By JESSE BURKHARDT
There was not a lot of new information provided at last week's Blue Bridge Pipeline Project open house at the Pioneer Center. In many respects, the session was almost a carbon copy of a presentation in February at the White Salmon Community Library.
On June 10, about 100 people came to an open house hosted by Williams/Northwest Pipeline Co., with about 30 of those in attendance either Williams representatives or Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) staffers.
The meeting, one of several in the region over a five-day period, was billed as an opportunity for area residents to "know the facts, know the project."
The project in question is a proposed 178-mile natural gas pipeline from Washougal to Plymouth, and it cuts east-west across the length of Klickitat County. Williams officials said land acquisition could begin in the spring of 2010, and construction of the pipeline could begin in the spring or fall of 2012.
The pipeline's proponents point out the benefits of natural gas, including energy reliability, tax revenues, and jobs stimulus.
"Wind, solar, and conservation have helped reduce the need for natural gas, but renewables can't meet all the needs," explained Jeremiah Ross, an engineer for Williams and manager of the Blue Bridge project. "Natural gas is the preferred option. It's available domestically, and it's reliable."
A number of local property owners, however, perceive the pipeline as a possible threat to their safety at worst, and as devaluing their property at the least.
Ironically, last Wednesday's session in White Salmon came on the 10th anniversary of one of the state's worst pipeline accidents: On June 10, 1999, a pipeline rupture in Bellingham left three youths dead, spilled a quarter of a million gallons of gas, created a huge fireball, and sent smoke billowing 20,000 feet into the air.
Those dangers were among the primary issues local citizens raised when questioning Williams representatives.
"What would be the blast radius if the pipeline ruptures," asked Snowden resident Brenda Lexa as she held up a poster showing photos of a pipeline blast, reportedly due to a corroded pipe. "Williams was aware of the corrosion and chose to ignore it. I find that extremely negligent."
A Williams representative acknowledged that the explosion radius could be as much as 580 feet from the pipe.
Another Snowden property owner said the project would destroy the value of his property.
"The pipeline would go a couple hundred feet from our house. That is not acceptable," he said. "Who's going to buy my property with a pipeline down the center of it -- it's not going to be worth crap."
Rodney Gregory, a land acquisition specialist for Williams, said property owners would be given fair market value for any property required for the pipeline.
"You'll be justly compensated," Gregory said.
Kristine Stein, one of the organizers of Citizens Against Blue Bridge, a group of local property owners organized to halt the pipeline project, said Gregory's statement was not reassuring.
"Just compensation is just that -- it means current market value. No more, no less," she responded.
Stein added that what is paid on the current market value is on the easement the pipeline company ends up with.
"They pay on the length of the easement, and not the value of your entire piece of property," Stein explained.
"Do you give any priority to private property rights?" asked another Snowden resident.
"Initially the route is chosen with indifference to land owners. Then we review and move the line to lessen personal impacts," explained Gregory.
Lexa asked if project planners had considered following the easement used by the BPA's transmission lines to have less impact on the community.
Williams representatives responded that some of those routes would not work for a pipeline.
"There are sheer canyon slopes, and the main concern is for the safety of the crew," one responded. "They need level surfaces for the heavy equipment needed to lift pipes and for welding."
Williams staffers also repeated their contention that it is "not safe" to construct in the same corridor where an existing natural gas pipeline was built in the 1950s.
"But you did it in 1952 -- are we dumber now than 50 years ago?" one Snowden resident challenged.
"Our concern is, if we put new pipe in that corridor, we could disturb the work already done in that area," Ross said.
Another resident complained that she believed the safety of her family should be just as important as that of the construction crew.
"Why is my life not part of your safety package? Why is supplying power to the masses more important than my life?" she asked.
"Williams considers safety as top priority," Ross responded. "Incidents are extremely rare. We use state of the art steel. We test with at least 125 percent of the pressure that would be in the line."
That answer did not sit well with the woman who asked the question.
"That still doesn't answer my question. Pipelines still blow up. I don't want to be a statistic," she said.
Williams representatives at the meeting admitted they use thinner steel in areas where there are fewer residents, a fact that angered many in the crowd. However, Williams sought to explain the logic behind that fact.
"We do multiply the thickness of the steel times the number of homes. But it's not for safety reasons," Ross explained. "The reason for more steel thickness is related to the risk of third-party damage. More people means more likelihood of damage to the pipe."
"Basically, we get the thinnest pipe," responded Stein.
Bill Weiler of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife asked about impacts to wildlife, pointing out that Western gray squirrel populations might be disturbed by the project.
"This is a threatened species," Weiler questioned. "If you find nests, what do you do?"
"We're dealing with a lot of protected species," responded a Williams representative. "We try to avoid impacts to species as much as we can. We haven't looked specifically yet at gray squirrels."
Ross said one of the primary objectives of the planned routing is to avoid or minimize impacts to the environment and to landowners, as well as to cultural and public resources. Ross also pointed out that FERC has the final say in the Blue Bridge proposal.
"Ultimately, FERC decides if the pipeline gets built," Ross explained.
FERC representative Charles Brown informed the crowd that FERC will be holding scoping meetings in the White Salmon area, and invited people to bring their comments to FERC.
"We will start our process soon. We'll be back in the community in five or six weeks," Brown said. "FERC has five independent commissioners. We want your input. We're just starting what is going to be a long process."
Brown said FERC had been in contact with "local" officials about the project, but Klickitat County Commissioner David Sauter, who was in attendance at the Pioneer Center meeting, pointed out that the county had not been included.
"When we think local, we think of the county," he said. "No one contacted us."
The three-member Klickitat County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a letter to Williams officials recently. The letter urged that if a new pipeline is built, it be built within the existing pipeline corridor.