Feds block citizen web portal as key deadline looms in Kinder Morgan pipeline matter

By Mary Serreze | Special to The Republican – January 3, 2016

Foes of interstate gas pipeline expansion in New England cried foul Sunday night as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s e-filing system remained shut down, three days before a key deadline passes for citizen participation in the matter of Kinder Morgan’s proposed 415-mile Northeast Energy Direct.

Individuals, towns and businesses hoping to apply as “intervenors” in the pipeline case have until 5 p.m. on Jan. 6 to file motions with the federal regulators. But they have been blocked in their efforts since Dec. 31, and were previously blocked from the FERC web portal over the long Christmas weekend.

“This is very frustrating,” said Julia Blyth of Northfield. “The system has been shut down for eight of the last 13 days that the public has had to file their motions.”

Those attempting to register accounts or submit any type of public input online have been confronted with a mysterious message saying the agency’s web portal is shut down because of “inclement weather:”

“Due to inclement weather that has resulted in the Office of Personnel Management closing Federal government offices in Washington, D.C., the Commission is closed and is not accepting submittals – either in hardcopy format or in electronic format through ‘FERC Online.'”

Inexplicably, records show mild weather prevailing in the nation’s capital. Neither FERC nor OPM spokespersons were available for comment over the weekend.

Those with intervenor status become participants in the regulatory review, and gain legal standing to file an appeal of any relevant ruling issued by the FERC.

Activists across the region have been encouraging ordinary people to intervene in federal proceedings around the pipeline, which would cross 28 Massachusetts towns and 17 in New Hampshire. Hundreds have registered as potential intervenors in recent weeks, following widely-shared “do-it-yourself” instructions.

Hundreds more were expected to apply over the weekend at workshops held in libraries, churches, and senior centers. In Massachusetts, volunteer-led workshops were scheduled in Dracut, Townsend, Pittsfield, Amherst, and Northfield. In New Hampshire, sessions were set for Rindge and Pelham.

Blyth said about 30 people showed up at a workshop she led Sunday in Northfield. “We are talking about older people without good computer skills, and without good internet access,” she said. “It’s difficult enough without the FERC web portal being down.”

Blyth said she showed slides and helped people prepare their written comments, but that none of the attendees were able to file their motions online.

Intervenors need not live along the proposed pipeline route, but must show an “interest” that may be directly affected by the outcome, wrote leading anti-pipeline organizer Kathryn Eiseman in an open letter.

For instance, all Massachusetts ratepayers have an “interest” in the pipeline because Kinder Morgan wants electric utilities to enter into into long term contracts for capacity, and to pass those costs on to their customers, said Eiseman, who contends that the “massive overbuild embodied in the proposal” is likely to lead to higher energy costs for New England.

“These federal employees are getting paid to maintain systems to allow for meaningful public input.”

The Franklin County town of Shelburne in its motion to intervene wrote that the NED pipeline “would amount to the industrialization of a rural area that contains ten historically significant century farms with large tracts of land that have been maintained by the same families for a century or more.”

Others have written that powerful compressor stations along the route would introduce 24-hour light pollution to dark, rural areas, and that coldwater fisheries in the federally-designated Westfield River would be harmed by a pipeline crossing.

“Intervening shows FERC, and Kinder Morgan’s investors, how many people are watching this proceeding closely and secures your right to challenge FERC’s decision,” Eiseman wrote.

It’s not the first time in recent weeks FERC’s E-filing portal has been shut down. The agency closed its web portal Christmas Eve and opened it again on Dec. 28.

“Even if the weather was stormy, the e-Filing system is automated and doesn’t require staff to immediately accept incoming filings,” said Rose Wessel, leader of the group No Fracked Gas in Mass. Wessel noted that in 2014, FERC kept its web portal open over both the Christmas and New Years Day weekends.

“So many of us work full time jobs, and the only free time we have is on nights and weekends,” she said. “These federal employees are getting paid to maintain systems to allow for meaningful public input.”

Blyth said that even if the shutdown is not intentional on FERC’s part, it’s “troubling” if the federal agency “can’t maintain a robust system for handling public input.”

Wessel and others are calling upon the FERC to extend its deadline for intervention motions, given the ongoing problems with the agency’s website. Wessel said her organization has written to President Obama; Blyth said she has written to Senators Warren and Markey and Congressman Jim McGovern in Washington.

“This is just the latest in a series of troublesome realizations of how the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission functions,” said Wessel.

Kinder Morgan subsidiary Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. filed its federal application for the 1.3 billion cubic-foot-per-day interstate pipeline with the FERC on Nov. 20, and now the energy regulatory commissioners are tasked with conducting a comprehensive environmental review of the project.

If Tennessee Gas wins a certificate from the FERC, it will gain the power of eminent domain to take public and private land to build the pipeline.

Mary Serreze can be reached at mserreze@gmail.com