Seneca LPG facility goes before judge Thursday

Derrick Ek

The state Department of Environmental Conservation will hold a two-day hearing this week on Crestwood’s proposed LPG facility on Seneca Lake, beginning a process that could eventually lead to decision on the project as the DEC’s review heads into its sixth year.

The issues conference - as it’s known in DEC terms - is set to begin at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Holiday Inn Express in Horseheads and continue for two days. It’s open to the public, but seating is limited.

An issues conference — held before an administrative law judge — is sometimes held for large-scale or controversial projects such as the $40 million LPG facility, according to DEC spokesman Peter Constantakes.

Crestwood, headquartered in Houston, wants to use salt caverns beneath its U.S. Salt plant near Watkins Glen to store large amounts of liquified petroleum gas - propane and butane.

The propane would be primarily brought in and shipped out by existing pipelines, and the butane by rail, Crestwood says, although a facility would also be built to allow propane delivery trucks to fill up there if needed.

According to the DEC’s Constantakes, the purpose of this week’s issues conference is for the judge to determine if there are “significant and substantive” issues with Crestwood’s proposal that would require adjudication. If so, the judge would schedule another hearing that would be akin to a civil trial.

After that, the judge would make a recommendation to DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens for approval or denial of Crestwood’s project.

Testifying before the judge at this week’s issues conference will be a team from Crestwood and several law firms representing the company.

Crestwood has long insisted the facility will be safely engineered with minimal risk, and will hardly be noticeable once built. Company officials also say the facility will help ensure adequate supplies and stable propane prices in the region, and that it will generate tax revenues in Schuyler County. They also point to a long history of natural gas and propane being stored without incident in the salt caverns along Seneca Lake.

“We look forward to having a meaningful dialogue about the merits of this proven, shovel-ready project,” said Bill Gautreaux, president of liquids and crude at Crestwood, in a statement. “We recognize that misinformation causes confusion, which is why we think the Issues Conference is an important opportunity to present facts, data, and science from renowned experts in geology, hydrogeology, economic impacts, risk assessment and other areas. This storage facility will be safe and will provide significant benefits to local communities, just as existing storage facilities in the Finger Lakes region have for more than 60 years.”

Dozens of LPG facility protesters have been arrested over the past few months for barricading the gates of Crestwood’s property along State Route 14 just north of Watkins Glen.

Also testifying will be several groups that have been fighting the LPG facility: Gas Free Seneca, a group of local residents and business owners represented by attorneys from Earthjustice; Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association, represented by Hammondsport attorney and water rights expert Rachel Treichler; and a coalition of 12 municipalities, around Seneca Lake, including Yates County, who will be represented by attorneys from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Both sides will have an array of experts on hand to field questions from the judge. DEC staff who’ve been involved in the review, which began in 2009, will also be there.

The main issues to be discussed will be the suitability of the salt caverns for storing LPG and the risk to Seneca Lake’s water quality; the risk of a fire, explosion or other catastrophic accident during either storage or transport of the LPG; and the potential impact on the Seneca Lake area’s wine and tourism industry.

“We have a burgeoning $3 billion industry with the vineyards and wineries in the Finger Lakes region,” said Joseph Campbell, president of Gas Free Seneca. “We’ve got this pastoral, bucolic area, this beautiful region we live in, and we believe that a massive industrial gas storage-transport facility is out of character with that.”