Amherst committee: Pipeline risks are exceedingly low

AMHERST – A report from the town’s Pipeline Task Force has concluded that risks for residents living close to a natural gas pipeline are almost nonexistent.

The five-page report from the Pipeline Hazards and Public Safety Subcommittee was released April 27, along with a report on the pipeline’s potential economic impact on the town.

Safety is a major concern among residents who live near the proposed route, and the report from the task force’s subcommittee released last week estimated that, using data from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the typical expected time between incidents in Amherst is 11,200 years. Between fatalities it would be 27,800 years.

“The central message from these data is that major accidents resulting in injury or death are very rare,” the report said, “and in terms of incidents per mile of pipeline, the probability of an incident in a specific location is exceedingly low.”

The hazards subcommittee reviewed the physical dangers associated with natural gas transmission pipelines, explained the properties of natural gas and the physical hazards of methane, which makes up more than 95 percent of the pipeline gas.

It also explained the term “potential impact radius,” which some call an “incineration zone.”

A potential impact radius, as defined by the government, is where a pipeline failure could have significant impact on people or property, but “it is not the radius within which people or properties are expected to be incinerated during an accident.”

The potential impact radius is determined by a mathematical formula and for the 36-inch transmission pipeline for Kinder Morgan’s Northeast Energy Direct project, it would be around 900 feet.

According to the report, in a worst-case scenario, hazardous conditions could occur that far from a rupture site and the risk becomes negligible beyond that distance.

The report concluded that risks are negligible compared to other routine hazards, like driving a car.

On the other hand, the fear of such accidents “is very real and a natural and unavoidable consequence of pipeline installation” and that fear “carries significant human costs.”

Dr. Colin Lonsdale, of Amherst, an astronomer who directs the MIT Haystack Observatory, was the primary author of the hazards report. The documents were extensively discussed and revised based on feedback from the rest of the Pipeline Task Force, said Selectman John D’Angelo, a member of the task force.

Economic impact

The subcommittee report on the pipeline’s economic impact concluded that economic effects are uncertain, but Kinder Morgan’s claims that property values will not go down are “either flawed or do not have much relevance” to Amherst.

“Logic says that real estate values will not be enhanced by, and will likely be reduced by the presence of a pipeline or a cleared easement running through or near residential properties, but nothing the task force has found allows us to put a number to this potential value reduction.”

Uncertainty about the proposed pipeline “may well scare away buyers,” it said.

The report also concluded that any new tax revenue to the town from Kinder Morgan might be partly or completely offset by potential abatements to homeowners.

The potential for economic and industrial growth due to the pipeline exists, said the report, but “there is some question as to the desirability, practicality and attractiveness of such growth” for Amherst.

The report notes that Liberty utilities has not committed to expanding service in Amherst if the pipeline comes through, and no one should assume that the pipeline would mean new gas service.

“One member of the task force as recently as 2013 when inquiring about receiving gas service for her home on Simeon Wilson (within Liberty Utilities current footprint),” said the report, “was told that Liberty was not interested in doing so unless she was able to recruit nine additional homes on Simeon Wilson to switch to natural gas.”

Shannon Chandley and Reed Panasiti were the primary authors of the economic impact assessment, and both reports are on the town website, along with a third report on the extraction and transport of natural gas.

The task force has been working since last winter when the Board of Selectman asked it to research data and identify the best way for the town to respond to the Northeast Energy Direct project.

Last week the task force met with representatives of Kinder Morgan and asked that the four-mile route through Amherst be moved away from sensitive areas, including conservation land and most residential neighborhoods.

Kinder Morgan project manager Mark Hamarich told task force members that he would sit with them in late May or early June, before Kinder Morgan files its route plan with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in July,

FERC and the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee must sign off on the project.

“That doesn’t mean there won’t still be changes,” Hamarich said, but by August the route should be locked in.

Texas-based Kinder Morgan wants to put the 36-inch wide transmission pipeline through 17 southern New Hampshire towns, including Milford, Amherst and Merrimack, part of its Northeast Energy Direct Pipeline bringing gas from the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania to Dracut, Mass.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.