There’s a showdown brewing out West, out by the West Side Highway in Manhattan, that is, where Texas-based Spectra Energy Corp. has its finger on the trigger of a whole lot of hydraulically fracked natural gas that it’s just itching to pump into New York City. After months of public hearings, lawsuits and protests a final showdown is culminating; it’s Spectra and their backers versus environmentalists and community members who aim to send the pipeline peddlers packing.
“Hey Spectra,” hollered Monica Hunken, an organizer with Occupy Wall Street’s Direct Action working group, “We’re the new sheriff in town!” The theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly played in the background over a portable speaker system as an Unwelcoming Committee assembled at a boat-shaped playground along the Hudson River on Thursday evening.
Over Hunken’s shoulders the words “Stop Spectra” were emblazoned Bat Signal-style on the big glass windows of the luxury Standard Hotel beside High Line Park. The signal was projected from OWS’s “Illuminator” van in order to shine light on a villain activists say will poison New Yorkers and could blow a crater in the West Village. After gathering together, the Unwelcoming Committee marched along the Hudson and into the Meatpacking District.
The Spectra Pipeline, officially titled The New Jersey-New York Expansion Project, will run from Staten Island, into New Jersey and then across the Hudson to Manhattan, where Gansevoort Street meets the West Side Highway, beside a sanitation pier. It will pump 800 million cubic feet of highly-pressurized, highly-inflammable, carbon-intensive, radon-rich natural gas into New Yorkers’ homes and office buildings on a daily basis.
Activists in New York, many with OWS (including myself), have come together with the aim of escalating the struggle in the coming weeks. We’ve been picketing and leafleting in front of the site where the pipeline will enter the island and where groundwork is already underway. We have had a near-constant presence in the neighborhood. On Thursday, we came together in the hopes that a large enough show of force would garner attention and draw more people in to help up the ante in the struggle as it comes down to us versus the pipeline company and its backers.
As the Unwelcoming Committee marched into the Meatpacking District, we chanted, “People wake up! This pipeline’s going to blow up!” Periodically, we stopped in front of packed outdoor cafes, disturbing the busy chitchat of those sitting around. At one point, Hunken pulled out a confetti gun and fired it into the air. We then fell to the cobblestone pavement, as the rainbow of paper bits fluttered down.
The symbolic boom underscores a real threat — namely that this pipeline actually could blow up. A fireball from a pipeline with similar specs to the one Spectra wants to construct left eight people dead in suburban San Bruno in 2010. In 2004, an explosion at a Spectra gas storage facility ignited a six-day fire and led to an evacuation of homes in a three-mile radius. In June, Texas Eastern, the Spectra subsidiary which will lay the pipeline in the New York metro area, was fined $134,000 by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) for failing to monitor and prevent corrosion. And that’s just in the pipeline that PHMSA inspected. Two million miles of gas distribution lines zigzag the U.S., while 125 PHMSA inspectors keep watch. The Jersey Turnpike, Tropicana Chemical Storage Plant and High Line Park are just some of the locales near this explosive gas, which will be gushing with the force of a fire hose.
Texas Eastern has paid over $4 million in penalties for corrosion in its pipes over the years — chump change for Spectra, which has a $1.5 billion line of credit with several of the biggest too-big-to-fail banks, including Chase, Bank of America, Citibank, Royal Bank of Scotland and Wells Fargo. The same banks that fracked the global economy are now bankrolling the delivery of fracked gas to Manhattan. As Hunken noted, “This is the 1 percent’s pipeline.”
Meanwhile thousands of letters were written to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) this Spring calling on them to deny Spectra a permit, only to be ignored by the agency which granted the firm its blessing to trench in May.
Those fighting the pipeline also testified at numerous public hearings held by the Hudson River Park Trust, but the “public benefit” corporation eventually handed Spectra an easement to pump its gas into the city. A $2.74 million kickback from Spectra didn’t hurt. Neither did having New York Mayor Bloomberg’s sweetheart, Diana Taylor, on the trust’s board of directors. Bloomberg is a major pipeline backer and helped expedite the pipeline’s approval with FERC.
