By Heather Bellow, Berkshire Eagle
April 28, 2017
SANDISFIELD — A Rhode Island Native American Tribe is trying to halt pipeline construction preparations in Otis State Forest until all precautions are taken to avoid and minimize damage to Native American historic sites with “religious significance” found along the pipeline path.
In a letter filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Wednesday, the Narragansett Indian Tribal Historic Preservation Office said Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. is not doing enough to protect ceremonial stone features along the Massachusetts section of its Connecticut Expansion Project, a 13 mile, $93 million, tri-state natural gas storage loop.
In an April 17 letter to Narragansett Deputy Historic Preservation Officer Doug Harris, Tennessee Gas said it will work with a tribal monitor from each of five consulting tribes to protect the majority of 73 historic stone sites, and will begin to install protective fencing around them before construction begins.
Harris wrote back that it wasn’t enough, that these preparations “are in blatant disregard” of the National Historic Preservation Act by not allowing the completion of tribal consultations.
But Harris told The Eagle the Narragansett’s problem is not with Tennessee Gas but with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. On April 9 the tribe filed a motion to intervene with FERC, accusing the agency of breaching its duty by delaying the study of these stone features. Harris said it was a timing and expediency issue.
“FERC is the mediator in the process and sets the guidelines,” he said, adding that tribal concerns were not presented until after Tennessee Gas had already laid out its plans and had been granted its certificate to build the pipeline.
The features are stones arranged in a manner that Harris and other tribal preservationists identified as having religious and cultural significance, Harris said, adding that they vary in size and shape. He said while there is the belief that some may be thousands of years old, some may have “represented a form of prayer after European contact [with tribes].”
“There is no scientific procedure for dating them,” he said. “But they are part of the ancestral tradition of communicating with the earth.”
The Native American sites are among several grounds made by various parties for delaying the project after FERC issued the Kinder Morgan subsidiary a notice to proceed earlier this month. Pipeline construction preparations are underway, with workers, heavy equipment and lots of security having already descended on Sandisfield, population 800. The company is allowed to begin forest clearing on Thursday, but it was unclear when actual work would begin.
The company plans to lay 36 inch pipes into 2 miles of state forest along an existing corridor, and must clear roughly 29 acres of forest here to expand for this third pipeline, according to its filing with FERC. Another 2 miles will run through private property here.
Tennessee Gas has faced a number of construction delays as the state fought granting an easement on state-owned land protected by Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution. Environmental groups and Sandisfield residents intervened over environmental, economic and other issues.
And now three legislators have stepped into the ring. U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey of Massachusetts, as well as U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, asked FERC to revoke its notice to proceed. They cited the agency’s lack of quorum to make the decision, and failure to grant Sandisfield citizens a rehearing request sought over a year ago.
The legislators also said the matter of the Native American sites required resolution. FERC spokesman Craig Cano said FERC’s chairman still has not issued a response to the legislators’ concerns, and could not comment on the preservation issue “because the case is still pending.”
Kinder Morgan spokesman Richard Wheatley was unable to shed any new light, either, referring all questions back to the company’s regulatory filings “because of active legal and regulatory matters.”
And Harris said he, too, has not yet received a response from FERC.
“FERC is supposed to deal with the tribes based on the National Historic Preservation Act,” Harris said.
“From [the Narragansett] perspective, this is illegal,” he said of FERC’s process. “It may be expedient to them, but sacrilegious to the tribes who believe the stone landscapes are religious.”