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Wine, Not Gas! New York Residents Fight Gas Storage at Lake Seneca

A company’s five-year-long drive to store massive quantities of fracked gas in abandoned salt caverns, prone to collapse, is nearing conclusion, with the final decision up to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Lake Seneca in Geneva, New York (Photo: Pak Gwei, Hazard sign; Edited: EL / TO)

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New York’s Finger Lakes region is a national treasure: 9,000 square miles of forest, wetlands, streams and lakes, including 10,000 acres of vineyards. The Finger Lakes wine industry now rivals California’s and, say some wine-lovers, even France’s. Finger Lakes National Forest has 13,232 acres of forest, trails, ponds and wildlife. Just southwest of the forest is Watkins Glen, a geological marvel formed 12,000 years ago, its 19 waterfalls cascading over walls of leafy shale directly into Seneca Lake. The lake is the largest and deepest of the Finger Lakes, furnishing water for 100,000 people.

Now this region is in imminent danger of becoming a major gas hub. A five-year-long drive by the corporation Crestwood Midstream Partners (formerly Inergy Midstream LP) to store massive quantities of fracked gas under Seneca Lake, is nearing its conclusion. In May the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), without whose permission the project cannot go forward, approved it despite widespread opposition by the region’s residents. Most of the hundreds of comments filed with FERC, which allows the public to submit written statements during its reviews, denounced the project.

The Finger Lakes wine industry now rivals California’s and, say some wine-lovers, even France’s.

Three of four counties with Seneca Lake shorelines – Seneca, Ontario and Yates – have either passed resolutions against the plan or, in the case of Yates County, a strongly written letter of opposition to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). (The fourth county, Schuyler, on June 13, voted 5 to 3 for the plan in a resolution ramrodded through its legislature by legislative chair Dennis Fagan. Despite historic ties to the gas industry, Fagan refused to recuse himself.)

Five townships – Geneva, Waterloo, Romulus, Fayette and Ulysses – and the region’s largest and most densely populated municipality, Geneva (the city is in the county of the same name), have passed similar resolutions. Nearly all of them are bipartisan, prompting Joseph Campbell, president of the grassroots organization Gas Free Seneca, to say, “This is not a political issue. This is a way-of-life issue.”

Resistance Includes Wineries, Vineyards

Driving the votes by the other four counties and the towns is a grassroots movement that from 2011 forward has drawn ordinary citizens, health professionals and over 200 regional businesses (including many wineries and vineyards) into resistance against the project. In fall 2012, New York state activists began staging acts of civil disobedience to show their opposition. In March 2013, 12 people – “the Seneca Lake 12,” as they’re known, and who include renowned biologist and environmental writer Sandra Steingraber – blocked a gas compressor station Crestwood has built at the site. Three of the protestors, including Steingraber, chose to go to jail for that act rather than paying the fines that might have consigned the protest to oblivion. Subsequent protests include a demonstration of hundreds this past July 14 in Watkins Glen.

“This is not a political issue. This is a way-of-life issue.”

It remains for New York’s gas-friendly DEC to issue what will stand as the final decision about the project. If Crestwood gets its way, it will contravene the will of the majority of Finger Lake counties; major townships; a wide range of businesses; thousands of citizens who have signed a petition against the project; regional physicians, nurses, and other health-care practitioners. In short, the DEC’s final permit to allow the industrialization of this region would represent a triumph of corporate force against grassroots democracy.

The Backstory: Inergy Buys land on Seneca Lake

Five years ago, a subsidiary of Inergy Midstream LP, the largest gas transport and storage corporation in the United States, bought land on Seneca Lake from New York Electric and Gas Corporation. In 2013 Inergy merged with another corporation, Crestwood LP, “to create a true mid-cap partnership that connects energy supply in North America’s premier shale plays with energy demand through a best-in-class midstream network.” Translation: Crestwood Midstream Partners, spawn of the merger, will propel the US boom in the Marcellus Shale by providing transport and storage for its fracked gas. At Seneca Lake, Crestwood boasted to its investors in 2011, there are 2 billion feet of storage capacity in salt caverns that lie far beneath the water. What it failed to disclose was that salt caverns are notoriously prone to cave-ins, with a deplorable historical track record for gas storage.

If Crestwood gets its way, it will contravene the will of the majority of Finger Lake counties.

For millennia, salt has been mined for consumption and food preservation. Salt caverns, which are seeing a comeback as gas repositories, are abandoned salt mines a thousand feet or more beneath ground and, in the case of Lake Seneca, water. In Louisiana, the collapse of salt caverns used this way has resulted in massive seepages of gas and oil into surface and groundwater, necessitating the evacuation of whole communities.

According to a 2004 report by an industry insider, salt caverns are far more prone to catastrophic accidents than other underground storage places. Journalist Peter Mantius, who in January 2013 cited that report in a story about salt-cavern gas storage, added that in 2002, salt caverns constituted only 7 percent of the United States’s 407 underground gas storage sites. But between 1972 and 2004, they were responsible for all 10 of the catastrophic accidents involving gas storage. A Seneca Lake cavern, where Crestwood plans to store its liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), was plugged and abandoned a decade ago after an engineer concluded that in the 1960s its roof had collapsed in a minor earthquake. Another cavern, wrote Mantius, “sits directly below a rock formation weakened by faults and characterized by ‘rock movement’ and ‘intermittent collapse.’ “

In a January 2014 follow-up story the same reporter wrote that Arlington Storage, the Crestwood subsidiary mentioned above, denied that it ever knew about the collapse and that FERC has never publicly acknowledged it. Yet FERC’s records show that its commissioners did ask Arlington Storage if it knew about any cavern collapse, indicating the FERC commissioners’ clear understanding that such events do take place.

