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Gas Pipeline Infrastructure feeds demand, but causes distress for some



And some residents have found life near the natural gas thoroughfares to be downright distressing.

In the summer of 2012, lightning struck gas that was venting from a compressor station off Dunbar Road in Windsor, igniting a 10-story flame jetting from the hillside. Sirens wailed and lights flashed as caravans of emergency responders made their way through the countryside and urged people in nearby homes to evacuate.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” recalled Frank Engelder, who watched the scene from distance out the picture window of his home on Dunbar Road. “They never really tell you much about that place. But I knew there was a lot of gas under that hill and it was under a lot of pressure.”

Since then, there have been four fires and several close calls reported at five compressor stations that push gas upstream to the Millennium Pipeline in Windsor from well fields in Susquehanna County over the Pennsylvania border.

While the Windsor fire — one of two in recent years at the Dunbar station — caused harrowing moments for the 40 or so residents who live nearby, the most relentless complaints have been about noise, fumes and leaks. The controversy has raised questions about how effectively the industry is regulated.

“We’re just asking that they come into compliance with what they already have before they start adding on,” said Jerry Henehan, a resident who has organized Concerned Residents of Windsor, a group seeking more oversight of the station off Dunbar Road. “The state is not watching over this, and the town is coddling them.”

With a group of about 20 residents, Henehan is fighting a local battle with broad regional stakes. The conflict, which has erupted in frequent outbursts at town board meetings, is not unique to Windsor.

State approval is pending for more pipelines and compressor stations along routes traversing Chemung, Broome, Tompkins and a dozen other upstate counties as they feed hubs in the Capitol District with Pennsylvania gas.

As with highway expansion, the development of pipelines has historically been a fight mostly engaging residents along the routes whose lives are disrupted, while people who live elsewhere gladly reap the benefits. Unlike highways, and akin to railroads, pipelines are not public property, though all three are recognized as essential assets to serve public needs.

The battlefield over pipelines is changing, however, with the fight over global warming, the future of energy development and the role of fracking, the technology providing access to vast petroleum and gas reserves in Pennsylvania and across the country.

In New York, pipeline expansion has become the target of well-organized regional political action campaigns that, having stopped fracking, now aim to shut down the new projects to deliver and store fossil fuel.

Several projects approved by the federal government now await state permits. They include a plan by Crestwood Equity Partners, of Houston, to store liquid propane in abandoned salt mines on the southwest shore of Seneca Lake, a project targeted by regional activists.

“We still share a common goal,” said Sandra Steingraber, an Ithaca College ecology scholar speaking at a recent rally in Albany. “We want an end to New York’s ruinous dependency on fracked gas, along with all of the hateful, harmful infrastructure that comes with it.”

Steingraber, a high-profile figure in the anti-fracking movement, is leading a civil disobedience campaign to blockade the Crestwood site, resulting in hundreds of arrests over the last 15 months.

National attention on the issue of storing and piping natural gas recently has focused on an unstoppable gas leak in Porter Range California. The leak from the Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon storage facility, which started in October, has sent thousands fleeing their homes, degraded air quality and boosted greenhouse gases.

In Broome County, Windsor Town Supervisor Carolyn Price, who lives about 10 miles away from the Dunbar compressor station, campaigns on the other side: supporting shale gas development.

Price has appeared in a YouTube video plugging the economic benefits of the Constitution Pipeline, which would run through the Southern Tier on its way from Pennsylvania to the Capitol District of New York. She also lead a group of Southern Tier officials who, angered by New York’s fracking ban, threatened to secede from New York and become part of Pennsylvania.

The Dunbar Station “is all thoroughly regulated,” said Price, sitting in a town hall meeting room in front of a stack of paperwork and correspondence from state agencies. “We need all types of energy. Gas and pipelines are a part of that.”

Owned and operated by Williams Partners LP of Tulsa Okla., Dunbar is an example of the dozens of stations needed along pipeline intervals to regulate the pressure and keep gas flowing from the prolific Pennsylvania gas fields to consumer markets throughout the northeast.

This station has the footprint of a small shopping plaza. Instead of shops, the space is filled with 10,000 horsepower compressors, pipes, tanks, valves, exhaust stacks, flares and an assortment of heavy equipment.

As both supply and demand grows, so does the Dunbar Station. Williams now is working on a second 16-inch diameter pipeline from Pennsylvania and additional compressors, each the approximate size of a locomotive, to bring the number to five. The station pushes gas into the Millennium Pipeline, which runs west to east across the Southern Tier and then veers downstate.

This and other projects are driven by 18-percent growth in natural gas consumption since 2009 in New York, the fourth-largest natural gas consumer in the country behind Louisiana, California and Texas. Some of the lines will also feed growing demand in New England.

The concentration of industrial activity in otherwise bucolic regions along the way is good for some people. In Windsor, the Williams operation produces 16 percent of the town’s tax revenue, construction jobs and cheap energy for gas-burning homes and power plants both locally and regionally.

Paperwork stacked in the Windsor town hall includes a review last fall by the state Public Service Commission that determined environmental impacts of the station’s upgrade to be “minimal or short-term in nature” and "the facility will pose no undue hazard" to nearby residents.

