Construction hasn’t started, despite federal approval
It’s an overcast, cold early November day in Central New York, and a scene of intense hostility is taking place. A large white truck, with “Amrex Chemical Co.” written in black on the door, is stationary in the road. Four protesters are holding a sign that reads, “We Love Our Lake! No to Gas Storage…” with the rest of the sign obstructed by the truck. One protester, a short, gray-haired woman, is definitely holding up a fist, as the protesters have prevented the truck from entering the gates of the facility.
This is the scene of the “We Are Seneca Lake” protests, which are protesting the Crestwood Midstream’s planned expansion of its methane gas storage in salt caverns near the lake. Crestwood currently stores 1.45 billion cubic feet of methane and is expanding their storage to 2 billion cubic feet. The methane gas expansion project was approved by the Federal Energy Regulation Committee on Sept. 30, and protesters started protesting on Oct. 24, the day construction was cleared to start.
Charles Geisler, professor in the Department of Developmental Sociology at Cornell University, is one of the protesters who participated.
“I’ve come to feel we need to vote with more than ballots,” he said. “We need to vote with our feet and be present where energy development is problematic, and even now we need to vote with our lives.”
As of Nov. 21, 65 people were arrested protesting at Crestwood’s facility in the Schuyler county town of Reading, New York. Faith Meckley, a protester and Ithaca College student, said We Are Seneca Lake uses the policies of “civil disobedience” and prevents vehicles from entering the facility. Those arrested were charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct and face either a 15-day sentence or a $250 fine. The group’s protests are mainly based around concerns about the stability of the salt caverns, their proximity to the lake and the possible negative effects on tourism.
In a statement, a Crestwood Midstream spokesman said, “We are committed to this shovel-ready storage project, just as we are committed to the safety of our employees and contractors and their ability to access the U.S. Salt complex. The protesters know we haven’t started construction on the LPG storage project or the FERC-approved natural gas storage expansion.”
The We Are Seneca Lake group is currently protesting the methane expansion, and also opposes Crestwood Midstream’s plan to store butane and propane, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), in salt caverns. That project is awaiting approval by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. The DEC scheduled an issues conference during February to address the project.
Meckley said both projects come with major risk.
“They are looking to store methane and LPG (propane and butane) in unlined, unstable salt caverns under the western shore of Seneca Lake,” she said, “The potential for explosion and pollution of the lake is huge.”
Natural gas is the primary source of heat in the United States, and although all gas storage is subject to some risk, engineers would have thoroughly examined the caverns, said Terry Engelder, a professor in the Department of Geosciences at Penn State.
“The engineers who look at the likelihood of a salt cavern collapse would have proposed a model that it was extraordinarily unlikely that the cavern would collapse,” he said.
Andrew Kozlowski, the acting associate state geologist, approved the project.
“There does not appear to be any geological reason to deny their request to utilize the geologic formations specified for the storage of liquefied petroleum gas… It has been demonstrated that the caverns in this salt formation have a longstanding operational record as a gas storage facility without any geologic evidence of incompatibility for this intended purpose,” he wrote in his approval.
As for the LPG project, Crestwood Midstream said the project will have many benefits for the region. Crestwood said the project would create 50 construction jobs and 10 permanent jobs for the region, save New Yorkers money in energy costs and add $25 million in tax revenue to the region. Crestwood claimed last winter’s propane prices were at an all-time high because of the lack of locally-stored propane and the new project would be able to store enough gas to heat 250,000 homes.
“The Northeast LPG market lacks adequate pipeline infrastructure to serve propane consumers during peak winter demand. Our LPG storage project offers a safe, cost-effective market solution to this constraint that’s less environmentally invasive than building new pipeline,” a Crestwood spokesperson said.
Tony Ingraffea, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Cornell University, said he believed most gas stored in the region would not be used in the region.
“It will go wherever the market takes it,” he said. “If any of it is used in the Finger Lakes area, it will be an extremely small quantity. The Finger Lakes area is rather sparsely populated; it is not a large demand location for natural gas.”
Protesters are also concerned about Crestwood’s plans for the future in the region.
“We have to see the storage as part of a larger energy development system in the Northeast,” Geisler said. “It’s a comprehensive plan that involves extractions, storage, movement and then lots of infrastructure that goes along with these developments. It’s a massive industrialization of rural New York.”
Crestwood Midstream, formerly Inergy Midstream when it acquired U.S. Salt, is the company that had owned the Reading facility, in 2008. In a press release released at that time, Inergy’s CEO John Sherman said the acquisition was part of the corporation’s plans to create a “natural gas storage and transportation hub in the Northeast.”
Meckley said these plans are part of the reason the protesters aim to make Crestwood stop the project and leave the region.
“If we can stop them at their root here with this first project they are trying to do, that will be a wrench in their whole grand plan in this region that no one really wants,” she said. “I do believe if they can’t have this expansion and they can’t go forward with it, they would leave because it would not be economically worth it for them.”
