Rural New York Township Fights FERC-Approved Gas Compressor

Compressor station.(Photo: Consumers Energy / Flickr)

Drive about an hour and a half northwest of Manhattan, and in New York’s Orange County you’ll reach a rural township called Minisink. There, shrouded by greenery planted by its owner, Millennium Pipeline, to make it blend into the rural countryside, stands a gas facility called a compressor station. Compressor stations do what their name implies: they compress gas for transmission through pipelines. This one stands a half-mile from 200 Minisink homes. Looking like a barn or warehouse topped by two silo-like stacks, the compressor station connects to a 182-mile stretch of pipeline, the Millennium, which crosses southern New York, carrying gas from states that include Pennsylvania, with its thousands of frack wells. Minisinkers don’t want it in their midst. For the past two years, they have been in a tug of war with Millennium and an agency shadowy for all but the tiniest minority of Americans, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which licenses gas projects like this one.

Think the world needs an alternative to corporate media? Click here to make a tax-deductible donation to Truthout and keep independent journalism strong.

FERC’s mission statement describes it as “an independent agency,” but it approves most of the projects that come to its door. In December 2012, after a 3-2 vote to license Millennium, the majority explained why so many corporations get its thumbs up:

“Given the significant expense sponsors incur to prepare applications, there is no incentive for a project sponsor to present an application that cannot meet our standards for approval … the high approval rate for pipeline proposals demonstrates prudence on the part of the industry and consistency on the part of the Commission….”

Quick translation, just in case you’re rubbing your eyes in wonderment: money talks. (More on FERC’s decision and Minisink citizens’ challenge of it below.)

Like Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio to its south, New York lies over a vast sprawl of methane-rich, prehistoric shale called the Marcellus, a bull’s eye for high-volume hydraulic fracturing for the past decade. Much has been written about the immediate “fracking” moment that starts when drills penetrate deep shale and pressurized sand-and-chemical-laced water is pumped down to fracture the rock. But about the vast infrastructures that process and transmit shale gas? Not so much.

“The single most significant element of shale gas development that seems to just not be understood by many is its spatial intensity,” Cornell engineering professor Anthony Ingraffea, co-author of a 2011 landmark study of fracking’s colossal global-warming footprint, told me last year. “[It] involves much more than drill-the-well-frack-the-well-connect-the-pipeline-and-go-away … much more land clearing, much more devastation of forests and fields.” Almost all other industries, he continued, “occur in a zoned industrial area, inside of buildings, separated from home and farm, separated from schools.” By contrast, the industry spawned by fracking “permits the oil and gas industries to establish [their infrastructures] next to where we live. … They are imposing on us the requirement to locate our homes, hospitals and schools inside their industrial space.”

There are now 350,000 miles of gas pipelines in the United States. This map shows a national landscape criss-crossed by the structures. On another, each small square indicates a compressor station. These give some idea of the invasiveness Ingraffea describes. In little more than a decade, the high-volume fracturing industry has turned large parts of America into resource colonies for the richest corporations on the planet.

No Safe Haven

Landscapes can’t get much prettier than what you see from the porch of Leanne Baum’s house in Minisink. The sunsets won her heart first, but you can’t beat daytime in July, the bluish-green of mountains rising against the sky, the green expanses of fields, the wooded hills – I’d move here in a minute, too, if I were looking for a rural retreat an hour and a half from New York City. In search of such a safe haven, Baum and her husband, Robert, moved here in 2006 with three children who are now 13, 12 and 9. They planted a vegetable garden behind their big, clapboard house; they had another child, who is now 2.

And then, in 2011, they got a letter in the mail announcing the presence of a new neighbor. It read, Baum said, something like, “Learn what you need to know about a natural gas facility in your neighborhood.” There had been nothing in the news about the project. Neither did Minisinkers know that a neighboring farmer had sold the land on which it would soon stand. Nor did they know that Millennium’s pipeline went through their town. Before they got the letter, there was no opportunity for citizens to discuss the project, let alone vote on it. Democratic decision-making as Americans understand it just wasn’t in the picture.

Instead, Millennium held what corporate lingo calls a “scoping meeting,” where its representatives presented the plan. Also attending was a representative from FERC. Minisinkers had never heard of the agency, but at the time, Baum said, the representative seemed friendly and helpful, assuring citizens they would have plenty of time to comment on the project.

Like Baum, Pramilla Malick and her husband, Ibrahim, thought their town didn’t allow industrial facilities: “We were told by the real estate agent that this area can never be industrialized because zoning prohibits it,” she said. But while the state’s powerful anti-fracking movement has used zoning laws to ban fracking from at least 159 New York towns and municipalities, it hasn’t been able to stop the industry from building gas infrastructures. That’s because local land-use laws govern gas drilling, while interstate pipeline and other infrastructure projects are considered interstate commerce. Under the Natural Gas Act of 1934, FERC regulates and licenses such “commerce.”

Placed at 40- to 100-mile intervals along pipelines, compressor stations boost corporate efficiency by increasing the volume and speed of gas for its journeys. But they can explode, as one did in Langston, Oklahoma this past April, and another in New Jersey this past May. Even more troubling are their emissions, which have plagued residents in states from Texas to Pennsylvania. Millennium Pipeline representative Steven Sullivan told Truthout that the Minisink compressor station conforms to federal air-safety standards, adding that what’s emitted is “mainly water vapor.” But the company’s own report to FERC shows that the facility will emit more than 100 tons of pollutants with potential health impacts, as well as almost 62,000 tons of greenhouse gases every year.

