NG Advantage Virtual Pipe Hearing in Fenton an Eye-Opener for MDN

Last night MDN editor Jim Willis attended a Zoning Appeals Board hearing in the Town of Fenton (near Binghamton) where board members held a public hearing on a proposed virtual pipeline (i.e. compressor station) application by NG Advantage. It was, for Jim, a real eye-opener–causing him to reassess previous comments he made about the people opposing the project. Let’s begin with a brief background and the purpose of the hearing. NG previously filed an application with the Town of Fenton to build a natural gas compressor station/trucking facility in the very corner of the township, where it borders other towns/communities (bedroom communities). The people in those adjoining communities, when they learned of the plan, were upset that they had not been notified of the plan. In short order lawsuits were filed, and a county judge ruled that the Town of Fenton Planning Board did not take a hard enough look at environmental and traffic issues related to their approval of NG’s plan (see Judge Rules Against Broome Virtual Pipe, NG Advantage to Try Again). That forced NG to reapply for permits to build the facility. The area is zoned light industrial, allowing certain uses. Among the uses in that area are freight/trucking facilities. Not on the list are compressor stations. A Fenton building inspector researched the issue and agreed (with NG) that the facility fits the definition of a freight/trucking facility. That determination was immediately appealed by a number of people and organizations, including the local Chenango Valley School District. The meeting last night was to hear arguments for and against the finding that the facility is a freight/trucking facility and qualifies as an acceptable use in that zone. There were about 200 or so present for the hearing. Passions ran high. We’d say about three-fourths present were against and one-fourth in favor, judging from applause following various speakers. We will outline the evening and the testimony given below, but right up front we want to apologize to those opposing the project. In previous posts we used strong language to describe them, including the phrase “selfish antis” and the word “bullies.” That was wrong and we retract those statements. While we still disagree with those opposing this facility, we listened closely to their arguments and to their hearts. We found the vast majority speaking against the NG facility were not your typical anti-fossil fuel protesters (although there were a few of those there too). Instead, we found they are simply everyday folks who fervently do not want this facility in their neighborhood for a variety of reasons, including (yes) protection of their children. We heard and appreciate their arguments, and we want to acknowledge their position and attempt to fairly and dispassionately state what that position is…

In thinking about the meeting, we separate objections to the NG facility into two buckets: (1) the purpose of the meeting last night, which is the issue of whether or not the facility is “just” a trucking/freight facility, or something “other”; and (2) larger concerns about the facility, not related to the primary reason for the hearing.

Those opposing the NG facility were there last night hoping to “nip the plan in the bud” to build the facility by asking the Fenton Town Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) to rule that the facility is indeed not “just” a trucking facility–that instead it is something other. How is it “other?” After all, trucks would come and go all day long. That’s a truck terminal, right? Two different attorneys for different appellants presented their cases for why they believe the facility is more than just a truck terminal.

Claudia Braymer, an environmentalist lawyer from Glens Falls, NY addressed the ZBA representing one of the appellants. While Ms. Braymer strayed into issues not relevant to the issue at hand, including statements that there are churches, homes and schools nearby and that it sits over a water aquifer (interesting but not germane as to whether the facility fits the definition of a truck facility), we found Ms. Braymer’s strongest argument was that another facility of this type in New York State, operated by XNG, located in Herkimer County, NY, is *not* zoned as a trucking facility but instead as a natural gas facility.

Ms. Braymer’s client, Maureen Singer, also addressed the ZBA, following Ms. Braymer. Ms. Singer used a PowerPoint presentation to compare the area where the Fenton plant would be located to another facility operated by NG in Vermont, saying the Fenton location is far more populated and residential. Most of Ms. Singer’s statements were emotional accusations, such as “NG tried to bamboozle us that this is no big deal.” She said NG “came in and threw 70 pages of legalese hogwash at our board to claim this is a truck terminal.” However, Ms. Singer’s strongest argument was that she herself has 20 years of experience in working for/at truck terminals. She assured the crowd the proposed NG facility is no regular truck terminal, based on her personal experience.

The third speaker of the night was Meave Tooher, a hired-gun lawyer from Albany who specializes in environmentalist causes. Ms. Tooher represents the Chenango Valley School District. We can see why they’ve paid her firm $40,000+ (yes, money that comes out of taxpayers’ pockets). Ms. Tooher’s first statements were to make the argument why CV School has standing before the ZBA. The school is not located in the Town of Fenton. It is, however, located very close to where the proposed facility would be built–and the trucks traveling to and from the plant would pass near those schools. Fair enough. The school should have a seat at the table. One of the arguments Ms. Tooher went on to make in opposing the facility is that the gas is not simply grabbed from the already-pressurized Millennium Pipeline, but that more pressure is added before loading it into special canisters on special trucks. Not only that, but mercaptan (sulfury, putrid smelling gas added to natural gas so you can smell it in case of leaks) is blended in to the natural gas. Because the gas is further pressurized and because something is added to it, Tooher says that makes this is a processing facility–NOT a simple trucking facility.

Ms. Tooher also said there is not a single truck/freight facility in the state with he extensive emergency response plans and requirements needed for this facility. Her point (in our words): if it doesn’t walk like a duck (trucking facility), quack like duck (simple loading/unloading), it isn’t a duck.

To her credit, Ms. Tooher said if NG wants to build the facility in that location in Fenton, instead of trying to pass it off as a trucking facility, a use she maintains is not allowed under current zoning restrictions, they should instead call it what it is and ask for a variance from the town. She hastened to add that she still advises the facility not be approved under such a variance.

Ms. Tooher ended her address to the ZBA by lecturing them for not providing her with requested copies of NG paperwork filed with the board. She accused NG of not wanting people to have full information about their plans for the site, and for the use of misleading words to describe the project.

