BOSTON - Opponents of a natural gas pipeline are planning to pack upcoming public forums to voice their outrage about a Texas-based energy company's request to allow workers onto private property.
Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company LLC, a subsidiary of Kinder Morgan, wants the state Department of Public Utilities to compel 450 homeowners along the pipeline route -- including dozens in the Merrimack Valley and North Shore -- to allow access for surveys and environmental studies.
Many private landowners in Massachusetts and New Hampshire who oppose the $5 billion, 421-mile project have repeatedly denied workers access for surveys and other testing.
State officials are planning six hearings over the next two weeks, including one Wednesday at Lynnfield Middle School and another at Andover High School on Thursday, April 14. Both begin at 7 p.m.
"We don't want this company to run a destructive and potentially dangerous high-pressure, fracked gas pipeline across our community," said Bob Croce, who heads an opposition group in Peabody. "And we certainly don't want the state to give them permission to trample over property rights and conservation land for a pipeline project that wouldn't benefit us at all."
Kinder Morgan and its subsidiary want to pump gas from the Marcellus shale region across Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire.
Its pipeline would connect with other proposed and existing lines through Haverhill, Methuen and Andover. Smaller, lateral pipelines are proposed through Peabody, Danvers and Lynnfield.
Richard Wheatley, a spokesman for Tennessee Gas, said it has tried to work with homeowners to access their land. It also has changed the pipeline route to minimize impact on private property and protected areas.
"It is our strong desire to work amicably and cooperatively with public officials and private landowners to obtain needed right-of-way information and to do so with the least possible disturbance to public and private lands," he said in a statement.
Wheatley said the surveys, which are required for federal permits, include civil engineering and archaeological surveys, soil tests and environmental studies of the project's impact on endangered species and wetlands.
The company has vowed to take homeowners to court under eminent domain proceedings if it doesn't get approval.
Opponents say the surveys, which can involve turning soil and clear-cutting vegetation, are disruptive to wildlife.
Wayne Castonguay, executive director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association, said environmentalists are particularly concerned about a section of pipeline that would run along the Ipswich River -- a drinking water source.
Besides the impact on wetlands and wildlife, he worries about the use of herbicides to clear the pipeline of brush.
"More than 300,000 people drink water from the Ipswich River every day," Castonguay said. "There's no way to mechanically clear the vegetation, so they have no choice but to use herbicides, which raises serious public health concerns."
Industry officials say New England is constrained by a lack of access to gas from the shale region, driving up energy costs. Project opponents -- including Attorney General Maura Healey -- contend that the demand for natural gas is exaggerated.
State utility officials point out that they have authority to grant pipeline companies access to private property and have never denied such a request. The agency is holding hearings to solicit input from property owners ahead of a decision.
Affected homeowners won't be entitled to compensation for use of their land for surveys, but the state could restrict the work, and the company would be held responsible for any physical damages.
"To date, the department has not been presented with information or arguments that were sufficient to deny a pipeline company the opportunity to survey privately owned land," the state's utility department said in a statement. "However, any future case would judged on its own factual record and arguments made during the proceeding."
Christian Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for the North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.