A Risk Too Far

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Jan 262015

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Risk Too Far

Assessing risk is a complicated thing.  The technical definition of risk — that it is equal to the statistical probability of exposure multiplied by the statistical probability of harm — seems simple enough.  But in practice, calculating those probabilities is far from straightforward.  And when you throw in questions like, “Are the people exposed to the risk the same ones as the ones who are benefiting from it?” and “What if the people involved in the risk assessment are very likely to be lying to you?”, it becomes damn near impossible to determine.

Such is the situation we find ourselves in, here in upstate New York.  The current controversy that is polarizing the region surrounds the benefits and risks of hydrofracking and storage of natural gas and liquified petroleum gas (LPG) in salt caverns underneath Seneca and Cayuga Lake.  You see signs in front of houses saying “Ban Fracking!” and “Friends of New York State Natural Gas” in almost equal numbers.
So let’s roll out some facts, here, and see what you think.
Hydrofracking well in the Barnett Shale, near Alvarado, Texas [image courtesy of photographer David R. Tribble and the Wikimedia Commons]
Hydrofracking involves the use of sand, salt, and surfactant-laden water to blow open shale formations to release trapped natural gas.  The gas is pumped back up, along with a toxic slurry of “fracking fluid” that then has to be disposed of.  The gas itself is transported down a spider’s web of pipelines, some of which pump the pressurized gas down into the abandoned salt mines that honeycomb our area.
In upstate New York, the permission to build the infrastructure for this massive project was granted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last year, in a move that brushed aside objections from geologists and ecologists, and which appears to many of us to be a rubber-stamp approval of corporate interests over safety and clean drinking water.  Now, Crestwood Midstream, a Texas-based energy company, wants to expand the current salt-cavern storage to include LPG.
So let’s see what we can do to consider the risks involved in this project.
The first piece, the risk of exposure, involves looking at the history of fracking and gas storage, to see if comparable facilities have experienced problems.  So here are a few accidents that have occurred in such sites:
What I haven’t told you, however, is the time scale involved with these events.
All of them occurred within the past twelve months.
Kind of puts a new spin on the gas industry’s claim that fracking is safe for humans and for the environment, doesn’t it?
What seals the deal is the question of what happens after these accidents occur.  The answer is: not much.  The question is, honestly, not so much “what is done?” but “what could be done?”  And the answer is still: not much.  Such accidents are nearly impossible to remediate completely, and leave behind fouled ecosystems and contaminated drinking water that won’t be useable for generations.
So as you can see from the above list, accidents really are more of a matter of “when,” not “if.”  This leaves it to the local residents to consider what the response would be if the unthinkable happens.  The result would be the salinization of a huge amount of water in the south end of Seneca Lake, which would likely be permanent as far as human lifetimes are concerned, given Seneca Lake’s depth and slow rate of flushing.  Aquifers would become too saline to use for drinking water or agriculture, which would destroy not only local farms but the multi-million-dollar winery industry that has become a mainstay of the economy.
And whose responsibility would it be if a problem did occur?  The answer is, “Not Crestwood’s.”  They are not insured against accidents of this scale.  To quote directly from their own 10K report:

These risks could result in substantial losses due to breaches of contractual commitments, personal injury and/or loss of life, damage to and destruction of
property and equipment and pollution or other environmental damage. These risks may also result in curtailment or suspension of our operations. A natural
disaster or other hazard affecting the areas in which we operate could have a material adverse effect on our operations. We are not fully insured against all risks inherent in our business. In addition, we are not insured against all environmental accidents that might occur, some of which may result in toxic tort claims.

If there was a salt cavern collapse similar to one that happened in the 1960s, the result would be nothing short of a catastrophe for the local residents, because there would be no compensation forthcoming in the way of insurance money.  The only recourse would be a “toxic tort claim” against Crestwood, which would result in costly litigation that would be far too expensive for an average resident to pursue.
And Crestwood is planning on taking the same cavern that experienced a 400,000 ton roof collapse fifty years ago, and filling it with pressurized natural gas.
So if the whole thing blows up in our faces, literally and figuratively, Crestwood can cut their losses and go home to Texas.  We don’t have that option.
This hasn’t stopped the pro-gas voices from characterizing the risk as minimal, and the people who are speaking out against Crestwood as crazy tree-huggers who have “drunk the Kool-Aid” and who are the victims of “imaginary delusions.”  These last phrases are direct quotes from one David Crea, an engineer for U.S. Salt, a company that is now owned by Crestwood.  Responsible, intelligent people, say Crea, couldn’t possibly be against gas storage in salt caverns; and he points out that a lot of the people who have been protesting the Crestwood Expansion are from the eastern half of Schuyler County, not the western half, where the facility is located.
Because, apparently, you have to live right on top of a disaster before you’re allowed to have an opinion about it.  This kind of illogic would claim that the objections of a woman in Oregon to the siting of a pesticide factory 400 yards away from an elementary school in Middleport, New York are irrelevant because “she doesn’t live there.”  (I didn’t make that up; read about the situation here, which resulted in dozens of children suffering from permanent lung damage.)
So sorry, Mr. Crea; it’s not the concerned locals who have “drunk the Kool-Aid.”  There’s not that much Kool-Aid in the world.  It’s the citizens you and your ilk have hoodwinked, and who now sit on top of a site that has a ridiculously high likelihood of catastrophic failure.  And if you multiply all of those risk factors together, you come up with a figure so large that you would have to be on Crestwood’s payroll to consider it acceptable.

