Forums draw crowds interested in LP gas storage project

Derrick Ek
Jack Ossont of the Committee to Preserve the Finger Lakes speaks during Thursday's Gas Free Seneca forum.

Judging by the turnout at Thursday night’s Gas Free Seneca forum, not everybody is convinced by Inergy officials’ assurances that its plans to build a Northeast gas storage and transportation hub will have minimal negative impact on Watkins Glen and Seneca Lake.

Several hundred people filled the auditorium at Watkins Glen High School and listened attentively to presentations by a half-dozen speakers – including scientists from Cornell University and Hobart College – who raised concerns about Inergy’s proposed $40 million LPG storage and distribution facility alongside Seneca Lake, just north of Watkins Glen.

The forum by Gas Free Seneca – a concerned citizens’ group – came a day after another forum organized by Schuyler County officials, during which a team of Inergy representatives discussed the project.

Wednesday, Bill Moler, a top Inergy executive, said many of the concerns about the project were based on misperceptions and inaccurate assumptions.He also spoke of the project’s importance in providing affordable fuel to customers across upstate New York and the Northeast.

The dueling forums were just the latest step in an project that has already been several years in the making, but has gained increased public attention in recent months.

Inergy, which owns the U.S. Salt plant on the west side of Seneca Lake, wants to use empty salt caverns more than 2,000 feet underground to store up to 5 million barrels of LPG, or propane and butane. A 14-acre brine pond will be dug nearby, on a hillside above the lake, near the intersection of State Route 14 and State Route 14A. A railroad and tanker truck facility would be built to transfer the LPG, and connections would be made to nearby pipelines.

That has led to concerns about truck traffic in downtown Watkins Glen and an industrialization of Seneca Lake’s wineries, cottages and scenery. Others fear explosions and fires at the LPG facility or accidents involving trucks and railcars loaded with propane. Others worry that the brine pond could breach and poison the lake.

Those concerns surfaced again at Thursday’s forum.

Jack Ossont of the Committee to Preserve the Finger Lakes, a local environmental group, showed slides of bucolic lakeside vistas and wondered how things would change as the gas industry ramped up its operations.

"It’s something that money can’t buy, living in an area like this," said Ossont, of Himrod.

There were video clips of massive LPG-related infernos that have occurred in other parts of the country.

Dr. John Halfman, a Hobart College geologist who has extensively studied Finger Lakes water quality, pointed out that the brine contained in the 14-acre pond posed a high risk to Seneca should it ever breach.

"The brine is ten times saltier than seawater, and 1,000 times saltier than the water in Seneca," Halfman said.

And Tom Shelley, a retired Cornell University environmental health professor, offered a reminder that no industrial operation is accident-proof, because of factors ranging from equipment failure to human error.

Inergy officials, however, counter that thorough engineering by its project team and the extensive review by local, state and federal regulators will ensure the project will be done safely, and says truck traffic will only average about four trucks per hour.

So what’s next?

The LPG project is currently under review by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which required Inergy to file extensive planning documents known as an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

Currently in draft form, it will be released for public comment by the DEC when finalized, and a public hearing will be held. The timetable for the release of the EIS isn’t certain, and could range from a few weeks to several months from now, according to DEC staff. Only after the EIS process is completed will the DEC give its approval.

The project will also require special use permits from the Town of Reading, the municipality in which the project is located.

In a separate project, Inergy recently purchased NYSEG’s natural gas storage facility in other salt caverns under U.S. Salt, and hopes to expand them to store up to 10 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Inergy points to a long history of LPG and natural gas being safely stored in the salt caverns – a practice that dates back to the mid-1960s.

Thursday's forum drew several hundred people.