About 80 citizens crowded into the White Salmon Community Library last Thursday evening to hear details of a proposed natural gas pipeline through Klickitat County.
The meeting, held in the library's Sprint/Baker Gallery, was sponsored by Williams/Northwest Pipeline representatives. The company is planning to build a new 178-mile pipeline from Washougal to Plymouth, with sections of it cutting through the Snowden area.
The proposal is called the "Blue Bridge Pipeline Project," and the route would carry the line through five Washington counties -- Klickitat, Skamania, Lewis, Clark, and Benton.
Williams representatives explained that the company anticipates a "pre-filing" on the project with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in March.
"We are regulated. We can't build without FERC permission," explained Jeremiah Ross, an engineer for the pipeline company. "FERC decides if the pipeline is built, and part of their assessment is the impact on the public."
If FERC grants approval for the pipeline, Williams officials said they anticipated construction beginning in April 2012 and lasting until November 2012. The company would start buying right of way for the line in fall 2010.
"The new right of way would be a 50-foot permanent easement," explained Rodney Gregory, a land acquisition specialist for Williams. "It would be 100 feet during construction. Then the company will restore and reseed the area. The owner will still own and can still use the area. For example, if a farmer is growing crops there, he can continue to do so. The owner can still use it, but no structure can be built over it."
Pipeline officials said the project would cost between $500 and $750 million, and would provide about 500 temporary construction jobs. About half of those would be local employees, they said.
Most of those who spoke at last Thursday's two-hour meeting expressed skepticism or outright opposition to the planned pipeline.
One of the questions citizens asked was why the proposed new pipeline would leave an existing route and follow a new right of way through certain areas. The preliminary route map shows the proposed pipeline route paralleling the existing pipeline for about half of the projected distance. But in Klickitat County, near Major Creek, the line veers north of the existing right of way.
"We can't safely cross Major Creek," explained Ross. "That pipeline was built over the east and west fork of Major Creek in 1956. They didn't have the same environmental laws and safety standards then, so following the existing route is not feasible. There are sheer slopes, and it could not be constructed safely."
Ross pointed out that the existing pipeline in that area would not be allowed in the modern era.
"From our analysis, we do not believe the existing line is constructed safely," Ross said. "Most of the route is on the existing right of way. If we get off it, we are trying to get back onto it as soon as we can. We are leaving the existing route only to get around geo-hazards."
Gregory noted that the route was preliminary only, and once surveys were completed it could be altered.
"We're at the very beginning of this process," Gregory explained. "The next step is to start tweaking that route. We'll take your feedback and incorporate that into our maps."
According to Gregory, the pipeline can be moved around certain features on an individual property owners' land, but those decisions can't be made until surveys are completed.
"If the line goes through the middle of someone's property, there are opportunities to move the pipeline to other parts of the property to avoid severance," he said. "I urge landowners to work with us. The goal is to develop a route that most people agree is the best route for the project. It's likely the route is going to change. Whether it's a big change or a little change, we don't know yet."
Another resident asked why the company is beginning its land acquisition process prior to getting notice that the pipeline project can proceed.
"There are about 400 landowners along the route," responded Gregory. "If we waited, it can take up to a year to negotiate with folks. We generally back up two years from the date construction would start to deal with landowners."
After the meeting, those concerned about the pipeline said their views had not been swayed by the public hearing.
"I think a lot of questions were answered, but some answers went completely unanswered or left very vague," said Brenda Lexa.
Brenda and Ed Lexa own 10 acres in the Snowden area, and the pipeline has been tentatively routed through the middle of their property.
"I think a lot of the information is deceptive. The fact they are trying to acquire easements prior to the pre-filing is suspicious," Lexa added. "That would make it much easier to get their proposed route, if they can show FERC that they already have easements. They use different forms of intimidation."
Residents wanted to know why the pipeline was needed, and whether the gas would be sent overseas.
"I can't see 20-30 years ahead, but this project is primarily to serve growth in this region, and to handle the need for gas-fired plants," responded Clay Riding, director of natural gas resources for Puget Sound Energy, a primary customer for the proposed pipeline. "The system is maxed out. We need another pipeline to bring additional gas from the Rockies. The gas will strictly serve the Pacific Northwest area. Based on the demand we've seen, we need it."
Kristine Stein, one of the organizers of Citizens Against Blue Bridge, asked what the potential blast zone for a 30-inch to 36-inch pipeline would be.
"It's what we should all know about," Stein said. "There can be explosions due to corrosion, backhoes, land shifting. My point is, we should know what the blast zone is for having a bomb in our back yard."
Stein passed out photos of gas pipeline blasts in recent years to show the devastation that could be created.
Ross said strict design and maintenance procedures were followed to ensure the pipeline remained safe.
"Safety is first and foremost," Ross said.
"I sincerely believe you do your best to prevent explosions," Stein replied. "But accidents happen."
Lexa said safety was her primary concern as well.
"The size of the pipeline has the possible explosive impact of 1,200 feet. It would wipe out me, my neighbors, and several houses nearby," Lexa explained.
Lexa, who is also a member of Citizens Against Blue Bridge, said the property owners' organization had one overriding objective: "Our goal is to get them to work in the two utility corridors already going through the Gorge -- the existing pipeline route or the BPA transmission lines," she said.
Lexa pointed out that FERC followed strict standards, and was hopeful the agency might force the pipeline to be moved away from homes.
"The FERC process is pretty demanding," Lexa said. "It's not just a done deal because the pipeline company asks for it. I think it's a possibility to require them to stay in the existing easements."
Gregory noted that the company has the right of "eminent domain," allowing it to condemn property to allow the pipeline to be constructed.
"That right has been given to pipeline companies since the 1930s," Gregory said. "This is not something that's new, and it's not a land grab. We don't get to take land for free, there has to be a fair market evaluation. If two parties can't agree, the courts get involved. But 99 percent come to agreement."
Gregory said the company would leave people alone if they didn't want to talk with pipeline officials -- up to a point.
"We will respect your privacy, but there will come a time when you will have to talk to us," he said.
One citizen asked whether the ongoing downturn in the economy might remove the need for a new pipeline.
Puget Sound Energy's Riding said the latest economic forecasts would be reviewed over the next few months, and proponents would reassess the project one more time before making a final decision to go ahead or halt the project.
"We can put the brakes on up to a year out," Riding said. "We will review the economy again before we go forward."
Opponents said they would not be standing pat and waiting to see whether the bleak economic conditions might kill the pipeline.
Citizens Against Blue Bridge will hold a meeting of local property owners on Sunday, March 15, starting at 7 p.m. The meeting will be held at the Cherry Lane Fire Station on Snowden Road.
"It's time we get a little more aggressive with our demands," Lexa said.