The PSC also determined the need to “provide New York and other northeast markets with an additional supply of regionally-produced natural gas” to be “clear and undisputed.”

“If the Public Service Commission says there is a need and it can be operated safely, we need to support it,” Price said.

Concerned Residents of Windsor find little comfort in the regulatory paperwork or assurances.

The first fire at the Dunbar Station was caused by workers venting pressure at the plant, a periodic practice known as a “blowdown.” Gas jetting from the station drew a lightning strike.

Though the resulting fire was “spectacular,” according to a subsequent PSC report, “all safety systems functioned as designed and there was no property damage or personal injury that resulted from the incident, in spite of what can be considered an unusual set of circumstances: a direct lightning strike on the vent stack during a gas release.”

Lightening ignited gas vented from a compressor station in Windsor (Photo: Provided)

The report did not question the practice of venting gas in a lightning storm.

In January, 2014 a fuel line failed and gas sprayed over hot turbo-chargers and exhaust manifolds, according to state records. The fire, contained and extinguished by firefighters, caused $3 million in damage and gave local residents another scare.

Across New York’s border with Pennsylvania, three fires over the course of 28 months damaged Williams’ compressor stations feeding the same gas pipeline.

Williams spokesman Joe Horvath declined to say whether the number of fires at the company’s facilities is out of the ordinary.

“We regularly work with neighbors and local stakeholders to understand their concerns and make sure they understand our operations,” he said in an email. “Safety is our first priority and we use leading technology to keep our facilities safe. We also work closely with local first responders to ensure they understand our facilities and procedures.”

A compressor station at a pipeline in Susquehanna County moves Pennsylvania’s gas to New York. (Photo: Tom Wilber / Staff photo)

Records show regulators can be left out of the loop.

In March 2012, miscommunication between workers caused a gas leak and explosion at a compressor station in Springville Township, Susquehanna County, reportedly felt in homes miles away. The cause was “human error,” according to records at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

On the Friday after the Springville accident, Pennsylvania regulators asked Williams “not to resume operations at the facility until the department had the opportunity to conduct a more thorough inspection on Monday.”

The company hired its own contractor to evaluate the building that Friday. Concluding the structure was sound, Williams bypassed the damaged engines to keep gas flowing into the transmission lines without consulting with state regulators, according to records on file with the Pennsylvania DEP.

By 1 a.m. Monday morning the company got the compressors working and brought the entire station back on line — hours before state inspectors arrived on site.

Inspectors accepted William’s insistence on powering up before the state could evaluate the site as a simple misunderstanding.

According to a state report: “The Department acknowledges that Williams asserts that the company did not understand that the Department’s communication request that the company not resume operations until the department had an opportunity to perform an inspection of the facility.”

DEP spokesman Neil Shader said the miscommunication “was determined to be an accident.” No citations were issued.

While the fires in Windsor, N.Y. caused harrowing moments for the 40 or so residents who live within a mile of the Dunbar station, other issues crop up on a routine basis.

In controlling the flow of gas in pipelines, compressor stations are permitted discharge a range of greenhouse gases and impurities. Some are toxic.

In Windsor, the station annually discharges up to 9.5 tons of benzene, 49 tons of volatile organic compounds, 95 tons of nitrogen oxides and 99 tons of carbon dioxide. Residents also have complained about the recurring smell of mercaptan, a non-toxic but pungent additive to detect leaks.

The most relentless complaints, however, involve noise.

At random times of day or night blowdowns bleed excessive pressure from the lines. Residents compare the sound to a jet engine or locomotive. There are other mechanical sounds that come and go without warning and many are short-lived.

But the most bitter complaints involve a continuous low-frequency thrumming that the machinery produces day and night.

Low-frequency noise might not register as outright loudness. Think of the noise from the thumping bass in the car that pulls up in traffic around you. You might not be able to tell which car it’s coming from, but you can feel it. In homes, it can be sensed as a kind of vibration resonating in windows or objects.

How and where noise from a compressor is heard or felt can depend on topography, wind, atmospheric conditions and seasonal buffers such as leaves on the trees and snow, as well as activity at the compressor station at any given time. The low-frequency noise may not register on a decibel meter.

Complaints are well documented in public comments on the permit application for the expansion of the Dunbar plant.

A sampling shows 45 respondents supported the project and 38 opposed it. Of respondents living within a half-mile of the station, however, 20 opposed the project and one supported it. Documented noise complaints ranged from a “jet engine” to “loud grinding sound all evening” to “loud and pulsating.”

The perception varies. Price, who lives well out of earshot of the compressor station, has investigated some of the complaints near the site. She compared the noise to “a waterfall sound” or “noise from the highway.”

In a recent audit, town code officer David Brown investigated two dozen noise complaints over a six-week period last year and determined they were all “unfounded,” meaning they did not register at the town’s decibel limit of 40 during the day or 38 during the night, according to a report he submitted to the town board in October. The town ordinance is based on background or “ambient” noise plus certain allowances above that.

Price said the town has worked with the state and Williams to address problems.

“The company [Williams] has been accessible and responsive,” she said. “I have found the people at the Public Service Commission to be hard-working and diligent. Everybody is trying to work together.”

