of much debate between residents, environmentalists, and supporters. It has been heard in court various times since its proposal, and has been the topic of town meetings, and environmental conferences in the area; however, no final decisions on the extension have been made, and protests still persist seeking its disapproval.

Currently, the pipeline runs through the Highlands, a section of northwest New Jersey, including Vernon Township, West Milford, and other parts of Sussex and Passaic counties. The Highlands Act of 2004 restricted development across seven counties in the region, including Bergen; however, it does allow utilities to upgrade their lines.In February, in an 11-2 vote, the Highlands Council voted to approve the expansion of  the pipeline to Mahwah. This vote displayed a somewhat significant shift in the council, which had originally voted 8-5 to delay a hearing on the project.

Should the extension of the pipeline be approved by federal officials, construction would begin in the summer of 2012 and continue into the fall. According to a news release from Tennessee Gas in November, the proposed extension would continue through West Milford, go under the Monksville Reservoir, and following the existing pipelines path, cross through two state parks in Ringwood. Finally, it would make its way into Bergen County’s largest park, the Ramapo Reservation, which sits a little over a mile from Ramapo College, and is widely popular with both residents and college students alike.

At the Ramapo River Watershed Conference held at Ramapo College on April 27, a representative from Tennessee Gas talked of plans to replant more than 22,000 trees in the areas where the swath currently stretches. However, at the construction site in West Milford, there is minimal replanting of trees and it could take a number of years for the area to look remotely the same as it did before construction.

Although only 1.6 miles of the pipeline would extend into Mahwah, concerns expressed by residents include that of it crossing over the Ramapo Fault, which is said to be the best known fault line in the Mid-Atlantic region, and small earthquakes have been recorded in this area. Pressures like that on the gas pipelines could cause deadly explosions. Opposition of its construction is still strong in Bergen County. Officials from Bergen County are in disagreement, according to, and say that the jobs and taxes aren’t worth it.

“I would get worried now every time I go to the reservation for a hike or a walk knowing that something’s put in there that could harm me,” said Bruno.

Damage done in West Milford

Last summer, Tennessee Gas expanded the existing pipeline from 30 feet in width to almost 200 feet.  In these areas where the pipeline already exists, specifically in the region off of Clinton Road, waterways were flooded with excessive runoff, motor oil and other fluids from bulldozers and construction vehicles used in the projects, and wetlands along its route have been contaminated, say residents who were directly affected.

The Monksville Reservoir, which is the starting point for the extension, holds up to a billion gallons of water, and serves as the backup water supply during droughts for the Wanaque Reservoir. Approximately 3 million people are served by this water system. The plan is to drill under the reservoir, minimizing its impact to the water body, which extends 505 acres, and is a popular fishing spot.

There are concerns that muddy runoff, as happened in Lake Lookover, could occur in the Monksville Reservoir. However, the Department of Environmental Protection refutes this, saying that the runoff from the pipeline route was due to excessive rain last spring and summer, blaming a majority of it on Hurricane Irene. But heavy rainfall should be expected in this area due to its climate.

According to speakers at the Ramapo River Watershed Conference, the Highlands is an area with steep slopes and ridges, and that when you tinker with that, the forest and the ridge lines change, and the flow of the runoff changes. The runoff would no longer follow its original path, and due to the amount of trees taken down in the process and the steep slopes of the area, the risk of a mudslide increases significantly.

Slit barriers they built held up well during the tropical storms that hit New Jersey late last August, said resident Shane Clawson, who lives off of Clinton Road in West Milford, NJ, one of the main areas the current pipeline runs through.  Tennessee Gas also installed plastic sheeting near one of the slopes off Clinton Road, to stop the runoff from getting into a brook, after residents complained.

“I’m a person that likes to use the water. The fish population has declined and the sedimentation has actually lowered the level of the lake. You can’t swim in it anymore, and it definitely has had an effect on the whole habitat and the environment,” Clawson said of Lake Lookover.

Tennessee Gas will have to replace 22,571 trees in the Highlands. They hope that replacing the vegetation on the slopes will eventually stop the runoff. However, an environmentalist expressed skepticism of this plan at the Watershed conference, due to the high costs of not only planting the trees, but protecting them from wildlife until they were fully grown.

Students at Ramapo College have been displaying their disapproval of the expansion through petitions. There was also an on-campus protest to raise awareness on April 30, and on Saturday May 5, there was a hike from an area where the pipeline already exists to the proposed expansion location in the reservation.

“I love the Ramapo Reservation the way it is, and I feel like if something like this was put in it could ruin my experience and taint it, I don’t want to see anything happen to it, especially with all the dangers that could result in it, and I would be really be sad to see them change such a beautiful place,” said Bruno.

Victoria Ahlers is a junior at Ramapo College. She majors in journalism with a minor in public policy. After graduating next year, she hopes to attend law school, and study environmental writing.

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