Environmental chemist Wilma Subra, a MacArthur “genius” fellow, former vice-chair of the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology, and respected even by energy corporation leaders for her knowledge and accuracy, lists some 40 symptoms in people living near compressor stations. Among them are nasal and throat irritation, frequent nausea, bronchitis and coughing, shortness of breath, frequent nosebleeds, irregular or rapid heartbeat and dizziness. (Recent infrared videos show emissions, otherwise invisible, streaming into the air from the Minisink compressor station, which began running in June 2013.)

Baum’s house stands about 700 feet from the facility. “We have four children, and we don’t want to live here not knowing what’s in the air they’re going to breathe,” she said. Pramilla Malick said she has had three asthma attacks since the compressor station began operating. So have three of the couple’s four children. Neither Malick nor the children have asthma histories. Similar complaints across the country have triggered testing by independent organizations. A recent study by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project suggests that air pollution is a more serious consequence of the fracking industry than water contamination. According to David Brown, a veteran toxicologist and consultant for the organization, air exposure to gas-industry chemicals is even more complicated than exposure through water, food and soil. Contaminated air has a greater impact, for instance, during heavy activity. “Children running around are more apt to be exposed than older people,” Brown said. A further complication is that chemicals act synergistically, not as single agents. “The presence of one agent can increase the toxicity of another by severalfold,” he said.

A final concern for the citizens is the compressor station’s position on the pipeline. Thirty inches wide for most of its 182-mile course, in Minisink the Millennium connects to an older, narrower, 7.5-mile length of 24-inch pipe running under a Delaware River tributary, the Neversink. The compressor station stands just above this aging bottleneck, increasing the velocity of the gas traveling toward it. Residents fear that the increased rush of gas into that segment could cause an explosion like a catastrophic blast in San Bruno, California, three years ago. (Millennium has had earlier pipeline-engineering problems, described here.)

Among experts who wrote critically to FERC about the proposed facility is Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety expert and consultant of 40 years’ experience. “[T]he Minisink Compressor Project is a very poor proposal and should be rejected,” he wrote in his comments to the agency. In specific, he cited “extremely high gas velocities, exceeding … prudent design standards.” (To resolve the problem, Kuprewicz said Millennium should replace the Neversink segment with pipe conforming to the rest of the line.)

As for the speeds with which companies can send gas through pipelines, there turn out to be no federal safety regulations. “Historically,” Kuprewicz told me, “gas transmission companies have had internal specifications for designing gas velocities. These vary by companies, and they’re usually protected as trade secrets.” While speeds of more than 40 feet per second are commonly considered unsafe, Kuprewicz said, that understanding isn’t encoded in law. In the Minisink case, the gas travels at more than 60 feet per second, he said, but because no federal safety regulations exist, there is, technically speaking, no minimum safety violation. “This,” Kuprewicz wrote me in a recent email, “is a serious loophole in minimum pipeline safety regulations.”

Kuprewicz was the only expert to submit commentary to FERC. Until they finally hired a lawyer in 2012, Minisink’s citizens were left on their own to prove the potential harms of the facility. Their work included finding another location for the compressor station, a last-ditch effort to meet the corporation halfway. (Millennium had suggested several alternatives: all lay in the same half-mile Minisink radius.) Walking around the region and doing online research, they found what seemed an ideal location ten miles away. As recently as 2010 it had housed another compressor station. Unlike Minisink, it was zoned for industrial activity.

In the months following July, 2011, when Millennium filed its application with FERC to build the compressor station, 800 citizens addressed comments to the agency, opposing the facility. Among them were 9/11 first responders, so many of whom have sought the area out as a retreat from their scarifying experiences at the Twin Towers that it now bears the nickname “guns and hoses.” (The region’s senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, who touts “health care for 9/11 heroes” at her website, ignored both residents’ calls and a protest outside her Manhattan office in July 2013. Several calls by Truthout to Gillibrand and her aides have gotten no response.)

A year after Millennium filed its application with FERC, the agency voted to give Millennium its license. The go-ahead was usual; the split vote wasn’t. One of the dissenters was the commission’s chairman, Jon Wellinghoff, who said, “[E]ven after mitigation, the Minisink project will have significant adverse environmental consequences.” Both he and the commission’s other dissenter, Cheryl A. LaFleur, endorsed the alternative site as one that would allow a smaller compressor station with less environmental damage.

A group of ten Minisink residents is appealing FERC’s decision to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. “This is a unique case,” said their attorney, Carolyn Elefant. “It’s very unusual to find a compressor station in the middle of a community. The alternative location had been used for a compressor station. It’s very unusual for there to be such an alternative. And it’s almost unprecedented to have two commissioners dissent in this type of case.” Charging the agency with violating its own siting guidelines and precedents when it approved the compressor station, Elefant also underscores the agency’s “money talks” (my term) or “presumptive” (legalese) policy of “favoring a private company’s proposal [despite] overwhelming evidence of … an operationally, environmentally and economically preferable alternative endorsed by dissenters.”(Elefant says the decision may be as much as a year away.)

“If we can’t win this, no one can,” said Deborah Lain, an organic farmer who raises beef cattle on a family farm built in Minisink in 1785. Malick puts it this way: “When you trample over the rights of one community, you trample over everyone’s. If our rights are ignored, then no one has any.” 

Correction: An earlier edition of this story ran a headline erroneously locating Minisink in New Jersey. Minisink is in New York.