ASHBURNHAM -- A standing-room-only crowd gathered Wednesday night to hear a presentation on a proposed natural-gas pipeline that would pass through area towns including Ashburnham, Ashby and Townsend.
Before the formal presentation about the Northeast Expansion Project began, Leo Janssens, chairman of the Ashburnham Board of Selectmen, told the crowd the meeting was a selectmen's meeting, not an open meeting.
"There's a lot of emotion," he said. "Be civil."
Town residents would be given a chance to ask questions through the board after the selectmen asked their own questions at the meeting.
The proposed pipeline would run from Wright, N.Y. across upper Massachusetts to Dracut. Feeder lines to supply local customers would extend from the main pipe.
During the presentation given by Allen Fore, director, public affairs of Kinder Morgan, he repeatedly said the $2.7 billion dollar project is in the preliminary stages. The company has not committed to going through the permitting process.
If the company decides to pursue the project they will hold more informational open houses with more details on the construction process and the environmental impact of the pipeline.
Land agents are in the area to survey properties to determine the specific course of the pipe based on the land and water features. Hundreds of changes will be made to the suggested route during the surveying process.
Part of the decision making process involves getting firm commitments from customers and the ability to permit with federal, state and local agencies.
Currently 52 percent of energy in New England comes from natural gas. Today 50 percent of that comes from the Marcellus supply that extends from New York and south and west as far as Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio. Fore said that percentage is expected to increase to 90 percent. The pipeline would transport gas from this source.
Kinder Morgan is considering the project based on government studies that say New England will face an energy emergency. The price of energy is high and volatile.
Locally, landowners will be inconvenienced by the construction process, but once the pipe is in it should not be noticed, he said. The land above can be used for anything but trees and structures.
If the project goes forward and is approved, the company will negotiate with each property owner and pay a one-time price for a 50 foot right of way and a temporary right of way for construction.
After the formal presentation, the selectmen asked questions.
When asked about using old railroad rights of way, Fore said that part of the reason for community meetings is to get local input on locations. Co-locating, laying the pipe along existing power lines and rail lines, is encouraged through the permitting process.
If the project is pursued and permitted, Kinder Morgan would be able to take land under eminent domain through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, he said. "At the end of the day, FERC has the authority if they determine it's in the public interest."
Selectman Duncan Phyfe asked about impact from construction on neighboring wells.
Wells within a certain radius will be tested before and during any blasting as required by the regulatory process, said Mike Lennon, right of way manager for the project. The pipe is only 3 to 5 feet below the surface and should not require deep blasting.
When questioning was opened to the public, Cynda Warren Joyce asked a multipart question that included asking how much of the transported gas would be shipped out of the country.
Another man called out and requested an answer to that question. Fore said that as a common carrier, Kinder Morgan was required to have commitments from local energy companies but was also required to transport gas for others.
Selectmen and audience members asked questions about the environmental impacts of the pipeline. Assuring a minimal environmental impact would be part of determining the route, Fore said.
Groundwater should not be affected by ongoing maintenance of the right of way. The company does not use aerial herbicides, Lennon said.
Warren Joyce and others said they had documents that said Morgan Kinder or their contractors do use herbicides.
When asked about the safety of the pipe, Fore said it is monitored remotely and sections can be isolated so any leaks could disperse. It would also be visually monitored.
Kinder Morgan and the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. has done business in Massachusetts for 60 years, transporting natural gas from the Gulf of Mexico and Texas. Fore said he would provide a list of towns affected by the pipeline to the selectmen.
The Ashburnham meeting was meant to be informational, Fore said. "We are not committed to do this project." If it proceeds and as more details are defined, community meetings with experts will be held.
Janssens closed the meeting after an hour and a half, despite vocal protests from the audience.