Pipeline trucks tough on roads
Kinder Morgan says it will make repairs but company had backed out of road agreement last year
SANDISFIELD - It's a bumpier ride on Cold Spring Road these days.
"It's crazy," said Alice Boyd, the town's Select Board chairwoman and town manager.
"They're coming in from all directions."
Boyd is talking about pipeline-related road damage and traffic, including trucks carrying equipment for Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co.'s Connecticut Expansion Project. Many of the town's roads are narrow, and the winters are hard on them.
Just a few weeks into a six-month project by the Kinder Morgan subsidiary, the roads are noticeably worse for wear. And the heavier trucks carrying pipe haven't even started arriving yet.
In an email Kinder Morgan spokesman Richard Wheatley said the company will "restore roads to their prior condition before construction began."
"We are obligated," he wrote.
Boyd said she hasn't heard from the company in a while about the effect on roads or a proposed solution.
"We thought we would have a better general sense of how this was going to move forward and what would happen after," Boyd said. "But I haven't heard anything."
Work preparing about 4 miles here for the 13 mile tri-state natural gas storage loop is underway, with tree cutting complete and chipping and stump grinding in progress.
About three weeks ago company contractors came here to begin adding the company's third gas line in the corridor, one that has seen several anti-pipeline protests and 24 arrests, partly because of tree cutting on an easement of protected land in Otis State Forest.
But the roughly 10 miles of road here affected by the project are another problem in a town that spends from $360,000 to $380,000 annually on some of its 91 miles of roadway, lots of it unpaved.
"[Pipeline traffic] is making a real mess," Boyd said, adding that 40-foot tractor-trailers are also "deteriorating the road edge" when traveling on key pipeline access roads, drivers have to back in because there is no place to turn around.
"When you back up a 40-foot truck you can't see, and they are going off the road," Boyd added.
One such truck got stuck the other day trying to make a sharp turn on a bridge with a low weight rating, another issue altogether as there are several low-rated bridges and culverts along the truck routes in other nearby towns as well, Boyd added.
"We're very worried about it," she said. "There are culverts that are close to collapsing."
She said one had been propped up with another piece of metal for reinforcement.
Boyd said Highway Superintendent Bobby O'Brien talks to local company officials when there's a problem. She said the town and company have a "reasonable and respectful" relationship.
"[The company] is responsive," she added, noting that its employees had posted reduced speed limit signs and have rerouted some traffic. O'Brien did not return calls for comment.
Tennessee Gas officials knew the roads would take a hit, among other impacts to the town. And the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission had told company officials it should consult with affected towns about how to deal with stress to roads not built to handle so much heavy traffic.
"These rural roads don't have much structural base to them," said BRPC Executive Director Nathaniel Karns. "They're structurally very weak and what little sub-base is there gets destroyed."
He said the company planned to videotape roadways to compare before and after conditions. "But the road is more than the surface," he added.
"Kinder Morgan coming back and just slapping a coat of asphalt won't correct damage to the road base," he said. "Really there should have been a full civil engineering assessment of what underlies those roads. The soils and geology here are rock-ledge super-saturated clay."
Wheatley declined to elaborate further about road repair details.
In 2015, a company attorney drafted an agreement with Sandisfield's attorney to pay the town just over $1 million in a "community benefits agreement," to partly address this.
It was around this time Boyd said she heard company officials say they would restore the roads, and a "road-use agreement" was drafted, Boyd said. "There was no dollar sign attached. It stipulated the procedure for dealing with damage."
But Tennessee Gas backed out of both agreements on the afternoon before the special town meeting to authorize Boyd to sign them. Wheatley declined to comment about why the company didn't sign.
And the company has approached Boyd again and offered to compensate the town for legal fees — incurred from drafting those agreements — of a little more than $40,000, which it had promised to do in 2015. Those fees have climbed to around $70,000, Boyd said.
"Our counsel has not been paid in over a year," she added. "They've been amazing, saying `Don't worry, you can pay if there's a settlement.' "
Karns said Kinder Morgan should do more. "Our opinion was that they should be providing the town with a three or four year financial surety to fix the problems after one or two winter seasons," he said.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli D-Lenox has tried to help Sandisfield and brought the situation to the attention of the state Attorney General's Office, which fought the company last year over the state forest easement.
And the Attorney General's Office has been quietly trying to help by negotiating with the pipeline company on the town's behalf over the past year, something Boyd said she wasn't aware of.
Attorney General's Office spokeswoman Emily Snyder said the office has "encouraged Kinder Morgan to consider the many impacts faced by the town."
"We have asked the company to provide financial support to the town and continue to correspond with Kinder Morgan to press for that support," Snyder said.
If the company doesn't do what it says it will, affected towns may have an ally in Boston.
"We'll send somebody out to take a look at the roads," said Gov. Charlie Baker, at a visit to The Eagle last week. "We'll see what might be possible there."
After learning that Tennessee Gas had declined to sign agreements with the town, Baker said he would have a state Department of Transportation official take a look at the situation.
"If they're reneging on the deal they made with the town then we should look into that," he added.
"That would be wonderful — we would be elated," Boyd said when she heard about Baker's response. "We haven't heard from anyone at all."
Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871.
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