In an opinion piece published in the Finger Lakes Times in September, Bill Gautrauex, the president of the Liquids and Crude Business of Crestwood Midstream, wrote natural gas has been stored in Schuyler county and surrounding communities for over 50 years. He also wrote that U.S. Salt has been part of the local community for over a century and is the largest taxpayer in Schuyler County.
The Schuyler County legislature passed a resolution encouraging the state DEC to come out in favor of the project. The resolution stated that caverns on U.S. Salt property have been used for gas storage since 1964 without incident and the legislature believed those opposing the project lobbied the governor and the DEC to “simply not make a decision on the Finger Lakes’ application.”
Dennis Fagan, chair of the Schuyler County legislature, formerly owned Fagan Engineers, an environmental engineering company. Fagan said his connections at the DEC told him the project received a technical signoff but was on the commissioner’s desk awaiting the green light from the governor.
“At that point in time it became apparent to me that this project was not being reviewed based on technical merits but was based on political merits,” he said. “At that point in time we decided to make a stand and tell the governor to support his technical decision makers and pass the project.”
Fagan believed the project will benefit his county.
“I was convinced it could be done in an environmentally safe manner and that we could have both the benefits of the project together with the growth of our tourism industry,” he said.
Critics of the project, including Meckley, said Fagan’s previous connections with the gas industry cause a conflict of interest.
“Dennis Fagan used to own Fagan Engineering, which helps make fracking infrastructure,” Meckley said. “He put the proposal to approve it on the floor and he fast tracked it through the legislature. The opposition to it in Schuyler County is huge, so I don’t think that the official thing in Schuyler County really represents the people.”
Fagan said the claims saying he has a conflict of interest are ridiculous, and he sold his company to his employees during 2012.
“If a conflict of interest means I have too much knowledge about the details of this project and the gas industry, well that’s ridiculous,” he said. “I certainly dont have any conflict of interest. I’ve never worked for Crestwood or any of its subsidiaries, never taken a penny from Crestwood or any of its subsidiaries.”
He also added the recent elections show the support of the project in his county.
“We just had an election and a legislator who was in favor of the project was reelected while he was opposed by two opponents to the project. I think that says something,” he said.
According to public resolutions, three of the four counties which border the lake (Seneca, Ontario and Yates Counties) came out against the project. One of these counties, Yates County, resolved it was concerned about the “uncertain geological stability” of the caverns, the threat of discharge of salt water into the lake, and the threat of LPG seepage into the lake.
Fagan said other counties did not do their homework.
“We studied this very closely,” he said. “We visited similar sites that Crestwood owns and operates. In my particular case, I visited those sites a total of four times. [This project] can be done in a safe manner.”
Seneca County, which includes over 50 percent of the area of the lake, also opposes the LPG storage project. In the resolution approved by Seneca County, the county expressed concern over “reports of leakage in similar structures that are neither designed nor built specifically for the purpose purposed.”
The Seneca County resolution also brought attention to a particular well Crestwood is planning on using for the LPG project, Well 58. The resolution stated this well “has previously been plugged and abandoned by the prior owner, New York State Electric and Gas Corp. and deemed no longer appropriate for storage of the type proposed by the current owner.”
In 2001, Larry Sevenker, an engineer familiar with the caverns, said Well 58 was unusable for storage and should be abandoned. In 2003, U.S. Steel plugged the well and abandoned it. However, after Crestwood’s purchase of U.S. Steel, it was reopened and Sevenker recanted his previous assessment and said he made mistakes in his 2001 assessment. However, according to Peter Mantius in The (Corning) Leader, Sevenker still said the layers of rock and salt that make the roof of the caverns do collapse.
In a letter to U.S. Salt to State Sen. Tony Avella, an opponent of the project, U.S. Salt President Mitchell Dascher addressed concerns over the collapse of Cavern 58. Dascher wrote concerns the cavern had collapsed were “false and not supported by data.” U.S. Salt said Sevenker’s analysis that the cave had collapsed was wrong due to the use of “older sonar technology,” and they had gotten approval from the DEC in 2010 to resume mining the cavern.
Meckley said any accident could be catastrophic for the region, and that the blast radius (3 miles) from the site would affect the town of Watkins Glen.
“If we let this project go forward and we’re not just talking about having an unhealthy environment, we’re talking about people dying as well,” she said. “This is a health and safety issue just as much as it is an environmental issue. And as someone who lives in the region, I see it as my responsibility to do as much as I can to keep that from happening.”
Ingraffea said the core of these protests was stopping New York taking the risks and getting the negative affects of being a storage ground for other states’ gas.
“The heart of the protest is keeping New York state from being a dumping and storage area for other states,” he said. “There is no substantial benefit for Upstate New York having that storage facility here. It would benefit companies operating from other states and people who are selling their gas in other states.”
Aidan Quigley is a freshman journalism major who doesn’t know what is going to happen. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.