By John Collins
DRACUT -- When it comes to putting the proposed Tennessee Gas Pipeline on the agenda, even if you're just talking about it for the first time, they will come, as selectmen discovered Tuesday.
A standing-room-only audience of about 100 consisting of a mix of Dracut residents, local labor union workers, and several curious out-of-towners were drawn to Harmony Hall to hear and view a slide-show presentation made by Allen Fore, the public-relations director of Kinder Morgan, parent company of the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. that's considering making Dracut the endpoint of a 179-mile natural-gas pipeline originating in Wright, N.Y.
The project, titled by Kinder Morgan as the "Northeast Expansion Project Pipeline," is still early in the conceptual and design phase, Fore told the assembly, and is naturally going to be likely to raise concerns from any homeowners, business owners and elected officials who may be impacted along the pipeline's planned route, when and if it is mapped out sometime within the coming year.
The pipe will measure "from 30 to 36 inches in diameter," and will be strategically laid out in such a way to minimize the environmental and cultural impact on the population and towns along the route, Fore pledged.
The impetus for the project was a "crisis-level" need for natural gas in the region "that was expressed by elected officials, including all the New England governors and industry leaders -- and hopefully by our customers -- saying, 'We need an additional natural gas supply,' " Fore said.
His company has not made a firm determination that it will go forward with the Northeast Expansion Project, Fore told the audience before a round of questioning by selectmen.
"The way we will make that determination as a company on whether we will spend the $2.7 billion private investment it would take to build this pipeline is if we can secure firm commitments from customers to reserve its use," said Fore. "If we get the commitments, then begins a very extensive process of permit review and multiple opportunities for comment. The earliest we could potentially begin construction of a project of this magnitude is 2017."
Said approvals would need to involve the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and "multiple state agencies," Fore added. "It's a big project, very important for the region, and it's going to take a long time to get through the approval process, which we believe is quite appropriate."
Fore asked for Dracut homeowners' and landowners' cooperation to allow "boots-on-the-ground" representatives of Tennessee Gas to continue to survey the town's landscape in the coming months to map out the optimal route for the pipeline, one having the least negative impact.
"An early route had us (laying the pipeline) near a school parking lot in town," said Fore. "Obviously, we're not going to do that, and adjusted the route."
Selectmen Tony Archinski and Joe DiRocco received a promise from Fore that he would continue to update the board and residents about progress throughout the project's conceptual phase and afterward.
Selectmen Chairwoman Cathy Richardson said after the meeting she was concerned about not being able to open Fore's presentation to questions due to the size of the audience and length of the selectmen's agenda, but expected a public hearing would be scheduled by the board with Fore and other Tennessee Gas representatives in the future.
Rich Cowan, who was among the residents at the meeting who had hoped to ask questions of Fore, said there is a drawback to the potential pipeline that ought to be of concern for the next town manager and elected officials who are seeking to enhance the town's economic development.
"The existence of this large sewer project with so many unknowns effectively puts a freeze of many types of growth and development that we were counting on to raise Dracut's overall tax base," Cowan said.
Resident Julie Jette said "disappointment" was what she felt upon exiting Harmony Hall after Fore's presentation.
"We were told prior to the meeting we would be able to ask questions about our concerns to Mr. Fore, and we were not allowed," said Jette. "We expected to express our concerns as a town. And our town officials seemed just as puzzled as we are."
Fore was scheduled to give a similar presentation about the pipeline to residents of Hollis, N.H., on Monday.
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