Founding father James Madison wrote, “popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both.”
On Tuesday, Ellen Mavrich channeled a little Madison in her description of the way a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission meeting at Elyria High School on the proposed NEXUS pipeline was conducted.
Unlike most meetings held by local, state, or federal agencies, there was no public forum or opportunity for formal dialogue between commission staff and the public.
Instead, people who wanted to comment on the pipeline met individually behind closed doors with commission staff and stenographers who wrote down their comments on the project.
The 36-inch NEXUS pipeline would run through Michigan and Ohio. The 255-mile stretch through Ohio includes Oberlin, passing close to the Lorain County Metro Parks Splash Zone, the Oberlin fire station, the Lorain County JVS, and Welcome Nursing Home. It would also pass through the Firelands, Oberlin, and Lorain County JVS school districts, as well as New Russia and Pittsfield townships.
The commission has approved 99 percent of pipeline projects that have come before it in the last five years, rejecting just one, according to Food & Water Watch, an environmental group opposing the project.
The body covers the cost of much of its approximately $320 million annual budget by charging the companies it regulates fees, which critics like Mavrich said gives FERC incentive to approve projects.
“What FERC does is run interference for corporate projects,” said Mavrich, a member of Oberlin’s planning commission and the Ohio Community Rights Network, which opposes the pipeline. “They are basically here to rubber-stamp projects. Then they set up a farce of a (meeting) like this.”
However, Joanne Wachholder, commission project manager for the proposal, said the commission doesn’t hold public hearings and, because it’s a federal agency, isn’t bound by Ohio public meeting laws. “I don’t know what that is,” she said about the laws.
Wachholder said citizen comments will be on the commission’s online docket for the public to read. And despite the commission’s nearly perfect record of approving pipelines, Wachholder denied it’s an industry shill.
She said commission approval doesn’t green-light the project. It must still get approval from several federal and state agencies including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Ohio EPA and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Following an April 29 explosion at a Western Pennsylvania pipeline owned by Spectra Energy, the Houston-based parent company of NEXUS, safety concerns have been renewed about pipelines and pipeline regulation.
The nation’s 2.6 million miles of pipelines — including 71,000 in Ohio — are overseen by just 139 inspectors from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration and 300 state inspectors. Besides pipelines, the administration oversees 118 liquefied natural gas plants and 6,970 hazardous liquid breakout tanks.
While critics say the workload of inspectors makes it difficult for them to be proactive, Wachholder, a commission natural resources manager and biological scientist, said most pipelines are safe.
“There are hundreds of thousands of miles of pipelines that are operated safely every day,” she said.
They include pipelines like the Buckeye Pipeline, which runs below Reserve Avenue in Oberlin. Fire chief Robert Hanmer, who gave a statement at the meeting, said the NEXUS pipeline has been rerouted to avoid the Buckeye Pipeline — but Hanmer said it is now closer to the fire station, nursing home, the splash zone, and the JVS.
“It puts them right in harm’s way,” said Hanmer, who opposes the pipeline. “I wanted them (the commission) to be aware of that.”
Unlike Marvich, who said she wasn’t speaking for other planning commission members, Hanmer didn’t object to the way the meeting was run. While he didn’t get to hear what other residents had to say, the chief said the one-on-one conversations with FERC staff were more convenient for him.
However, Tish O’Dell, Ohio Rights Network coordinator, questioned whether the commission will seriously consider pipeline criticism.
Her group, which is part of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, is seeking signatures to get a state initiative on the November 2017 ballot allowing communities to reject projects by private companies like Spectra.
While the initiative, if passed, would be too late to prevent the NEXUS pipeline, O’Dell said it would give residents more say in their communities. “It’s never too late for democracy,” she said.
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 @GoodenowNews on Twitter.