Our very own Disaster movie

Michael Heffler January 2017

Disaster movies are thrilling. There’s always a hero who helps save people and a villain that denies that the disaster is going to happen, which builds dramatic tension and, inevitably, makes the disaster worse.

No one ever thought the lovely suburban town where Steven Spielberg filmed ET would experience a disaster, but several years ago a gas pipeline exploded in the town. Now there’s not much of a town left and many of the survivors have scars on their skin and lungs. The gas companies insist that these disasters are rare. There were four gas pipeline explosions in 2016. There were more in 2015, one in nearby Holland Township.

Here’s the setting for our movie. The PennEast pipeline route traverses Hunterdon County and Lambertville. Its proposed route runs next to the Swan Creek Reservoir dam on Route 518, on a hill overlooking Lambertville. If the dam breaks when PennEast blasts the bedrock along the pipeline’s route, Lambertville will be flooded; a catastrophe that will devastate our city. If there’s a pipeline explosion, what is called the “incineration zone” will spread 1000 feet from the pipeline in all directions.

In this movie we play the poor townspeople who get swept away by the flood or have our homes and lungs incinerated by an explosion. The heroes are the groups fighting the pipeline like Lambertville Citizens Against the Pipeline, NJ ReThink Energy and Homeowners Against Land Takeaway (HALT). The villains are the people telling us there’s nothing to worry about because they have a great safety record. Everything will be fine. We’ll have cheap, efficient energy. They’ll create lots of jobs.

There’s a phenomenon going on now that some politicians call “alternate facts”. It used to be called lying. Unless we question PennEast’s alternate facts one day we might discover they’ve come up with one to disguise their role in the devastation of Lambertville. Here are some examples of PennEast’s alternate facts.

The NJ Division of Rate Counsel, the state body that regulates the pricing of natural gas in NJ, has said that NJ has 53% more natural gas scheduled for delivery than we’ll need for the next decade. To amplify the problem, PennEast is asking for rates that provide far higher profit margins than any other pipeline. In other words, we don’t need this pipeline and PennEast expects to make enormous profits. You can see why they’d say anything so they can build the pipeline.

We asked Suez Water Company, whose Swan Creek Reservoir provides Lambertville’s water supply, if PennEast consulted them about the pipeline’s route. They said no. PennEast says they’ve consulted with Suez Water.

When we researched PennEast’s filing about jobs we discovered that most of the people building the pipeline will be brought in from out of state, as they have the expertise to build a natural gas pipeline. Post-construction, PennEast filings state that there will only be ten jobs created in NJ.

PennEast’s funding comes from five natural gas companies and PSEG. It’s been incorporated as a limited liability corporation. We recently had experience with a limited liability corporation in Lambertville named Orleans. They built the Lamberts Hill community. As soon as the last home was sold Orleans declared bankruptcy when they were informed of quality issues discovered in the installation of the homes’ siding. This limited their liability to a few thousand dollars. Many homeowners paid over $20,000 to re-side their homes. If there’s a catastrophe in Lambertville, PennEast will declare bankruptcy and we’ll be stuck having to rebuild our city… if the devastation isn’t totally overwhelming.

So the plot is set. We have a potential disaster – it could be a flood that wipes out the city or an explosion that ruins homes, lives and property values. We have heroes trying to stop it. We have villains with alternate facts telling us that everything will be fine.

And ironically we have a pipeline that we don’t need according to a state agency whose job it is to monitor the facts. The gas will likely be sold overseas, but we’ll have the obligations as ratepayers to be billed for the costs of pipeline development through our monthly gas bills. The cost of developing this pipeline is $1 billion. Once again, this is for a pipeline that we don’t need.

All along its route, PennEast will be ruining local homes, farms and lives as it uses eminent domain to take away our neighbors’ properties. Even if everything goes right, just the threat of a disaster will cause our property values to decline.

In the movies we suspend disbelief. Things don’t have to make sense as long as there’s drama and action. In our lives, “alternate facts” won’t stop a disaster. You can join the heroes and try to avoid being one of the helpless townspeople during the disaster. Or you can get your popcorn and wait for the action to unfold.

This is the first in a series of articles about the communities and people whose lives will be affected by the proposed PennEast pipeline.

About Michael Heffler
Michael Heffler is a Businessman (retired), Author, Bicycling Enthusiast and member of the HALT PennEast Board of Trustees.  He resides in Lambertville, NJ.

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