WRITE ON: Two rallies for one lake

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Jan 232015

WRITE ON: Two rallies for one lake

By MICHAEL FITZGERALD | Posted: Friday, January 23, 2015 5:05 pm

Finger Lakes Times, Geneva, NY


What a difference six months can make.

A regional rally of nearly 500 people marched through Watkins Glen last July to protest a narrowly approved Schuyler County Legislature resolution supporting liquid propane gas storage in unlined salt caverns on the west shore of Seneca Lake.

That county resolution urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo to approve a proposal to store 88 million gallons of LPG in caverns three miles north of Watkins Glen.

Next Saturday, Jan. 31, Geneva will be the site of another regional rally. But this one is to make it clear the future of the lake is not solely in the hands of misguided Schuyler County elected officials.

The rally has also been organized to demonstrate the rapidly growing regional — and nearly unanimous — Finger Lakes solidarity against the project.

The Geneva rally will begin at Waterfront Park followed by a march through downtown (with a visit to GOP Congressman Tom Reed’s office) before ending up at Geneva City Hall.

Speakers include Seneca County’s Steve Churchill, environmental activist Sandra Steingraber, Geneva City Councilman Ken Camera and Doug Couchon, one of the key organizers of the “We Are Seneca Lake” group.

We Are Seneca Lake has been grabbing state and national headlines since October for its blockade and arrests at the Town of Reading site where Crestwood of Houston has federal approval to store natural gas and is seeking permits to add LPG — under high pressure — to its underground inventory.

Two hundred people had been arrested for trespassing as of Monday. Arrests continue almost daily.

The Geneva rally, dubbed “We Are Seneca Lake, Too,” is part of the run-up to the Feb. 12 state Department of Environmental Conservation issues conference in Horseheads.

James T. McClymonds, chief administrative law judge for the DEC, will be taking testimony from proponents and opponents.

If McClymonds believes the issues and evidence opposing a state permit for the LPG storage are weighty enough, he is expected to recommend a court hearing at a later date.

It’s like a playoff game. Everything is on the line for opponents who need to convince McClymonds to give them a day in court. The same for Crestwood, which wants the permits issued to start LPG storage in the caverns right away.

Among other issues, the danger posed to lake water quality is expected to be a key matter on the table. Seneca Lake currently provides water to more than 100,000 people.

While both sides have prepared their evidence and lined up a slew of experts to testify, the Schuyler County Legislature — the same legislature that voted to support the LPG storage in July — decided against becoming involved in the conference, instead opting to let gas industry lobbyists make their case for approval.

But in a surprise move, Schuyler legislators Michael Lausell, a Democrat, and Van Harp, a Republican, broke ranks with their colleagues and filed with the DEC to be allowed to offer evidence and testimony outlining concerns about sketchy safety protocols in the county to handle any propane storage related emergency.

Their action constitutes a political earthquake and directly challenges Dennis Fagan, just reelected legislative chair and an ardent booster of LPG storage. His support comes despite citizens’ demands he recuse himself from all gas matters because of a perceived conflict of interest. Fagan is up for reelection in November to keep his legislative seat.

The political case has been tightly stitched against the LPG storage with each rally, the regional alliance, official government-backed resolutions, arrests and overwhelming public opposition.

If the scientific case presented Feb. 12 is as strong, perhaps the next regional rallies will be celebrations of making it through this playoff.

Fitzgerald worked for six newspapers as a writer and editor as well as a correspondent for several news services. He lives in Valois and Watkins Glen with his wife. They are owner/operators of a publishing enterprise called *subject2change Media. His “Write On” column appears Fridays. He can be contacted at Michael.Fitzgeraldfltcolumnist@gmail.com.