Schuyler officials will wait for DEC decision to take position on gas storage

Gwen Chamberlain
The driveway to the Savona Crestwood gas storage facility is a private road off a local road near Savona. The house in the background belongs to Robert Thompson, a former employee of the company who, despite his father’s 1964 death at the facility, says he wouldn’t live so close to it if he felt it wasn’t safe.

Seneca, Yates and Ontario Counties have all passed resolutions opposing or expressing concerns about the expansion of a liquid propane and natural gas storage facility near Seneca Lake in Schuyler County, but Schuyler County officials have not taken a position on the possible development.

Schuyler County Legislative Chairman Dennis Fagan says from what he’s seen of the Ontario and Seneca County resolutions, they don’t accurately characterize what’s happening in Schuyler County. “Three counties passed resolutions. Is their expertise greater than the geologists, energy engineers, and DEC? Do they have more expertise? I don’t think so,” he said. “We will wait until the technical materials are vetted by the DEC,” says Fagan, a retired environmental engineer.

Fagan’s demeanor shows no trace of pressure from those in the community and from neighboring communities who oppose Crestwood’s (formerly Inergy) plans. That may be because he feels the right steps — through technical and scientific review — are being taken right now, but he is concerned that political pressures will have more influence on the outcome of project reviews.

“I want the decisions based on facts and science,” he says.

In 2009 Inergy submitted its applications to construct a storage facility for 2.1 million barrels of liquid propane gas in salt caverns near Seneca Lake on a site previously owned by NYSEG, and used for storage of natural gas. At that point, the town of Reading was listed as the lead agency for the project, but Fagan stepped in and asked the state Department of Environmental Conservation to become the lead agency, “because the town didn’t have the experience.”

In 2013 Inergy applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for permission to add a half billion cubic feet to the natural gas storage capacity. An environmental assessment was done in October 2013, and a decision is pending.

Last year, Inergy merged with Crestwood to become Crestwood Midstream Partners, based in Houston.

The company’s plan is to connect energy supplies from shale “plays” to the market demand. Part of that strategy has been to develop the salt caverns near Seneca Lake into a large LP gas and natural gas storage and distribution center. Company officials have said the proposed projects would be a distribution hub for the northeast.

Saying natural gas has filled a void created when cutbacks in coal-fired power plants resulted from Environmental Protection Agency regulation changes, Fagan notes independence from foreign oil will boost the U.S. economy. “With increased reserves of natural gas we could become energy independent. Think what that could do for families who have had heartache due to mideast conflicts,” he says.

Fagan takes on concerns raised by opponents individually:

• Increased traffic: Opponents of the project say increased truck traffic will interfere with the area’s tourism business. Fagan points out the gas will be transported to the area via pipeline, then stored in the caverns until shipped out during heating season via truck or rail car to Corning and beyond. The heating season between November and May will not conflict with the height of the tourism season, he says.

• Unsafe salt caverns: Opponents raise concerns about the safety of the salt caverns and associated brine ponds where Crestwood proposes to store the gas. He reads from a letter that he says debunks claims that a roof collapse in the cavern makes them unsafe. The letter, written by Consulting Engineer Larry Sevenker in January 2013, changes his earlier assessment of the cavern. In 2001, Sevenker concluded the roof of one of the caverns had collapsed. On his recommendation, U.S. Salt, the company that extracts salt from the cavern using brine, abandoned the well where the structural integrity was questioned. Since then, he received updated sonar surveys and updated data that leads him to believe his initial assessment in 2001 was inaccurate. A letter he wrote in January 2013 has been sent to DEC permitting officials. (A copy of the letter is linked to this article online at www.Chronicle-Express.com)

Fagan says the proposed project calls for the use of two brine ponds instead of one, which he says should be safer.

As another example of the safety of the facility, Fagan refers to the Crestwood-owned storage and distribution facility near Savona. That facility has been in operation for more than 50 years. Robert Thompson, who lives next door to that facility, says he believes the business is safe. “If it wasn’t (safe), I wouldn’t live here,” says Thompson, who sold some of his property to the company for a large brine pond.

Thompson worked for Crestwood for 38 years before retiring a few years ago. He took the job not long after his own father died in what he called “an unfortunate accident” at the facility. He said the accident in 1964 spurred changes to make the workplace much safer. And since then, federal and state regulations require even more safety measures.

Another accident at the facility occurred in 2008. Four private contractors suffered burns during an explosion and flash fire when they were drilling into an empty underground storage cavern. The drill apparently struck a pocket of unknown gas which rose to the surface. The men detected the gas, and began to run from the drill, but the gas was apparently ignited by a running motor located near the drilling platform.

The day after the incident, Randy Nemecek, regional supervisor for natural resources at the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said the facility was stable and there was no further gas leakage.

According to reports in the Corning Leader from the time, the explosion was called in by a state trooper who had made a traffic stop on Interstate Highway 86, which is several hundred yards north of the facility, across the Conhocton River.

Local police, firefighters and ambulance crews quickly converged on the scene.

Entrances to the facility were immediately shut down. Upon arrival, fire crews were told to shut down their equipment, presumably to avoid triggering further explosions, according to scanner reports.

Opponents to the Seneca Lake facility have questioned Schuyler County’s preparedness for emergencies.

Fagan insists, “We’re well positioned as it relates to emergency preparedness in planning for such a facility.”

• Economies: Fagan points out that U.S. Salt bought the Schuyler County facility for the dual capacity of producing salt and storing gas. The company is one of Schuyler County’s largest employers with 130 workers on the payroll. Opponents say the storage and distribution facility’s planned employment of eight to 10 doesn’t stack up against the number of employees in local tourism businesses. Fagan also says the facility will increase the county’s taxable property value by $20 to $30 million.

While the DEC permit application has reportedly been through the technical review process, it is now in the commissioner’s office, as far as Fagan is aware. He has expressed faith in the review and permitting process, saying, “If there was a problem with structural integrity, they wouldn’t get a permit.”