The "Reliability and Safety" section of its conclusions runs less than a page, and can be summarized as "They're building this up to Department of Transportation standards, so we've got no complaints."

"That's how FERC usually addresses safety issues," says Carolyn Elefant, a Washington D.C., lawyer representing opponents of the pipeline. "They say, 'If you're doing this up to DOT standards, that's enough for us.' So by the time DOT looks at it, it's already a fait accomplis. Once the pipeline has been approved, its much harder for a safety agency to put its foot down."

Even if the Department of Transportation did weigh in on the safety of the pipeline, their standards might not be so useful. The DOT bases its safety standards on the population density surrounding the pipe, ranging from Class 1, desolate Alaskan tundra, to Class 4, densely populated. But the classification system is old, making no distinction between the suburbs of Knoxville, Tennessee, and the west side of Manhattan, where 15,000 people pack into a square mile.

An opponent of the Spectra pipeline clambered over a backhoe last summer in an effort to delay construction.
Courtesy Occupy the Pipeline
An opponent of the Spectra pipeline clambered over a backhoe last summer in an effort to delay construction.
In 2010, a pipeline the same size and pressure as the one being 
built in Manhattan blew up in 
San Bruno, California, destroying 
38 homes.
National Transportation Safety Board
In 2010, a pipeline the same size and pressure as the one being built in Manhattan blew up in San Bruno, California, destroying 38 homes.

"You're talking about apples and oranges," says Fanciullo, who urged FERC to hold off on approving the pipeline until he could persuade the DOT to update its standards. But FERC has never met a pipeline it didn't like. Its funding is literally—and amazingly—based on how many pipelines it can approve. From the beginning of 2010 to last June, the commission signed off on 35 pipelines. In all but one of those cases, it rubber-stamped the plan presented to it by the pipeline company. Five thousand people argued against Spectra's plan during the FERC's comment period, compared to only 22 in favor of it, but commissioners weren't interested in so much as delaying their approval. The plan received the final go-ahead in May. Construction on the Hudson River section began immediately, and though activists tried to slow it down by chaining themselves to construction equipment and dancing around wearing nothing but green paint, the section running into Manhattan was more or less complete by the end of the summer.

From the Gansevoort Peninsula, the pipeline will run under the West Side Highway to a vault near Tenth Avenue, where it will connect with a yet-to-be-constructed pipeline—still wide-gauge, still high-pressure—belonging to Con Edison, which will run 1,500 feet north on Tenth Avenue before splitting into smaller distribution lines. Fun fact: Because the Con Ed section doesn't cross any state lines, it's not even subject to FERC regulation. In fact, the only permit Con Ed needs to undertake its project is for digging up the street.

Even as the pipeline races toward inevitability, the fight against it isn't over. Jersey City, along with the Sierra Club and others, is appealing FERC's approval decision in the court of appeals for the District of Columbia.

At the same time, a variety of local pipeline opponents are suing the trustees of the Hudson River Park in state court, arguing they broke the law when they approved a non-park use for the Gansevoort Peninsula.

Whether either of these lawsuits will manage to stop the pipeline from becoming operational is far from clear. But if it doesn't happen in the courts, action by elected officials seems even less likely. Michael Bloomberg wholeheartedly endorses the pipeline. His girlfriend, Diana Taylor, who chairs the Hudson River Park Trust's board, helped ram approval of the plan through that body. Mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn, whose City Council district includes the pipeline, has managed to dodge the issue entirely.

If politicians aren't prepared to make an issue out of the pipeline, it's likely because their constituents don't even know about it.

"My building is artists' housing, and it's right next to the pipeline," King says. "We're an unusually aware building. But I'd bet if you went door to door, most people in here still don't even know it's happening. They're sneaking this through before anyone knows what they've done."

npinto@villagevoice.com

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