Could revive prayers at legislative sessions

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

Citing fears of a disaster involving the Indian Point nuclear power plant, air pollution, and new emergency-response burdens, the Putnam County Legislature Tuesday night (May 6) called for a moratorium on expanding a controversial interstate natural gas pipeline until its impacts can be reviewed and serious hazards addressed.

The action came during the legislature’s formal monthly meeting at the 200-year-old courthouse in Carmel. The eight legislators backing the moratorium included District 1 Legislator Barbara Scuccimarra, a Republican, who represents Philipstown and a slice of Putnam Valley, and her legislative neighbor, District 2’s Sam Oliverio, who represents most of Putnam Valley. A Democrat running for county executive, Oliverio championed the moratorium resolution as chairman of the legislature’s Health, Social, Educational and Environmental Committee.

Only one legislator opposed the measure and the strong support was warmly welcomed by Philipstown resident Paula Clair, a member of a group opposing the pipeline.

Pipeline opponents use a red hand of warning on their website and elsewhere to raise concerns about the project.
Pipeline opponents use a red hand of warning on their website and elsewhere to raise concerns about the project.

“We live in a time when there is intense pressure on public officials to do the bidding of industry over the interests of their own constituents, especially when that industry is hugely wealthy,” Clair said during the public comment period at the end of the meeting. “I personally want to thank the legislature for putting the health and safety of Putnam county residents first.”

Known as the Algonquin Incremental Market project, the pipeline would carry natural gas from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and — if sited as expected — snake under the Hudson River to the Putnam-Westchester Counties boundary near Indian Point, home to the Entergy nuclear power facility; cross Putnam County; enter Connecticut, and proceed into Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Sponsored by Spectra Energy Corp., the project is under review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington (the same federal agency that just allowed a contentious new energy capacity zone scheme to go into effect, with the anticipated result of higher electricity costs in the Hudson Valley.) The pipeline would significantly expand and/or replace an existing pipe.

In their resolution, Putnam’s legislators reflected concerns raised by Stop the Algonquin Pipeline Expansion or SAPE, a coalition focused on the pipeline’s effects on the environment, health, farming and property values. SAPE contends that Algonquin’s proposed high-pressure 42-inch-diameter new pipeline would be 200 percent larger than the existing pipe, increasing risks; run close to Indian Point and an earthquake fault line; intersect with mega-voltage power lines; carry gas containing contaminants such as radon, a carcinogen; and involve use of “noisy, polluting compressor stations,” including one in the Town of Southeast, in Putnam County, that would “expose people, pets and wildlife to many tons of highly toxic emissions per year.”

The Putnam resolution noted the proximity of the expanded pipeline to Indian Point, stating it “poses a risk of catastrophic damage with profound long-term impacts on the region,” could foist new expenses on villages and towns for emergency training, equipment, and costly state-of-the-art foam for firefighting in the event of a pipeline problem; and would increase emission of pollutants from compressor stations.

To be forwarded to FERC, the resolution seeks — among various provisions — independent studies of air emissions and health impacts and “a thorough analysis of all materials and contaminants in the pipeline”; mandated installation of “the best mitigation technology available … on every possible component of Algonquin compressor and metering stations”; public hearings on compressor station permits; “a comprehensive, independent risk-assessment of the potential catastrophic explosion” of the 42-inch pipeline by Indian Point; data from Spectra on the costs to local jurisdictions of enhanced training, firefighting supplies, and other materiel in the event of “fires, explosions, leaks, spills, problems, and evacuations” due to pipeline accidents, and proof that Spectra carries sufficient insurance “for all potential costs” of “maintenance and responding to emergencies and mitigating damages as a result of any incident” involving the pipeline.

Finally, the legislature “resolved that a moratorium be enacted on this project” until all these questions are addressed, adequate insurance guaranteed, and safeguards put in place “that fully protect and preserve the health and safety of residents.”

In introducing the resolution, Oliverio said he wanted “a stop put on this,” allowing time “to investigate it further … until I know it’s safe.”

Scuccimarra mentioned the expanded pipeline’s likely river crossing near Indian Point. “This is a very dangerous route,” she said.

But District 9 Legislator Kevin Wright, who subsequently voted “no” on the resolution, objected that delving into the Algonquin issue “is well beyond the scope of this legislature.” Moreover, he said, “When you stop commerce, you regulate commerce.”

Oliverio disagreed. “It’s not a regulation,” but a plea for a delay to ensure that proper safety precautions are included and standards followed, he said.

“We have to look at everything,” Legislature Chairman Carl Albano added. “We should be on the side of caution.”

Legislative prayer

Later in the evening, Wright cited the May 5 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing prayers at local government meetings. Taking up a case from the Town of Greece, New York, the high court found the practice of brief, ceremonial religious prayers at town board sessions did not violate the U.S. Constitution. Given that decision, Wright asked that a committee research the form of prayers used to begin county legislature meetings some 25 years ago. “We used a prayer back in those days. I’d like to see it again become part of Putnam County deliberation,” he said.

The legislators informally agreed to consider the idea and have the appropriate committee look into it.

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Armstrong was the founding news editor of The Current (then known as in 2010 and later a senior correspondent and contributing editor for the paper. She worked earlier in Washington as a White House correspondent and national affairs reporter and assistant news editor for daily international news services. Location: Cold Spring. Languages: English. Areas of expertise: Politics and government