Dec 052014

Disaster video in the making? Yes or no, take your pick

Barges and groves of trees being sucked down watery sinkholes. Downtown buildings erupting in geysers of flame that can’t be quenched.

Forget the rhetoric. Just roll the videotape, and you’ll see what some people would have you believe is in store for the southwestern shore of Seneca Lake.

Others say such things could never, ever happen there.

This is the essence of the controversy that’s focused on one company’s proposals to store large quantities of propane, butane and methane in underground facilities along the southwest shore of the largest Finger Lake.

After delays that in one case stretches back five years, the proposals by Houston-based Crestwood Midstream are suddenly advancing through the government approval process.

Federal regulators last month okayed the proposal to expand Crestwood Midstream’s methane (natural gas) storage capacity from 1.45 to 2 billion cubic feet. State regulators on Monday issued a draft permit for the propane and butane storage project. Company officials were quoted expressing relief that their projects had begun to move forward.

This was not welcome news to the residents, business owners and environmental activists who have been protesting the proposals since they came to light. In what was not the first such incident, 10 protesters got themselves arrested blocking trucks at the site two weeks ago.

“People are lining up to get arrested to demonstrate their commitment to preserving the region’s beauty, peace and integrity,” said the Rev. Nancy Kasper of North Rose, Wayne County, one of those busted on Oct. 29. “It really affects every person who lives, works, visits or simply loves the region. It’s going to ruin the nature of the area by industrializing a world-renowned wine industry, agricultural and tourist destination.”

One person pleaded guilty and was jail, and has been the subject of a candlelight vigil. The others are due back in court next week.

The fierce reaction to the proposals stems in part from their location — in the heart of wine and tourist country on the shore of one of the state’s biggest and most beautiful lakes. It also stems from the bedrock opposition that exists among quite a few New Yorkers to anything that has to do with the form of gas and oil extraction known as hydraulic fracturing.

Crestwood Midstream must be wondering where it went wrong. The company has billed the twin projects on its 586-acre site as economically beneficial, safe and no different from the other natural gas and LPG storage facilities that dot upstate New York.

New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation noted three liquid petroleum gas facilities in use as of 2012. They all were located in the south-central part of the state. All three store LPG in salt caverns — giant roomed carved from natural salt deposits by miners.

And at last count New York was home to 24 underground natural gas storage facilities with a combined working capacity of 122 billion cubic feet. That placed New York third among states in number of facilities and ninth in working capacity.(See the data sethere.) All of these storage facilities are in what are called depleted gas fields, meaning the gas is forced into rock formations from which gas was previously removed.

As the map indicates, facilities are scattered throughout the western portion of upstate New York. Several lie near two other Finger Lakes, Honeoye and Keuka.

The expansion approved last month near Seneca Lake increases upstate’s storage capacity only by about one-half of one percent.

But the opponents argue that all underground storage isn’t created equal.

Crestwood’s facilities at Seneca Lake would be located in salt caverns and opponents point out that while salt deposits can be very stable formations, they also can be subject to failure. That’s where the disaster videos come in.

The video that’s linked above depicts an episode in Louisiana in August 2012, when the collapse of a salt cavern in a brine-production mine created a sinkhole that began draining Bayou Corne. Nearby residents were evacuated and remain displaced more than two years later.

Another even more spectacular disaster occurred in the same state in 1980, when an exploratory oil rig on Lake Peigneur in Louisiana accidentally punctured the ceiling of an active salt-mine cavern below, causing the lake to drain into the mine through what has been described as the biggest sinkhole in history.

And then there was the dreadful fires in Hutchinson, Kansas in January 2001. Natural gas being stored in a salt cavern escaped, apparently through a broken pipe, migrated through the rock and emerged miles away to fuel terrible, mysterious fires.

Though the video isn’t quite so jaw-dropping, the ceiling in a chamber of the historic Retsof salt mine in Livingston County collapsed in 1994, creating a sinkhole and other odd geological impacts and led to the abandonment of the mine.

Crestwood Midstream, whose officials didn’t return a call for comment for this blog, have argued that the circumstances of those disasters were different, and that the salt caverns they plan to use are solid. Federal regulators clearly agree, and the DEC seems to be trending that way.

But as Peter Mantius of DC Bureau explained, at least one cavern at Seneca Lake has suffered a ceiling collapse, though the feds supposedly paid it no mind. (His has been the best reporting on these projects, by the way, and you can read it all via that link.)

Opponents raise other concerns — brine pumped out of the salt caverns would be stored in surface ponds, creating a potential source of pollutants for the lake. And life near the site would be disrupted by a marked increase in truck and train traffic.

But it’s the videos that allow opponents of the Seneca Lake projects to raise the specter of catastrophe — the waters of Seneca Lake disappearing down a hellish sinkhole or Watkins Glen lying in ashes.

Likely to happen? No. Impossible? Maybe not. Enough to stop the projects? We’ll see


 Posted by at 5:26 pm