Thursday, May 5, 2016

Pilgrim Pipeline: Potential Nightmare in the Making

Great Blue Heron fishing in Ramapo River      (photo: Geoff Welch)

By Daniel Mercurio

 Imagine a ferocious explosion of an oil pipeline near Ramapo College, as has happened in many parts of the United States in recent years. That possibility is underscored in a pipeline environmental assessment that a number of Ramapo College students worked on this semester. 

Students pursuing Ramapo College’s Environmental Studies major are required to take a course titled Environmental Assessment. This 400 level capstone course is offered to students during their senior year. Students enrolled in the course are expected to learn about the environmental assessment process and apply it to a real life situation.  

According to, “An Environmental Assessment (EA) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is a concise public document that helps public officials make decisions that are based on an understanding of the human and physical environmental consequences of a proposed project and take actions, in the location and design of the project, that protect, restore and enhance the environment.”  

This year, students taking the environmental assessment course were presented with an opportunity to assess the environmental impacts of a pipeline project being proposed by a company called Pilgrim.  

The Pilgrim Pipeline Company plans to construct two 178-mile long pipelines that would run between Albany, New York and Linden, New Jersey. If approved by government agencies, these pipelines will transport bakken crude oil to the south and send refined products like home heating oil and kerosene to the north. This largescale project has the potential to negatively affect the environment and humans, particularly, those living in the New Jersey Highlands Region.  

The proposed pipeline would be placed in trenches dug along the New York Thruway, including much of the Ramapo River corridor upstream of Mahwah, and through the Ramapo Mountains near Ramapo College. 

Students have been assigned to create an environmental impact statement on Pilgrim’s pipeline proposal. This document is to detail any potential impacts to humans and the environment caused by the construction and operation of the pipeline. These impacts fall under several different environmental indicators like health and safety, environmental hazards, socio-economic, and culture and history. Such indicators have been researched by students. The impacts identified within these indicators will provide the groundwork for the assessment of the company’s proposal to construct the pipeline.

Threats to Human Health

Students’ research into the health and safety indicator found that the Pilgrim Pipeline Project could exasperate pre-existing health related issues within counties that make up the New Jersey Highlands region along with those in lower New York State such as Orange and Rockland. Most of the counties in this region of interest (ROI) have higher rates of aggravated asthma and lung cancer. As a result, the Pilgrim Pipeline could worsen the problem, as toxic fumes from potential fires and explosions may occur with a pipeline infrastructure in place.

Another health and safety issue concerns impacts caused by pipeline spills. Data provided by an online source revealed that counties within the ROI have experienced several pipeline spills and leaks between 1980 and 2016. According to the Right-To-Know Network, “Morris County had a total of 14 pipeline related oil and fuel spills while Bergen had 16 and Rockland County had 15.”  

Even though spills don’t occur frequently, there were still a fair number of incidents over this 35-year period. The Pilgrim Pipeline Project could increase these spill statistics and adversely affect human health. For example, the Pilgrim Pipeline could threaten humans if hazardous liquid material from a pipeline spill contaminates groundwater drinking sources such as aquifers and water supply streams such as the Ramapo River.

Threats to Wildlife and Forests

The environmental hazards indicator team researches any environmental hazards presented by the Pilgrim Pipeline Project to wildlife living within the New Jersey Highlands Region. Previous research conducted within this indicator revealed that there are several preexisting contamination sites within the region that are already impacting the health of flora and fauna. As a result, the operation of the Pilgrim Pipeline could result in more pollution entering the surrounding environment from potential pipeline incidents such as spills, leaks, or explosions. This means that living organisms may suffer to an even greater extent from a newly constructed pipeline.

Another serious concern presented by the Pilgrim Pipeline is habitat fragmentation, which can affect the Highlands forests, which provide clean water to water supply streams and shelter migratory birds and other wildlife. According to a student in the Environmental Assessment Capstone Course researching the environmental hazards indicator:

“Clearing large strips of vegetation to create the ROW for Pilgrim Pipeline will cause fragmentation of the surrounding forest. Fragmentation will lead to a plethora of effects, such as creating a wind corridor, opening up opportunities for invasive species to move in, degrading habitat for fauna, and changing the levels of light exposure on the vegetation and soil. Increased wind and light exposure will potentially create a new microclimate that will make it more difficult for the native flora to thrive as it normally would. Wind exposure could make it more difficult for young plants to survive by putting extra stress on them and weakening their foundations. Moreover, the open soil along the ROW will degrade in quality as the wind causes erosion.”

Threats to Property Values and Cultural Values

The socio-economic indicator team found that Pilgrim Pipeline could have a negative impact on property values as there is a greater risk of a spill occurring near homes. Dr. Robert A. Simons, an expert in the real-estate business from the Cleveland area, noted that spill incidents from petroleum pipelines generally result in decreased property values. He stated, “The properties adjacent to a spill are significantly devalued by 10-40%, while those nearby, lost up to 8% of their value.”  This issue can lead to less business for real-estate agents who will have fewer homes to sell since potential buyers won’t want to spend money on a property that runs the risk of being damaged by pipeline related incidents.

The cultural resource indicator team looked into how the Pilgrim Pipeline Project could have a negative impact on the Ramapough Lunaape Indians’ ideological beliefs. The main reason concerns how construction of the pipeline can ruin the land in the Ramapo Mountains on which they base their vision of how the world was created. A student researching this indicator discovered that, “The traditional belief of natives including the Ramapoughs is that everyone lives on Turtle Island. Turtle Island is the traditional story that Sky Woman fell down to Earth when the world was covered in water. Animals tried to swim to the bottom of the ocean and bring dirt to create land. Muskrat was successful in doing this by gathering dirt and putting it on turtle’s back which grew into land which is North America.” With that said, the construction of the Pilgrim Pipeline will make the story less credible since it will sever the tribe’s deep spiritual connection to the land. In the end, it will also ruin their system of beliefs.

The potential impacts found by the Environmental Assessment class raise serious health and safety, water supply, socio-economic, forest and wildlife issues as the proposed pipeline project seeks government permits.

Daniel Mercurio is a senior at Ramapo College where he is pursuing a B.A. in Environmental Studies. In addition to Environmental Assessment, he has taken several courses that emphasized the importance of protecting and preserving the natural environment through the implementation of sustainable approaches. After college, he wants to apply his knowledge and understanding of the environment to real world applications. His lifelong goal is to give back to society by preserving the environment’s natural resources. This way, future generations will be able to live comfortably.  

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