They carried sleeping bags and backpacks stuffed with apples, hummus, tuna fish and bottles of water. If it were not for the PVC pipes and gallon-size buckets of cat litter in their arms, Dave Publow, a longtime anti-fracking activist, and his three friends might have looked like hikers.
The pipes were part of a lockbox the quartet designed to keep police from pulling them apart, a sort of Chinese finger trap for their arms. The cat litter? Well, there weren’t going to be any bathroom breaks during the long hours ahead.
Publow and his companions stepped into the 42-inch-wide cylinder before them and crawled approximately 200 feet through the industrial steel tubing slated to comprise a segment of Spectra Energy’s AIM pipeline. It was Oct. 10, in Verplanck, New York, on the east side of the Hudson River, and the sun had just begun to rise. They would not breathe fresh air again until well after dark.
AIM is short for Algonquin Incremental Market Project, one of a number of pipelines that are being built in the Northeast to transport natural gas from fracking fields in Pennsylvania to New England and on to markets abroad. If completed by Nov. 1, as planned, AIM will carry approximately 342 million cubic feet of gas to Boston and other ports in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. Spectra is also increasing capacity by more than a third on an existing pipeline that runs within about 100 feet of generators at the aging Indian Point nuclear power plant on the Hudson in Westchester County, about 35 miles north of Midtown Manhattan.
While Publow and the three other protesters were hunkered down inside the pipeline, stopping construction for the day, Spectra complained that they had placed “themselves and first responders at risk.” But the risk posed by the pipeline itself, its opponents contend, far outweighs any danger their act of protest entailed.
Environmentalists and public-health experts have long warned about the danger and pollution risks of fracked gas and nuclear power. Westchester locals and environmentalists worry that an accident involving highly inflammable gas beside a nuclear power plant in America’s largest metropolitan area could create an unparalleled environmental emergency.
“It’s a fucked-up idea to put what amounts to a pipe bomb next to a nuclear power plant,” said Publow.
With Spectra intending to have AIM ready by the beginning of November, groups that have opposed the project since it was first proposed to federal regulators in 2014 worry they are running out of time to halt the pipeline and are escalating their activism.
“It is really important to get the people in the area more aware of what is going on,” Publow said. “And for the people that have been working to stop this thing so far, to get them to the level where they can accept the idea of doing something they can get arrested for and pause construction.”
The four protesters were charged with misdemeanor criminal trespassing when they stepped out of the pipeline shortly before midnight.
Pressuring the Politicians
Others, meanwhile, are fighting on other fronts, leaning on New York State’s elected leaders to come to their aid. Kim Fraczek, of the environmental watchdog group Sane Energy, wants Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, who have already come out against AIM, to exert more political pressure on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which oversees interstate gas-pipeline developments.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has stated his opposition to the pipeline, too, but is probably a lost cause, says Fraczek. She notes that although Cuomo announced the state would conduct its own independent safety analysis of AIM in February, the study was not commissioned until July, and it is still underway, even as the project nears completion. HDR Inc, an engineering firm with ties to the oil and gas industry, is conducting the risk assessment. Documents reviewed by the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI) indicate that the pipeline’s proximity to Indian Point is no longer within the scope of the review.
A Spectra lobbyist, former Republican Sen. Al D’Amato, has donated heavily to Cuomo over the past year. D’Amato, PAI notes, gave “$10,000 in December 2015, as public calls for Cuomo to intervene increased; $15,000 in April 2016, a month after the study was announced; and another $5,000 contribution in July 2016.” The company has also hired lobbyist Mark Grossman, who worked for the Cuomo administration until 2013 and before that, for Cuomo’s father, Gov. Mario Cuomo. Spectra has had him on a $10,000 monthly retainer since March.
“Gov. Cuomo is being lobbied by one of his personal friends to drag his feet on the independent risk assessment,” said Fraczek. “We’ll continue to keep the drumbeat on him, but we believe Schumer and Gillibrand are much more strategic targets right now” — particularly Schumer, who, as the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate and a contender for majority leader should Hillary Clinton take the White House, “has his fingers on FERC’s purse strings.” When Fraczek spoke with The Indypendent, Sane Energy was planning a rally at Schumer’s Midtown office on Oct. 26, calling on him to protect his constituents’ safety.
Direct actions against the pipeline will likely continue. “When we exited the pipeline,” Dave Publow recounted, “our supporters cheered us from the other side of the fence. The cops cuffed us and drove us away. But as we exited, we all kept looking around us, noticing where things were on the construction site, to get ready for next time.”
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