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State should thoroughly investigate proposal for Seneca Lake gas storage facility

The battle under way over the underground storage of propane in the Finger Lakes wine country is playing out as a small-scale version of New York State’s hydrofracking standoff.

As with the drilling technique known as hydrofracking, state officials should continue taking their time in weighing the issues. The stakes are too high to rush to a decision.

Here’s what is brewing: a plan to store tens of millions of gallons of liquefied petroleum gas, and up to 2 billion cubic feet of natural gas, in salt caverns thousands of feet below the ground around Seneca Lake.

To environmentalists, the lake’s pristine image would be irreparably damaged by underground gas storage, harming the promise of tourism and the growing wine industry.

Underground gas storage is not new. Crestwood is already permitted to store more than 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas in salt caverns near Watkins Glen, where the company owns the U.S. Salt plant.

But the potential risks are enormous. If the project proceeds and something goes wrong, the results could be catastrophic. Critics say a leak could contaminate Seneca Lake, which provides the area with drinking water. Even without an accident, the inevitable industrial equipment and increased truck and rail traffic will mar the lake’s beauty at a time the region is trying to shed its reputation for cheap wines.

Vintners Paul Hobbs, of California’s Sonoma Valley, and Johannes Selbach, of Germany’s Mosel Valley, oppose the gas project and have said they are considering holding off on their plan for a winery on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake until the issue is resolved. Other winemakers are similarly concerned.

Just as with hydrofracking, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has been biding his time on a decision. In banning fracking, Cuomo relied on a lengthy investigation by the state Health Department that determined the risks were too great. He made the right choice. In the propane storage case, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has scheduled a Feb. 12 issues conference.

Whatever the decision, it has to be the right one and getting there should take as much time as necessary.