By Daniel Fitzsimmons and Thomas Bias
MONTAGUE — On Feb. 15, men with chainsaws descended upon the hill behind George Feighner’s house in Montague and began clearing trees and brush to make way for a natural gas pipeline.
Feighner, 87, owns property that the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. is using in the final stage of its Northeast Upgrade Project to connect a pipeline from Milford, PA, to a natural gas hub in Mahwah, NJ. The gas is obtained in Pennsylvania through a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves injecting chemicals underground to break up shale deposits that contain natural gas.
In 2011, Tennessee Gas informed Feighner they intended to seize his property through eminent domain in order to construct the pipeline. After consulting a lawyer, Feighner found he could not take legal action directly against Tennessee Gas and instead had to appeal to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The commission approved Tennessee Gas' project last May and denied an emergency stay last Thursday, clearing way for work to begin the following day. According to Feighner, the energy regulatory commission did no more than act on Tennessee Gas' wishes.
Jughandle planned to avoid national park
In an effort to avoid building in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Tennessee Gas is building a seven-mile jughandle around the park.
According to Feighner, the gas company has an easement from 1955 to build in the park but didn’t want to risk running afoul of the U.S. Dept. of the Interior, so instead chose to seize his property.
Feighner said the seven-mile jughandle plan was created to avoid building on four-tenths of a mile in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
“Everybody that looks at a map, it’s immediately obvious that this is a ridiculous thing,” said Feighner. He said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, NJ Dept. of Environmental Protection and the Army Corp. of Engineers all agree with his position but can’t help him. He has also reached out to local, state and national lawmakers to no avail.
The pipeline shaves off a third of Feighner’s property, with the outer edge of construction taking place ten feet from the edge of a barn that sits next to his house. Feighner said he’s refused compensation from Tennessee Gas for the use of his property.
Feighner said with the removal of trees from the steep hill, he’s concerned that a landslide or mudslide could occur. He said his wife Ruth, 86, is so distraught she’s gone into seclusion. The Feighners have lived in the house since 1992 after spending a decade renovating it. Originally built in 1795, Feighner said he and his wife have developed an emotional connection with the house and the land beyond what they originally expected. Representatives of Tennessee Gas on the scene Friday refused to comment for this story and a call placed to a spokesperson for Kinder-Morgan Energy Partners - Tennessee Gas' parent company - was not returned.
Beverly Budz of the Northjersey Pipeline Walkers, a group concerned with environmental harm caused by pipeline construction, accused Tennessee Gas of corporate greed and argued that there are better ways to meet energy needs than fracking. On Monday, protestors gathered on Feighner’s property to speak out against TGP’s construction of the pipeline.
Feighner is the only homeowner affected by TGP’s plan that obtained the status of an intervener, which allowed him to take the matter to court. His lawsuit is running alongside similar suits filed by the NJ Sierra Club, the Riverkeepers and the Highland Coalition. The suits are waiting to be heard in federal appeals court. However, the suits do not prevent the company from starting the deforestation on his property given the failure of the emergency stay. Feighner is suspicious of the timing between when the judge denied his stay and when the cutting crews arrived on his doorstep. “I’m convinced that the minute [Tennessee Gas] got approval they ran out here and cut the trees,” said Feighner. “They could’ve waited until the judge heard my case.”
Tennessee Gas does not yet have permission from the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers to construct a pipeline across the Delaware River on the border between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. However, they’ve already begun deforesting on the New Jersey side, betting heavily that permission will be granted. Feighner said the odds of this last ace-in-the-hole saving his property are about a hundred to one. However, his supporters have a campaign to convince the Army to deny Tennessee Gas a permit. As it is, with trees coming down around him, any victory on that front may feel hollow.
“We left no stone unturned,” said Feighner. “I don’t know what we’re going to do, but we have a house in Belize and we told ourselves that if they do what they’re doing we’ll go to Belize.”