By Chelsea Feinstein
LOWELL — Kinder Morgan Energy Partners is officially shifting its preferred route for a natural-gas pipeline north into New Hampshire, bypassing several Nashoba Valley and North Central Massachusetts towns, in response to months of protest from property owners, environmental groups and elected officials.
“We really believe in this project,” Allen Fore, the public affairs director for Kinder Morgan, said in a meeting with Berkshire Eagle editors in Pittsfield on Friday. “We’re willing to start this process as a reset. What we had originally was not going to work, we heard that loud and clear, so now we think we’ve taken that into account and identified an alternative that will work.”
The company will announce details of the route Monday in a filing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The pipeline would travel from New York into Western Massachusetts and then turn north, continuing for 70 miles through southern New Hampshire co-located along existing power line easements. It would then turn south, move through Pelham, N.H., and re-enter Massachusetts in Dracut, where the main line ends.
The original route traveled straight through Massachusetts for 127 miles.
Under the new route, the towns of Ashby, Ashburnham, Dunstable, Groton, Pepperell and Tyngsboro would be among those bypassed completely.
“It’s a relief that it’s not going to go through some of our conservation areas, the Nashua River and private property and lawns that were not previously used for power-line easements,” said state Rep. Sheila Harrington, R-Groton, whose district would be largely bypassed under the change. “It’s not a complete relief in that I don’t feel everyone is happy about it coming through at all, and it’s not a relief in that I feel like some of these people didn’t anticipate a new power utility easement coming through their land.”
The change doesn’t mean that the entire region would be out of the pipeline’s path.
Townsend would still be affected along a lateral route from the main line to Fitchburg. Another lateral, from Dracut to Lynnfield, has also been proposed, and would pass through Tewksbury and Wilmington.
The number of affected landowners in Massachusetts would fall from 955 to 279, though Kinder Morgan did not provide numbers for how many landowners would be affected in New Hampshire.
Opponents of the original pipeline route from Ashby to Dracut are vowing to continue fighting the proposal despite the new route. They say the excess energy isn’t needed and that a new natural-gas pipeline promotes an extended reliance on nonrenewable energy sources.
“Obviously homeowners will breathe a sigh of relief that it’s not coming through their particular backyard, but the larger issue is we’ll never meet our global-warming solutions requirement if we build an infrastructure that links us right into fossil fuels,” said Roberta Flashman, a member of the Ashby Conservation Commission and the Stop Northeast Energy Direct group opposing the pipeline.
Pepperell Selectman Stephen Themelis, who represents the town on a coalition of municipalities seeking information on the pipeline, said the new route wouldn’t derail opposition to the project. Pepperell is among the towns that have taken a nonbinding vote against the pipeline, and refused Kinder Morgan permission to survey on town-owned land.
“There’s definitely less impact, but that doesn’t mean that we want to see that happen,” Themelis said of the new route. “We’re still in business to do what we need to do to educate the public and get the message to our representatives and senators that we are against the pipeline proposal.”
Concerns about how much of a swath the company would have to clear to build the pipeline, even along the existing easements, remain for Emily Norton, a member of the Townsend Conservation Commission.
She called the project “a totally wrong choice” from an environmental standpoint.
“I think there’s not much of a change,” she said of the new route. “As far as I’m concerned, the pipeline should not be built at all.”
The pipeline is estimated to cost about $5 billion. Kinder Morgan representatives say it will create jobs, stimulate the local economy and fill a need for inexpensive natural gas during peak demand periods.
Kinder Morgan is also rerouting the western part of the pipeline, co-locating along a power line corridor in Western Massachusetts.
Fore said the decision to make the switch came in part from the company’s CEO and board Chairman Richard Kinder, who brought up protests in the Berkshires during a recent briefing.
The final decision on the route will be made by FERC after months of hearings and a public comment period. Kinder Morgan hopes to break ground on the project in 2017.
In mid-January, Kinder Morgan will host open houses for stakeholders along the pipeline route.
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Berkshire Eagle staff writer Clarence Fanto contributed reporting.