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Pipeline Tears Through Residential Area in Edison to Supply Fracked Gas to New Woodbridge Power Plant

20 Years After Durham Woods Explosion, Gas Pipeline Under Construction in Edison and Woodbridge Runs Perilously Close to Hotel and Homes
Pipeline Installation
A gas pipeline being installed right next to a home in Edison. New Brunswick Today

EDISON, NJ—Located just a quarter-mile south of the county's much-touted "greenway," a new natural gas pipeline built by Houston-based U.S. Pipeline (USPL), Inc. is disturbing sixteen acres of land in Edison and Woodbridge.

But it appears the project's supporters may have forgotten the lessons of an infamous and devastating gas explosion that struck Edison twenty years ago, and ignored the spirit of a township ordinance meant to keep pipelines from running near homes and other buildings.

Though the gas pipeline will be buried underground, it appears to go perilously close to a three-family home at 1095 King George Road in Edison.

"It's right next to a three-family [house] that I own!!!" said Barry Telesnick. "I'm afraid the value is going to plunge"

Matt Smith, an organizer with the national non-profit Food & Water Watch, said that pipelines like this one usually have a negative impact on property values, which "not only hurts individual homewoners but [also] hurts the tax base for the municipality."

Meanwhile, officials from Edison have not had much to say about the gas pipeline.

"I haven't talked to [Edison officials] on that," said Middlesex County Freeholder Charles Tomaro, a former Edison Councilman, when asked at the December 4 meeting about the pipeline.

Tomaro has not responded to subsequent requests for comment about the pipeline's route through the residential area.

"Those are local issues that are governed by the local municipalities," said Freeholder Director Ronald Rios on December 18, also dodging the question of whether it is acceptable for gas pipelines to be put right next to buildings.

Edison Mayor Thomas Lankey has not responded to numerous requests for comment on this story. New Brunswick Today shared with him the photograph of the construction right next to the home.

Melissa Perilstein, a former Town Council member who works in Lankey's administration told New Brunswick Today, "Obviously we wanted to do our part to help energy supply in the region," before going off the record.

Perilstein promised an "on the record" statement from the administration but never provided one.

The path of the "Woodbridge Delivery Lateral" through Edison and Woodbridge has become evident to residents, workers, and visitors in the Raritan Center area of Edison and the Fords section of Woodbridge, where the destruction is apparent.

"Construction of the Woodbridge Delivery Lateral will disturb approximately 16 acres of land, of which approximately nine acres will be used for permanent operations," reads the pipeline's approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The pipeline is also being installed very near the Royal Albert Hotel in the Fords section of Woodbridge.

The 2.4-mile underground pipe would connect the nation's largest gas pipeline system, Transco, to a new gas power plant set to open next year in the Keasbey section of Woodbridge.

At an estimated cost of $32.2 million, the project would provide the power plant with a steady transmission of gas extracted from areas in Pennsylvania where hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," is presently producing large quantities of gas through a risky drilling process.

The power plant, championed by the administrations of Governor Chris Christie and Woodbridge Mayor Jon McCormac is currently under construction.

"It's going to provide cheaper electricity and also tax revenue for the town," said Middlesex County Freeholder Charles Kenny, an ally of McCormac,  who was recently named "Environmentalist of the Year" by Christie's Department of Environmental Protection.

"I like the mayor," said Jeff Tittel of the NJ Sierra Club, the nation's oldest and largest environmental group.  "But the governor with the worst environmental record of any in history calling you an environmentalist is not a badge of honor."

A spokesperson for McCormac said at first that the pipeline "does not traverse through any populated or residential areas."

But when questioned if that included the pipeline's path through Edison, Hagerty could not say for sure if that was the case.

"It's a necesary aspect of getting the billion dollar power plant," Hagerty told New Brunswick Today.

According to the USPL website, "project completion is anticipated for January 2015."

According to Competitive Power Ventures, officials hope the power plant is ready to open by December 2015.

Though the pipeline is just 20 inches in diameter, deep and wide trenches have been dug by the company through both Edison and Woodbridge.

Several landowners in Edison challenged the construction of the pipeline in a public hearing process, including manufacturer Johns Manville, real estate developer Kaplan Companies, and non-profit organization that runs an "organ procurement and tissue recovery" operation.

The "Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation" (MTF) operates a tissue bank on its property along the route of the proposed Woodbridge Delivery Lateral.

MTF says they were already approved to construct a new building and parking lot on their property in Edison, but an Township ordinance says “no building or land disturbance shall be permitted within seventy-five (75) feet of any distribution, gathering, or transmission line," and their proposed building does not comply.

Pipelines can be a touchy subject in Edison, ever since 1994, when eight apartment buildings and hundreds of vehicles were completely destroyed, after an explosion started the largest fire event in Middlesex County history.

Two thousand people were evacuated from Edison and Metuchen, and approximately 300 people were left homeless and 100 were in need of medical attention.  In total, fourteen of the complex's 63 apartment buildings were damaged or destroyed.

