Susan Van Dolsen
For the past two years, the residents of Westchester County, New York have been gaining powerful momentum in the fight to stop the expansion of a new 42-inch diameter, high-pressure gas pipeline, set to be built not only on a major fault line, passing dangerously close to their homes and through their communities, but also right next to New York's aging and troubled Indian Point nuclear facility.
Susan Van Dolsen, native Westchester resident, community leader and co-founder of Stop the Algonquin Pipeline Expansion (SAPE), thinks this proposed project not only promotes a further investment in dirty energy and fossil fuels, but also exemplifies just how undemocratic the agencies that approved the project, like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), can be.
The Algonquin Incremental Market (AIM) pipeline expansion, a project of natural gas company Spectra Energy, would transport Pennsylvania fracked gas over 1,000 miles through New York and New England, leaving hundreds of communities exposed to toxic air and water pollutants.
Our New York organizer Lana Guardo sat down with Susan and asked about her work on the campaign. Despite FERC and the Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) recent approval of the project, community activists in Westchester haven’t thrown in the towel just yet.
Lana Guardo: What is the Algonquin Pipeline, and why does the community oppose it?
Susan Van Dolsen: This new pipeline, called the Algonquin Incremental Market (AIM) project, would pose an unacceptable risk to the lives and property of more than 20 million people living within a 50-mile radius of Indian Point – an area that includes the New York City metropolitan area. The AIM project includes two expanded compressor stations, one in Stony Point and one in Southeast, NY. There will be an increase in harmful toxins into the atmosphere and community.
LG: How is FERC involved in the decision to approve the expansion of the AIM Pipeline?
SVD: FERC appointees have the authority to approve the siting of the AIM pipeline expansion. They are not a safety commission; they are just a siting commission. They have this power completely, meaning once they authorize something and give their permission, that project is almost impossible to stop, and it’s really like a rubber stamp.
They follow the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) put in place in 2005 that guides how these projects are approved; the company – in this case it’s Spectra Energy – needs to prove there will be a market for the gas by collecting contracts signed by buyers. Once they have the contracts, the company can go to FERC. FERC will perform an EIS or environmental impact statement, and then they will more than likely rubber stamp their approval on the project. There isn’t room for any realistic amount of public input.
LG: What is undemocratic about FERC’s approval process?
SVD: When FERC approves a project, but you object to something they said in the EIS, you can then submit a request for rehearing. We had to submit our legal arguments and comments on the EIS by April 2, within 30 days of the release of the EIS. One month later we received a letter from FERC saying that they are going to issue a “tolling order.” It gives FERC the ability to wait as long as they need to make a decision on your points. We had raised 12 fatal flaws in the EIS, including issues about its siting near a power plant and watershed issues. FERC is allowed to give themselves an unlimited amount of time to respond to our concerns.
Meanwhile, we can’t go to court because there is no decision on the request for rehearing and that prevents us from being able to move forward legally.
LG: What is the connection between FERC and the Nuclear Regulatory Committee (NRC)?
SVD: The NRC released a risk analysis, set to delineate any safety issues regarding the close siting of the AIM pipeline to Indian Point. The report they released, which was used by FERC to justify the project’s approval, has since been deemed faulty by nuclear experts. But the NRC has not rescinded its statements. The faulty analysis states that there is no additional risk from siting a 42-inch high-pressure gas pipeline next to a 40-year-old nuclear power plant with two other 60-year-old pipelines already running under it.
If the NRC and FERC are being told their analysis has been conducted by non-experts, why wouldn’t the NRC want to double check? If a pipeline were to rupture near Indian Point and the blast zone radius was miscalculated, we are looking at a potential core meltdown and a major nuclear disaster.
LG: What next steps or actions can people take to resist the project’s construction?
SVD: We need people to call our elected officials, Governor Cuomo at the top of the list, and urge them to intervene on the public’s behalf. We need Governor Cuomo, Senator Gillibrand and Congresswoman Lowey, to name a few, to wield their political power and call for an independent risk assessment on this project and its close siting to Indian Point.
LG: What message would you give to anti-AIM activists, long-term and newcomers alike?
SVD: This gas infrastructure problem is just one example; we need to have solutions to our energy use that are not fossil fuels. We need to advocate for 100 percent renewable energy – we don’t have a choice! While our group fights this one project, there are so many other people fighting other natural gas projects. Let’s get more coordinated against the build out of more gas, and lessen our dependence on fossil fuels. A billion-dollar pipeline like AIM is part of a huge expansion to export gas overseas when we could be putting that money into the innovations of renewable energy – towards the solutions that our kids are going to need.