Pipeline opponents have also tried lawsuits. Lawyers for Jersey City, where the project is widely resented, filed a petition in June with FERC demanding rehearings. They observed in their filing that since the federal agency depends on commissions it receives from approving pipelines for the corporations it supposedly regulates, FERC “cannot guarantee it is a ‘neutral and detached judge.’ ”
“FERC just green stamps everything,” commented Goldi Guerra with the Unwelcoming Committee. “And we’re all screwed because of it.”
Sane Energy Project and other environmental groups, have also petitioned for a rehearing, citing concerns over the radon content of the gas, a portion of which will be sourced from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region by big-time frackers StatOil and Chesapeake Energy. The Marcellus gas in Spectra’s holster, aside from being the source of ecological devastation to rural communities, has wellhead concentrations of radon 70 times above average. Spectra would pump it in at such a speed that the radon won’t have time to dissipate. A study published in May by Radioactive Waste Management and Associates estimates that the Spectra Pipeline will cause upwards of 30,448 new lung cancer deaths. Bloomberg has outlawed smoking in New York’s parks but has no problem pumping radon gas into the city.
The chances of FERC heeding community warnings are extremely slim according to Sane Energy’s Clare Donahue. “FERC did this very tricky thing,” she explained. “We filed a petition for a rehearing and they filed something saying they have an indefinite amount of time to respond, which would stall us out.” Evidence of the stall hung over activists’ heads Thursday in the form of a pile driver poking into the skyline from the Spectra construction site.
With hopes diminished in their FERC suit, Sane Energy has decided to go after the Park Trust instead, since it is unlikely that a high-pressure gas pipeline will “promote the health, safety and welfare of the people of the state” or “help alleviate…blighted, unhealthy, unsanitary and dangerous conditions,” as stipulated in the trust’s charter from the state. In the meantime, Donahue said people should keep doing what they’re doing: “making a big, fucking stink.”
Activists in Manhattan see the stink they are raising against Spectra’s gas as one component of a larger battle taking place across the country opposing fracking. A national rally where most participants called for a ban on the drilling practice they say has poisoned their water, fouled their air and curdled their soil was held in Washington, D.C. last month. It brought together approximately 4,000 people from Pennsylvania to Wyoming and was a culmination of localized protests that have been heating up lately.
In June, families stood their ground in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania against eviction by Aqua America. The corporation sought to build a withdrawal site to supply water for fracking, a process which requires millions of gallons per well. The families held out for ten days until police and legal pressure forced them to accept compensation and leave. Then at the beginning of July, members of Earth First blockaded a frack drilling site in Pennsylvania’s Moshannon State Forest. A few days later, activists in Ohio shut down an injection well where frack waste from Pennsylvania was headed. In upstate New York over the weekend, about 150 activists blockaded the entrance of a facility belonging to Schlumberger Limited in Horseheads, New York preventing trucks from entering a site belonging to the multinational oil and gas industry supplier. As the sun rose on Manhattan Monday, it shined on the words “No Fracked Gas Pipeline,” lassoed to Spectra’s towering pile driver. A little piece of unwanted PR left for Spectra in the night.
Up and down the frack chain communities have been fighting back — against equipment suppliers, against water withdrawal sites, at well pads and injection wells and in New York City challenging the delivery of fracked gas. Small in number, these struggles have frequently relied on the daring acts of a small coterie of committed activists, those who have locked down and put their bodies on the line. However, without broader public support they’ve been dragged away and business as usual continues. The national rally in July indicates that the anti-fracking movement is broadening and activists are linking together.
Gazing past Spectra’s heavy machinery and out over the Hudson, Guerra expressed solidarity with fractivists elsewhere. He’s visited farms upstate where they are challenging Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plans to open New York up for drilling. “It used to be just their issue,” explained Guerra. But now that there’s a potential for the city to be an outlet for that gas he said “it’s our issue too.”
Music is making a comeback in movement spaces, as organizers rediscover how singing strengthens the capacity to create social change.
With privatization of wastewater systems on the rise in Pennsylvania, citizens are mobilizing to fight its costs and forging victories.
Strategies that challenge or wield state power may be in tension, but many movements use both simultaneously to transform society.