By Todd Hobler
In October 2015 the largest natural gas leak in U.S. history began at the Aliso Canyon underground natural gas storage field near Porter Ranch, Calif. That leak forced thousands of residents to evacuate their homes, and was not stopped until February 2016. Other leaks at underground natural gas storage facilities in the U.S., such as the leak and explosion that occurred in 2001 in Hutchinson, Kan., have resulted in tragic loss of life and significant private and public property damage.
Recognizing the severity of the Porter Ranch leak and failure of operators to voluntarily institute sufficient safeguards to protect against such incidents, Congress passed the Protecting our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety Act of 2016. The PIPES Act directed the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to develop the first-ever federal rules to regulate the operation and construction of underground natural gas storage facilities.
The rules’ operational safety standards went into effect last month for existing facilities; the rules’ construction standards go into effect on July 18 for new facilities. If Crestwood is allowed to construct the natural gas storage facility it proposes in the salt caverns beneath the shores of Seneca Lake before the new rules take effect, however, it will be exempt from these minimum safety standards. This outcome must be avoided at all costs.
The new safety standards require salt caverns be developed so that sharp corners or ledges are avoided, that salt caverns be designed with arched roofs and smooth shoulders, that maps and data used to characterize the geology – including rubble zones – be internally consistent, that sufficient space exists between adjacent storage caverns and that caverns be sufficiently remote from the top and base of the salt deposit. The caverns Crestwood proposes to use were never engineered to store gas and do not appear to meet these minimum federal standards.
Public records indicate that the caverns have flat roofs, are insufficiently removed from the salt, have irregular shapes and overhanging ledges, may be spaced too closely to meet the pillar spacing requirements and have inconsistent characterization of rubble volumes. Local residents, landowners and businesses have repeatedly asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to reconsider its order approving the facility.
We hope the agency will recognize now what we have stated all along: the salt caverns are not safe for gas storage.
We also hope that the state Department of Environmental Conservation will deny permits for Crestwood’s similarly ill-conceived plan to store liquid petroleum gas (LPG) in the salt caverns adjacent to, and of similar geology, as those proposed for natural gas storage.
The risks of storing natural gas and LPG in salt caverns that fail to meet federal safety standards on the shores of Seneca Lake just 2 miles from Watkins Glen is wrong for Seneca Lake residents and businesses, wrong for the Finger Lakes and wrong for New York.
Todd Hobler is vice president of Service Employees International Union Local 1199.