The approval of a natural gas pipeline in Otis State Forest has prompted protests, like this one Wednesday during an announcement by Energy and Environmental Affair Secretary Matthew Beaton in Shelburne Falls.
LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — Public safety officials are preparing for the worst-case scenario when it comes to protests surrounding the Tennessee Gas Pipeline expansion
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently granted Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. approval to move ahead with a natural gas pipeline expansion through Otis State Forest. The ruling was issued last week approving the Connecticut expansion, which includes tree cutting and installation of the pipeline through four miles of pipeline through the Otis State Forest.
The project has been one of heated political debate and protests and nationally similar projects have faced massive outrage — most notably the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in North Dakota. There have been incidents of mass arrests and possible sabotage attempts in some of those protests.
Locally, authorities are not quite sure what to expect here when construction starts.
"Otis has been identified by some of the protest groups as one of the four key places in the country. We don't know what that means on the outset but I just want us to be aware of that should something ramp up," Lt. Col. Thomas Grady, who sits on the Western Mass Homeland Security Council told local officials Wednesday morning.
"I don't think anybody should be scared. I just want you to be aware."
Grady says there are indications that protest groups could bring large numbers of protesters from outside of the area to the site. For that reason, security officials have been meeting to plan out any needed responses to the site.
"There is a lot of planning throughout all four counties in Western Mass. for joint support should we need it. The hope is they will be peaceful protesters," Grady said.
Grady raised briefed the Central Berkshire Regional Emergency Planning Committee on the situation Wednesday and some of those on the committee could be called on for mutual aid. The committee consists of fire, ambulance, and police officials from the central area but should the Southern Berkshire Regional Emergency Planning Committee need assistance, many of central Berkshire officials could be called on to provide it.
That heads up was delivered at nearly the identical time when U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey released a statement calling for FERC to revoke the pipeline's authorization.
"Nearly a year has lapsed since FERC granted the rehearing request, and no action has been taken to hear the concerns of the citizens of Sandisfield, effectively silencing them before the commission and before the courts," the joint statement reads. "For FERC to allow last week's issuance of a notice to proceed with construction when it lacks a quorum and, therefore, cannot act on the rehearing request, is profoundly troubling.
If Tennessee Gas is allowed to proceed with tree clearing and construction there will be irreparable harm done to Otis State Forest, a natural treasure of Massachusetts."
The pipeline was proposed in 2014 and hit a peak of the debate last year when it ended up in court. There was the legal battle over whether or not the state's Article 97 protection of the land still stood against the U.S. Natural Gas Act. The courts ruled that federal law took precedent.
The $93 million project includes just short of 14 miles of pipeline throughout New York, Massachusetts, to and Connecticut. Kinder Morgan, the parent company proposing the project, says the intent meeting increased demand in the Northeast.
In other business at the CBREPC meeting Wednesday, Lucy Britton from Berkshire Medical Center reported that the emergency simulation local agencies held last week went well but did expose some issues that need work.
Last Friday, the group put on a drill that simulated a gas explosion at Berkshire Gas while there was a field trip of Berkshire Community College students there. The drill tested the response of local agencies in managing the large influx of patients, managing the fire, moving patients around the hospital and off campus — including to North Adams.
"We had successes and definitely had opportunities for improvement," Britton said.
Particularly, there was a communication breakdown right from the start. Chief Robert Czerwinski said the Pittsfield dispatch center was unaware of the drill, which led immediately to confusion. Then communications failed between ambulance companies, BMC, and those on the scene leading to confusion.
"That was a major problem," Czerwinski said.
Dave Lesure from Berkshire Community College said the exercise showed BCC where it lacked in oversight on field trips and similar incidents. He said college officials are taking another look at how they communicate when students are off-campus should something happen.
"It got the college to starting thinking about it," he said.
Whether it was the college tracking students, the hospital tracking patients, or the ambulances and firefighters being on the same page, the drill is intended to find exactly where those weaknesses are so the groups can address them.
"That's why we do it. We do it to test it," Britton said, noting that a lot of drilling had been done by the hospital with the acquisition of the North Adams campus in recent years and that this exercise showed more needs to be done with central as well.
The group also agreed to sign onto a grant application through the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency with the South County group to hold a joint exercise. Chairman Robert Czerwinski said he'd be asking Northern Berkshire if it would like to turn it into a countywide exercise.
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