Pipeline company Texas Eastern was ultimately held responsible for flaws in their 36-inch pipeline, which caused $25 million in damage that day, exploding into a fireball that could be seen from New Brunswick and New York City.

"The 80-foot-long rupture in the pipe occurred on property occupied by [an] asphalt plant and ripped a crater approximately 100 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 40 feet deep," reads a report published by the town's fire chief.

"This sent a shower of bedrock and shale, some pieces the size of bowling balls, as far as 800 feet in all directions," the report continues.  "A 40-foot section of ruptured pipeline was hurled 350 feet by the blast."

Within that blast zone laid the Durham Woods apartment complex, where eight buildings were destroyed and 2,000 residents displaced:

At the Durham Woods apartments complex, debris smashed through windows and roofs, breaking tables, knocking kitchen cabinets off the walls, and, in one case, breaking a man's leg as he lay in bed."

Between 60 and 90 seconds after rupture, the escaping high-pressure gas ignited, sending a giant fireball 500 feet into the air, turning night into day. Some residents looked out of their patio doors and saw their plastic lawn furniture beginning to melt. In just a short time at Durham Woods apartments, the exteriors of buildings closest to the fire began to burn, and one resident reported that his interior walls were "starting to smoke." By the time the first fire unit arrived at the complex, just minutes after the explosion, Building 12 already was fully involved.

A 40-feet tall earthen mound had been built to protect the apartment complex, not from the pipeline, but from noise pollution produced by the adjacent asphalt plant.  That mound of dirt is credited with miraculously saving hundreds of lives in the explosion.

The sole fatality in the incident was a woman who died of a heart attack a mile away from Durham Woods, but dozens were injured and more than 100 families lost their possessions, vehicles, and important documents forever.

To this day,  more than two decades later, Edison's residents are extra careful about putting buildings near pipelines.

But that apparently doesn't hold true for the converse situation, when pipelines are built near, or in this case, immediately adjacent to buildings.

Meanwhile, the company that operates the Transco pipeline shows on their website how they build pipelines through a fictional pristine, mountainous landscape, rather than an urban area like Middlesex County.

Another much longer pipeline slated to transport oil to and from a refinery in the same area, known as the "Pilgrim Pipeline" would infringe on residential areas, schools, and environmentally sensitive areas as well.

The fight is just beginning on that planned pipe, which would cut through Woodbridge, Edison, and Metuchen and dozens of other communities in New York and New Jersey. The pipeline will carry North Dakotan shale oil, also produced through fracking.

Rather than building a refinery in Albany, New York, a venture capital firm has proposed two 178-mile pipelines to bring crude oil to a refinery in Woodbridge, and then ship it back to Albany.

According to the company that wants to build it, the pipelines would each carry 200,000 gallons of oil daily.  Though the risk of explosion is less likely for oil pipelines, activists say its construction will require "blasting" that could distrub nearby gas pipelines like the one that exploded in 1994.

In the Durham Woods explosion, investigators determined that two different construction vehicles, likely backhoes, damaged the pipeline sometime between 1986 and 1994.

"The number one cause of gas explosions is construction activity," said Smith, the Food & Water Watch activist. But he said spills are the more likely danger with oil pipelines.

"We're talking about a pipeline thats going to be pumping oil through the region for decades. It's not a matter of if but when there will be a spill and how much drinking water will be affected," said Smith, who said it could impact two irreplaceable sources of drinking water in New Jersey.

The PHMSA reported 354 "serious" spills across the country this year, including those from trucks, railroad cars, pipelines, and other modes of transportation, as of this weekend.

But residents and many local officials are not taking the Pilgrim plan lying down.

Calling the Pilgrim Pipeline plans a "dirty deal for New Jersey," Smith told New Brunswick Today, "It's really been inspriring to see all the communities getting organized and building opposition."

According to the StopPilgrimPipeline.org website, fourteen different towns in New Jersey where the pipeline is slated to cut through have passed resolutions opposing it in its current form.  Woodbridge is among them, but Edison and Metuchen are not.

The Passaic County Freeholders and at least two New York communities also did the same.   Even the New Jersey Assembly voted 54-5 for a resolution against the pipeline just last week.  Governor Christie has thus far declined to comment on the plan, citing the lack of a formal application.

Edison's Mayor Thomas Lankey did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the plans.  Metuchen Mayor Thomas Valhalla did not return a phone message left with the Borough Clerk.

"This project is still in its preliminary stages and we are currently determining the most appropriate route," reads the answer to a frequently asked question on the company's website: "Why can't you tell me exactly where the route is?"

The company's website only indicates the pipeline will connect "Albany and Linden, NJ," on the site.

Smith said he expects the pipeline will need approval from the Department of Environmental Protection, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Highlands Council.

Smith and Tittel agreed that it would not be proper for the state's Board of Public Utilities to grant public utility status to the pipeline, which they say does nothing for New Jersey.