The possibility that neither Crestwood’s subsidiary nor FERC knew about the collapse seems highly unlikely: What fell from the top of the cavern during that minor earthquake was no pebble. It weighed 400,000 tons and was four times the size of the U.S.S. Nimitz supercarrier, one of the largest warships in the world. A report from 1969 when the collapse occurred, accessible to anyone who wanted to do some research about cavern insecurity, was available. A prominent geologist, H.C. Clark, hired by opponents of the Crestwood project, has charged both Arlington Storage and FERC with making “an incredible error” in pushing the project forward. (Clark holds a Ph.D. in geophysics from Stanford and has taught the subject for decades.) Yet another earthquake took place in September 2013 under the lake’s western shore. (Yes: the region lies on a fault line.)

Disasters Waiting to Happen

Other potential dangers are in the making.

  • Brine: In the salt caverns, the gas will displace brine, which would have to be stored in huge brine ponds – one at 7 acres and a 1 million-barrel capacity, the other at 2 acres with a 172,000-barrel capacity. That amounts to some 80 million gallons of a substance many times saltier than seawater. Brine releases could devastate the delicate ecology of the lake and surrounding land.
  • Explosions: Propane is highly volatile and prone to explosion. One such disaster in Toronto in 2008 resulted in the evacuation of thousands of people from their homes, the deaths of two people and a cleanup cost of $1.8 million. Accessing a video showing what looks like an aerial bombardment of the city, you’ll find numerous other videos and stories about similar explosions.
  • Tanker truck accidents/explosions: Tanker trucks will carry some of the gas. In 2008, a tanker carrying propane exploded in Tacoma Washington. Another such explosion occurred in 2013 in Japan. Around 50,000 trucking accidents occur every year in the United States. Propane tankers servicing the Crestwood site would have to proceed through the village of Watkins Glen. In the village, says Gas Free Seneca’s Campbell, “there’s a steep hill and an S curve. If, in winter, say, on the icy road, a truck lost control and crashed, it could take out the whole northern end of Watkins Glen.”
  • Tanker train accidents/explosions: Trains would carry most of the gas, each car bearing a 30,000-gallon load. Propane tanker trains pose dangers similar to the ones that have been making headlines as trains bearing fracked oil have crashed and burned. In the Seneca Lake area, the trains would have to make a perilous passage over a trestle spanning a deep gorge in the village of Watkins Glen. A derailment could send a car 80 to 100 feet into the gorge, says Campbell, rupturing the tanker and causing the dispersion of “a dense, ground-hugging vapor cloud because it’s heavier than air, and it will funnel right down to the center of town.” The vapor cloud would asphyxiate anyone in the area. “[And] one spark, somebody turning an ignition key in a car or trying to light a cigarette, the vapor would ignite resulting in a massive explosion. This area would never recover from that. The Finger Lakes would be tarnished forever.”

The possibility that neither Crestwood’s subsidiary nor FERC knew about the collapse seems highly unlikely: What fell from the top of the cavern during that minor earthquake was no pebble. It weighed 400,000 tons and was four times the size of the U.S.S. Nimitz supercarrier, one of the largest warships in the world.

The project’s potential dangers were noted by hundreds of commenters to FERC. Other impacts cited include toxic and carcinogenic volatile organic compounds emitted from the industrial complex; greatly increased truck and rail traffic; noise, air and light pollution; impacts on non-migratory bird species and the region’s animal life. Many people writing to FERC noted the beauty and tranquility of the region and its burgeoning tourism and wine industries. A majority of the comments to FERC protested the plan. Nevertheless, the agency approved it.

No shortage of propane

Finally, storage on the lake seems unnecessary. “We already have 1.5 million barrels of propane right across the road from where they want to put this thing,” says Campbell, “but it’s in shallow, specially designed, lined rock caverns.” Less than 30 miles south, Crestwood owns another underground storage facility engineered for gas storage. Scarcely 60 miles to the east, over 600,000 barrels of propane is stored underground in Hartford Mills, New York. “There’s no shortage [of propane gas],” adds Yvonne Taylor, cofounder of Gas Free Seneca and Campbell’s partner. “It’s just that they’re exporting it now.” Propane exports from the United States increased in 2013 to over 400,000 barrels a day (16,800,000 gallons), 300,000 more barrels than in 2010. Again, look at this graph: For those of you who are checking the stats, that’s four times as much as three years ago. (Another Truthout story reported why gas industry claims of “shortages” aren’t credible.)

Prompted by the Schuyler County vote, organizers brought between 200 and 500 demonstrators to Watkins Glen July 14. “We want Governor Cuomo to know that Schuyler County’s actions don’t represent its constituency,” says Campbell, adding that Cuomo has the power to stop the project. “Everything we have done aims to convince Governor Cuomo [to protect] the Finger Lakes. We want him to do the right thing and help us protect our region from industrialization.” Opponents of the gas storage project plan civil disobedience if Cuomo approves it. And if the governor gives the go-ahead, Gas Free Seneca is poised to sue the Department of Environmental Conservation.

(At Gas-Free Seneca a down-loadable public action letter to Governor Cuomo is posted for readers who want to indicate their own opposition.)

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