In a Twitter exchange that quickly devolved into a shouting match and the slinging of insults, an executive for a pipeline company called activists “awful soulless people.” Michelle Smith Hook, Director of Public Relations at Millennium Pipeline Company, was responding to heated tweets by activists in New York state who say the company is planning to construct a pipeline near a nesting bald eagle with eaglets, which are protected by federal law.
Last week, the group Visualizing Pipeline Impacts (VzPi), which is active against Millennium’s natural gas pipeline projects in New York’s southeast region, began posting online documents it obtained through an open records request from the state of New York about impending work near a bald eagle’s nest on the banks of the Neversink River in the town of Huguenot.
The documents show that officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) were unable to confirm the eagles’ presence — despite clear video documentation provided to them by the activists. Officials also seemed to concur with the company that drilling and blasting activities would not pose a risk to eagles in the area.
In response to one of the tweets, Smith Hook told the group they are not experts, to which another activist charged her for working for a destructive industry: “Do you tell your kids you're contributing to the destruction of our planet for a profit!?!” To this, Smith Hook responded: “Nope but I’ve shown them the video & social media where you are awful souless [sic] people who beat up on their mom for helping get people energy.”
Nope but I’ve shown them the video & social media where you are awful souless people who beat up on their mom for helping get people energy— Michelle Smith Hook (@MSmithHook) May 10, 2018
Smith Hook told DeSmog via email that her account is personal and her comments were not made on behalf of Millennium. “Opinions expressed there are my own, as it states in my profile header, and are in no way intended to represent Millennium in an official capacity.”
Smith Hook added, “You are also pulling that quote out of context, as the question was whether I tell my kids that I am hurting the environment and that tweet explained what I do tell my kids about the opposition groups I face on the job.”
The backdrop to this tension is Millennium’s impending drilling on a crossing of the Neversink River, less than a mile from a bald eagle’s nest, as part of its Eastern System Upgrade project. The project, which was approved last year by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, involves an upgrade to its existing pipeline and an addition of compressing capabilities to several compressor stations.
Activists began documenting the nest last fall, capturing photos and videos of active nesting and feeding of eaglets in the past months.
In light of this evidence, two groups — the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and Sullivan County Residents Against Millennium — sent letters in February this year and this week to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, demanding a halt to construction in the area to comply with federal law protecting bald eagles and active nests. They also requested detailed blasting and drilling plans for the site, documents which have yet to be supplied.
The existence of the nest had been identified early in the project, with the FWS recommending last year that any blasting near the river be completed between September 1 and November 30 to avoid disturbing nesting eagles. Millennium also committed to conducting a bald eagle nest search prior to work near the Neversink River.
Yet activists say such a survey has not taken place and the impending construction noise may harm the nest at this sensitive moment. Additionally, they say documents they obtained indicate that despite being provided with the video and photos of the nesting eagles, the FWS and NYDEC do not share their sense of urgency in verifying the presence of nesting eagles and thereby delaying construction.
In one such email, FWS biologist Tim Sullivan stated in March in response to an inquiry from the NYDEC that the eagle issue had “slipped my mind,” saying he was away from the office due to an illness and had to catch up. When he finally went to the site in March, Sullivan said he saw neither bird nor nest.
Citing the ongoing construction activities in the area, Sullivan added: “I would be surprised if the birds weren’t accustomed to the activity by now.”
The FWS told DeSmog it does not believe the blasting will harm any eagles near the site.
“According to Tom Wittig, the Service’s regional eagle coordinator, based on the information he’s received and noise levels typical of the types of blasting proposed for the project, he has not found any indication that the activities will be loud enough to cause a disturbance, assuming that the eagle’s nest is active,” said Terri Edwards, a FWS spokesperson. “His determination is that the 0.5-mile buffer for the activities is sufficient to avoid disturbance.”
A spokesperson for the NYDEC concurs that construction will occur outside the buffer zone.
“The NYDEC is closely monitoring construction of the Eastern System Upgrade project, including construction in and around the Neversink River. DEC investigates all reports of eagles in the area and has determined that construction activities will occur outside the buffer zones recommended by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”
Millennium’s Smith Hook did not answer questions related to the eagle’s nest.
Main image: One of the nesting eagles sits in a tree not far from its nest and eaglets near the Neversink River, New York. Credit: Visualizing Pipeline Impacts