8:57am

Tue September 27, 2011
Energy

Debate grows over gas facility on Seneca Lake

Yvonne Taylor lives across Seneca Lake from an old U.S. Salt plant.  During the day, the only sounds she hears at her woodsy home, about a hundred yards from the lake's edge, are birds, and the waves lapping against her dock.

But the purchase of the plant in 2008 by gas company Inergy has Taylor worried that a painful transformation could be in the works.

Taylor is a co-founder of a group called Gas Free Seneca, which is mobilizing to block Inergy's plans to store liquefied propane, or LPG, in U.S. Salt's old mines.

"People don't come to this region for the truck traffic, the brine ponds and the flare stacks," Taylor warns. "It's just not going to work - they can't coexist."

Tourism and safety

Taylor worries that the project would hurt the region's thriving tourism industry. Small wineries dot the lakeshore and more than 40 hotels in Schuyler County are crucial to the area’s economy.  According to the New York Department of Labor, about 250 jobs in the county are reliant on tourism.

But for Schuyler county legislature chairman Dennis Fagan, the more pressing concern is safety.  Inergy plans to create a 14-acre pond on a hill above Seneca Lake, to hold salt brine from the caverns.

"The big issue is a concern for the brine pond," Fagan says, "... if there was a breach of the brine pond, what that could do to Seneca Lake."

But Inergy president Bill Moler says the company has developed a plan that would ensure a leak never happens.

"If it were, under the worst possible circumstance, to breach and go into Seneca Lake, it's a 4.2 trillion gallon lake," he argues.

Moler says similar precautions have been taken to avoid gas leaks, which while rare, have occurred at LPG facilities.

"You know we've been dealing with this for three years. We feel like we've put forth a very, very well-designed, well-fortified project. The DEC has gone over it with a fine-tooth comb," says Moler.

Moler says, in accordance with Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) environmental review requirements, the company has prepared 32 pages of spill prevention measures.

And he notes that the project could have positive effects, including the creation of 8 to 10 new jobs, plus retaining the 120 or so jobs already at the salt plant.  Neighbors in the region could also see reduced propane costs with the storage facility nearby, and the county would see increased tax revenues.

"Additional capacity"

But the project's opponents are concerned that Inergy is hiding their real plans. According to the company's website and SEC filings, there is space for 5 million barrels of storage in the caverns - two and a half times the amount applied for. Any expansion is likely to require a new environmental impact statement.

"The market is not reflecting a need for that additional capacity, so it's not on the drawing board. But we have the capability to do it if it should present itself in the future," says Moler.

But Gas Free Seneca remains unconvinced. Their plan going forward is to push for an independent report on risks that they say weren’t addressed in Inergy's environmental review.

According to Charles Sorensen, a chemical engineer and supporter of Gas Free Seneca, other elements of Inergy's operation - like the transfer of propane in the above ground facilities through the piping, storage tanks, railcars, and trucks - should be reviewed, but haven't been.

A public hearing in Watkins Glen today will give opponents and supporters a chance to make their case to the DEC. Inergy officials will also be there to answer questions.

The public has until October 10 to comment on the project, followed by a final decision from the DEC.  If approved there, the project would then go before the Town of Reading planning board. And if it makes it that far, former planning board chairman Bill Newell says the project would likely pass - but on a split vote.