Quiet chatter filled an upstairs hall at Wadsworth High School on Wednesday night as pipeline opponents — and a few supporters — waited for a turn to make a comment on the $2 billion NEXUS Gas Transmission project.
Thomas West, 73, of Chippewa Township in Wayne County, brought a thick notebook with reports and news clippings about the proposed NEXUS Gas Transmission pipeline as he made a public comment during a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission environmental impact meeting Wednesday night at Wadsworth High School.
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The 255-mile pipeline, designed to pump natural gas from eastern Ohio to Canada and pass through Medina County on the way, has drawn criticism from many local landowners who live near the route.
But the pipeline wasn’t the only topic that inspired passionate responses at the five-hour meeting hosted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that will approve or deny the right for construction to begin. NEXUS has asked for approval to start construction in the first quarter of 2017.
Many in attendance at the school questioned the format of the meeting, which allowed people to submit comments in a private room with a court reporter and FERC representative.
The format was a shift from earlier FERC meetings on the project where most people submitting comments spoke in an open auditorium in front of the crowd.
FERC Environmental project manager Joanne Wachholder said the meeting format is part of an agency-wide effort to make collecting comments more efficient and reduce any pressure on shy speakers.
“This has been in development for a while,” she said.
About 40 people took a number near the beginning of the comment period but sat at tables waiting to be called. Participants were escorted to a room several hundred feet from the waiting area. Two Wadsworth police officers in uniform were stationed in the hall.
Three FERC representatives spoke individually to members of the crowd while they waited. On tables in front of them were maps and printed documents related to the pipeline project.
“It helps people get their concerns fleshed out (before commenting),” Wachholder said. “We’re trying to respond to comments as we go.”
Pipeline opponents also mingled with attendees, sitting at tables with sign-up sheets and leaflets of information along a side of the waiting area.
Guilford Township resident Jon Strong is a leader of the Coalition to Reroute NEXUS, which wants to move the path of the pipeline south. Strong said an hour into the meeting he already had spoken to three or four people who had not been involved previously in pipeline opposition. Several attended to get more information about the project, but, due to the format of the meeting, they’re unlikely to get answers, he said.
“They came here to hear about (the pipeline), and they aren’t going to hear about it,” he said.
He said he doesn’t believe the format was designed to make people more comfortable speaking, because private commenting rooms have been a feature at earlier public meetings in conjunction with “public hearing” style of commenting.
“I think it’s kind of a self-serving venue,” Strong said.
Outside the meeting, about eight members from Sustainable Medina County, an environmental group that opposes the pipeline, protested the private nature of the commenting session.
“We the people deserve a public hearing,” group leader Kathie Jones, a Sharon Township resident, said through a megaphone to a few people gathered outside.
Robbin Figura, a 29-year-old Lodi resident, stood in the group with a sign that said “Let the people vote,” a reference to the proposed county charter that Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted recently ruled against placing on the Nov. 8 election ballot. She said she opposes his decision and the one-on-one format of the meeting.
“I feel like this is the kind of thing that makes people feel like their vote doesn’t count,” she said.
Next to Figura stood Seville resident Lauren Halford, 34, with her three children under age 10. She called the meeting format “censorship,” though she still planned to comment.
Halford lives several miles from the location of a proposed pipeline compressor station, which would pressurize the gas to move it along the route.
“I don’t want the compressor station by our house,” she said. “I don’t want them (her children) to breathe in all those chemicals.”
Pollution and environmental concerns were high among the reasons people attending the meeting wanted to comment.
Maryan Mathis, a 62-year-old former nurse, lives about a half mile away from the proposed location of the compressor station in Guilford Township.
“Our son died of cancer and I see this only as another venue to create a problem for the health of our community,” she said.
In the notes that she planned to take into her commenting session, Mathis also wrote she was concerned about potential explosions caused by the pipeline, noise pollution, contamination of the well water she drinks and the responsibility of NEXUS to self-regulate the compressor station.
“I thought we have rights, but I don’t feel confident in that any more,” she said.
But Jimmy Stewart, the 46-year-old president of the Ohio Gas Association, said many concerns about the pipeline’s effects are unfounded and the project could provide tax benefits to the community.
“There haven’t been issues with them,” he said. “We all drive over them. We all walk over them. They are a safe, efficient way to move gas. You see houses nearby railroad tracks and you see trucks on the road. Think about what’s inside those cars. Do you know what they are carrying?
“Pipelines are nothing new,” he said.
However, a pipeline explosion that occurred in western Pennsylvania in April had several concerned, including Thomas West, a 73-year-old Chippewa Township (Wayne County) man. He has 10 grandchildren and lives on five acres of land with his family, six horses and six dogs.
“I’m scared for them,” he said, referring to his grandchildren.
West said the pipeline would pass about 130 feet from his bedroom. Though he spoke to the court reporter for about 10 minutes — bringing with him a 2-inch-thick notebook with reports and newspaper clippings — he doubts FERC will read through his testimony.
“They’re (FERC) not going to read all this stuff (people’s testimonies),” West said. “They’ll look at it and say, ‘for’ or ‘against.’”
Medina Ward 3 Councilman Mark Kolesar, who is running as a Democrat for a county commissioner seat this November, attended the meeting. Kolesar said he was sensitive to individual rights but also was attempting to see the potential for the economic growth, which some believe the project could stimulate.
He said he was concerned about the pipeline and called the citizens groups fighting for property owners’ rights “remarkable resistance.”
“We have a great quality of life in Medina County and we want to keep it that way,” he said. “This thing came out of the woodwork. People want to protect that quality of life. It’s a higher standard.”
Managing Editor Lawrence Pantages contributed to this report.
Contact reporter Elizabeth Dobbins at (330) 721-4063 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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