West Windsor Fire Chief Jerry Launt, who responded to the lightning strike and coordinated the evacuation, said “everybody has a different tolerance.” He added: “Some things that some people find scary, others do not. Some people’s hearing is better than others. Some people’s sense of smell is better.”

Launt is doubly interested in complaints, he said, because he is the fire chief, and he has two family members who live by the compressor station.

Over the years Williams has taken steps to reduce the noise, including enclosing the engines and installing silencers on the venting stacks. The noise problem has improved, although it remains an issue.

In a July 26, 2013 letter, Williams’ attorneys asked that the state to exempt the company from the town’s noise ordinance because “limits are unreasonably restrictive." State officials have proven sympathetic. A resulting order from the commission ruled the town’s ordinance “unreasonably restrictive” given limits in noise-reduction technology and the commercial demand for gas.

The PSC advised the town to repeal its ordinance or the state will not acknowledge it. In return, the commission asked Williams to continue upgrades to reduce noise within technological limits.

PSC spokesman Jon Sorensen said the federal noise standard for compressor stations is 55 decibels. The standard the state will apply to the Dunbar Station — 40 decibels at night — will make it “one of the quietest compressor stations in the state.”

The Windsor board will hold a hearing on the repeal of the noise ordinance in March, Price said. Henehan said he plans to be there with other CROW supporters. "The question is, why would they repeal it?" he said.

Hal Smith, another resident who lives within a mile of the station and has spoken at town board meetings, has his answer: "The lesson is, an oil and gas company with unlimited legal resources is pretty much going to call the shots."

Many town board meetings throughout upstate New York will be busy with pipeline matters in coming months and years. With work on the Williams expansion under way, approval is pending for three other pipeline projects in New York. The Constitution and the Kinder Morgan projects would follow a common route from Susquehanna County to New York’s Capitol District.

To the west, the Dominion’s New Market Project would upgrade an existing line running from the Pennsylvania border southwest of Elmira to Schenectady. The Dominion project would include new compressor stations in the towns of Veteran in Chemung County and Georgetown in Madison County and a pipeline spur to the Town of Dryden in Tompkins County.

The effectiveness of the New York DEC, which lost more than 22 percent of its staff due to budget cuts since 2008, remains a salient point in both the fracking and pipeline controversies.

An evaluation by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli in 2014 noted that the agency’s responsibilities continue to grow while staffing shrinks, and urged “consideration by policy makers and the public of whether the DEC has the resources necessary to carry out its critically important functions.”

Critics in the environmental field are pushing for reform. Walter Hang, an environmental database specialist and anti-fracking activist, recently uncovered 114 cases of pipeline explosions, fires, spills and releases in the DEC’s spills database since the 1980s, many of them still unresolved.

Hang said his findings, which include both oil and gas pipelines, is hard evidence that the “DEC does not have the requisite regulatory system to prevent these problems or make sure they get cleaned up when they happen. They don’t have it now and they didn’t have it years ago when they had far more staffing and were under much less pressure.”

Hang cites examples in DEC records where “some form of failure in the pipeline” in 2004 caused a blast that leveled a home on Parker Schoolhouse Road in Harpersfield, Delaware County and released 357,000 gallons of gas that burned for 18 hours. In the Town of Gilboa, Schoharie County, 100 homes were evacuated in 2010 after a 140,000 gallon gas leak. And in Candor, a spill contaminated a wetland along the Millennium Pipeline in 2010. None of the sites meet cleanup standards, according to the files.

In addition to methane, a greenhouse gas, the contents of pipelines can contain a condensate of various toxic substances, including volatile organic compounds, and additives, including ethylene glycol. Hang said the record shows pollution spilled from machinery and pipelines violate the federal Clean Water Act.

DEC spokesman Sean Mahar said the 114 spills Hang earmarked are a small percentage of the thousands of spills the agency addresses annually. Agency officials “quickly and effectively respond to all spills reported to the DEC’s spill reporting hotline, and report all activity on the DEC’s Spills Database,” he said. While it is the DEC's duty to responds to spills, Mahar added, other federal and state agencies oversee operations.

Hang, president of the Ithaca based Toxics Targeting, led several hundred protesters in an anti-pipeline rally in Albany during Governor Cuomo’s recent State of the State address. Such rallies, supported by mainstream and grass-roots organizations that comprise Governor Cuomo’s political base in the Hudson Valley and Finger Lakes regions, have become routine but effective. Having won the fracking ban, they show no signs of letting up in the campaign against fossil fuel.

Others, who have lived with natural gas pipelines as a feature in the countryside for their entire lifetime, see the expansion as no big deal.

Town of Veteran Supervisor William Winkky said some residents had concerns over issue with the compressor station planned in his town as part of the Dominion project, but they were cleared up after some informational meetings with company representatives.

“People had misinformation,” he said. “A lot of the negativity disappeared after the meetings."

Plans in the Town of Veteran call for an 11,000-horsepower station with four buildings and a network of turbines, tanks, valves and processing equipment similar to the one in Windsor.

“It’s just a pumping station,” Winkky said.