Several other appellants (people officially appealing the finding that the facility is just a truck facility) addressed the ZBA, including a pastor and her husband. Deborah and Kevin Wilson live in the vicinity of the proposed site. They gave a heartfelt, impassioned plea to the ZBA. Deborah is a pastor and works with families in the area, including families with children who contracted cancer due to another industrial facility, long since closed. She herself has had high levels of cadmium in her body from breathing the air coming from that facility. Her experience colors her perspective of this facility. Pastor Wilson asked the board if they could 100% guarantee that there will never be an emergency at the facility, asking them if it’s “worth the risk.” She said there will be lights, odors, extra traffic if it gets built.

Pastor Wilson then recounted seeing a sign at a previous meeting about the facility that equates “antis” with “using your children”–which she found particularly offensive. Pastor Wilson proceeded to quote a few words from a couple of MDN articles, taking issue with our phrasing about “precious children”–believing that we were too flippant and that we discounted the importance of children in this debate. To Pastor Wilson: we apologize. We now understand your perspective and our phrasing was, indeed, uncalled for. Our own heart breaks for the children in the Hillcrest cancer cluster.

It was Kevin Wilson, however, that provided one of the biggest revelations of the night (for us). He said that he and his wife are not against natural gas–in fact they use propane to heat their home. They are just against this particular location for this particular facility. He sounded like a reasonable guy. We have no quarrel with reasonable people.

Following statements by the appellants, the ZBA granted NG Advantage time to present their side. This brought an immediate response from the audience, with many wanting to know why NG should be allowed time when the hearing was a hearing about opposing their plan. The chairman of the ZBA silenced the crowd and said since it is their (NG’s) application under consideration, the board invited them to present. After some loud grumbling, NG took the podium.

NG proffered two speakers: the engineer in charge of building the project, and NG’s attorney. The engineer gave a brief overview of the project. The crux of his presentation was a slide comparing this facility with a natural gas processing facility. A full natgas processing facility is huge and performs a number of functions this facility does not. His point was that while the facility grabs gas and further compresses it and loads it into canisters on trucks, it is, primarily, a trucking/freight facility.

NG’s attorney made the same point. She quoted from the statute and said that this facility fits the definition of a truck/freight facility. She also quoted from an independent third party, and expert in land use, who evaluated the project and concluded NG’s facility is, primarily, a trucking/freight facility.

Although the crowd grumbled at the prospect of the NG folks talking, when NG’s people did talk, the crowd was respectfully quiet. There was no shouting and attempting to deny NG the opportunity to speak. Instead, they listened. We were impressed by that. It was atypical of meetings full of “antis” (that is, those who irrationally hate fossil fuels). Our distinct impression was, these are people who, for reasons good or not, feel threatened by this project.

A number of speakers from the audience followed. Several are worth mentioning. MDN friend Victor Furman addressed the ZBA. Vic admitted to agreeing with a lot of what he had heard (as did we). He made the point that the reason our state so desperately needs facilities like this one is because we have blocked pipeline projects. A previous speaker claimed these types of facilities have only been around since 2013. Vic countered they’ve actually been around since 1940.

Another speaker, the most eloquent of the night who spoke in support of the project, said he wanted to add some “historical perspective.” He said within site of the proposed compressor plant there used to be a huge gas storage tank. Enormous! At one time Binghamton and surrounding communities had 70 factories. Today, virtually none. He raised his voice for emphasis and said, “I’m insulted when people say ‘I don’t want an industrial town.'” He said that attitude, “leads to situations like my own, where my own children have had to move out of the state for lack of jobs.”

Finally, near the end, a speaker addressed the ZBA who is opposed. She lives in neighboring Port Dickinson (not Fenton). She praised the mayor of town for opposing the project. She also said, “We have been called “selfish antis” and “bullies.” Yes, we want to keep our kids safe. If that makes us bullies and selfish, so be it.” She was referring to our own previous words on MDN, which stung deeply because we know her, personally. She’s not an “anti”–she’s just a good mom who wants to protect her kids. Yet she somehow felt we were talking about her, calling her out. Our deepest apologies to her and others offended by our words, for painting with too broad of a brush in this emotional debate.

So where does that leave us? The ZBA decided to postpone a vote last night to give members more time to research and reflect. We still support the project and think it’s necessary. However, we hear the concerns of those who live closest to it. Is this “just” a trucking facility? It sure seems like it’s more than that, but we’re not land use experts nor lawyers. We’ll let the experts duke that one out.

Let’s, for the sake of argument, say that the ZBA says this facility is more than just a trucking facility and turns down NG’s application on that basis. And let’s say NG then requests a variance, relabeling it a compressor station instead. Then we can have a true debate. Should this compressor station facility be located in that particular location? What about concerns over the water aquifer? What about explosion hazards? Truck traffic? Etc. Can we reasonably, calmly, talk it through and have an honest debate about the virtues, or lack thereof, in locating this facility in Fenton?

We are acquainted with (and like) the NG folks. We don’t believe they are trying to pull a fast one or ram this through. That’s not our impression at all. However, we ask the following question of NG in all honesty and sincerity: Why continue pursuing this location when the neighbors are dead set against it? Why not go to Plan B and find a different location? Like West Windsor, where we live! Yes, we are honestly saying we’d love to have this facility located near us, complete with constant truck traffic and all. We encourage NG to find a community where they will welcome you (and your jobs and your tax revenue) with open arms–and forget about Fenton. That’s our best advice.

Postscript: The Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin sent business editor Jeff Platsky to cover the meeting. His excellent write-up is available here: Two sides divided on how to define NG Advantage project