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National Fuel pipeline controversy front and center in Pendleton, Wheatfield

PENDLETON – National Fuel’s efforts to move natural gas from the fracking fields of Pennsylvania to market have ignited a storm of controversy in the adjoining towns of Pendleton and Wheatfield, and it doesn’t look like the debate is going to let up anytime soon.

The company is planning to build about two miles of pipeline in Pendleton to connect its existing supply line to the major Empire Pipeline, also owned by National Fuel, which runs beneath the Niagara River and across Grand Island to connect with a Canadian pipeline under the west branch of the river off Chippawa, Ont.

For decades, the gas in the Empire Pipeline has run west to east, bringing Canadian gas that originated in the petroleum fields of Alberta to markets in the United States, specifically in New York and New England.

Now, with the fracking boom in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, the flow is being reversed. The plentiful and cheaper fracked gas is in demand by Canadian utilities, and National Fuel, whose Seneca Resources production subsidiary is drilling numerous fracking wells in Pennsylvania, wants to meet that demand.

However, almost 30 percent of the fracked gas is being diverted to other pipelines that will take it to upstate New York and New England, according to Ronald C. Kraemer, president of Empire Pipeline and vice president of National Fuel Supply Corp.

Empire has a contract to deliver the rest of the fracked gas to the Trans-Canada Pipeline connection under the Niagara River, Kraemer said. Then the gas can be directed to Toronto and other markets in Southern Ontario, or it could be pumped across Ontario to recross the border in Michigan and serve markets in the Midwest.

To make the sales, National Fuel is investing an estimated $455 million in enlarged pipelines in Western New York to hook up with the pipes that lead to Canada. That’s where the local opposition comes in.

There is an existing 16-inch-diameter connection between the supply line and Empire Pipeline off Shawnee Road in Wheatfield, including a location near a residential subdivision called Knottingwood Drive. There was a noisy gas leak there at 3 a.m. Aug. 5, 2012, which caused the evacuation of 17 homes and has been a talking point for opponents of the pipeline project worried about the possibility of explosions.

The pipeline was there before the subdivision was built, Kraemer said.

The existing connection also runs past the old Frontier Chemical landfill on Wheatfield-Pendleton Town Line Road, a hazardous waste site which already was closed when the connection was built more than 15 years ago.

In Pendleton, National Fuel has plans to build a new connection between the smaller local supply lines and the major Empire Pipeline to Canada.

That new connection, to the existing Empire Pipeline in the western part of the town near Beach Ridge Road, includes two miles of new pipeline and requires a pair of powerful compressors, totaling 22,000 horsepower, to make up for the pressure difference between the pipelines.

“Without the Pendleton compressor station, you can’t get into Empire, period, and you can’t access any of the markets Empire services,” Kraemer said. Depending on the purchases made on the open market, he said those could include the utilities serving local customers, including National Fuel’s local system or New York State Electric & Gas Corp.

Pendleton preferred

The company’s first choice was to build the compressor at Aiken and Beach Ridge roads in Pendleton, but residents of that heavily populated area howled, and the company sought another location. Besides the proximity to homes, the Aiken Road site would have forced excavation and enlargement of the existing pipeline right in front of the toxic waste site at Frontier Chemical.

The company made a deal with the Tonawanda Sportsmen’s Club for 20 acres on Killian Road near Wheatfield-Pendleton Town Line Road. The option covers half of a field now leased by the club to a local farmer, Kraemer said.

The Empire Pipeline already cuts through Wheatfield, running mainly along a railroad line from east to west until it makes a 90-degree turn to the south in Vantage International Point, an industrial park off Lockport and Walmore roads and controlled by the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency.

National Fuel planned to construct another necessary part of the pipeline upgrade there: an $8 million dehydration station to remove the water vapor that comes out of the ground with the gas.

It’s necessary because Canadian regulators allow only four pounds of water for every million cubic feet of gas pumped through their country’s pipelines, while U.S. regulators will allow “wetter” gas of seven pounds of water per million cubic feet.

Kraemer said that meant the company needed to build a dehydration facility somewhere between the border and the Pendleton linkup between Empire Pipeline with the new supply lines coming from the south. The choices were Wheatfield and Grand Island.

“We never looked at Grand Island,” Kraemer said last week. The company wanted to build in the Vantage industrial park, where the pipeline already runs, and actually obtained an option on land there.

Protecting the air base

However, politics became involved. Wheatfield Supervisor Robert B. Cliffe said that the proposed dehydration location was about 1,000 feet east of the main runway for the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.

Members of the Niagara Military Affairs Council, including Niagara County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz and then-County Legislature Chairman William L. Ross, urged National Fuel to move the dehydration station away from the air base, for fear that it could be considered a negative if the Pentagon includes Niagara Falls on any future list of military bases it wants to close. With some 3,500 jobs, the base is the largest single employer in the county.

Kraemer said National Fuel didn’t want to take responsibility for any harm to the air base, and sought another site for its gas dehydration facility, preferably in an industrial zone. Cliffe said there weren’t many choices.

They included the Woodlands Corporate Park on Shawnee Road; a cluster of businesses on Lockport Road near the Shawnee Fire Company hall; and a zone along Williams Road and Liberty Drive. The latter road is the site of the Niagara County Sewer District treatment plant and several recently constructed industrial plants.

Kraemer said National Fuel considered the land off Williams Road where the Wizard of Oz theme park was supposed to be built, but found a seller near the bend of Liberty Drive, just west of the sewage treatment plant, on the opposite side of the road.

National Fuel has a purchase option to buy half of an 80-acre parcel, although the dehydration station will require less than two acres in the southeast corner. Company officials said at a Jan. 13 public meeting that they have no plans to do anything with the remaining land, which is classified as a wetland, and only bought so much because the seller insisted on unloading as much of the property as possible.

Purifying the gas

All natural gas comes out of the ground with small amounts of toxic chemicals included, such as benzene, toluene and xylene. The dehydration station is designed so at least 99 percent of those chemicals will be destroyed along with the water, but the rest will be emitted into the atmosphere.

That adds the risk of toxic air pollution to the concerns of opponents of the project. At the Jan. 13 Wheatfield meeting, residents insisted the emissions would put their health at risk.

Kraemer said, “They’re legitimate concerns of uninformed folks. There’s no question about that. If I knew nothing about a compressor station and I heard 20-some-thousand horsepower, I’d have a lot of questions myself. We’ve probably added $5 million to this compressor station responding to the issues raised by landowners, for instance noise and emissions. Noise, lighting, vibration, safety, I think are absolute non-issues.”

The planning boards of Wheatfield and Pendleton have submissions from National Fuel for site plans for the installations. At the same time, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is considering the company’s application for approvals for the projects, says the towns can’t stop them.

Kraemer said, “Once FERC determines that Killian Road, assuming they do, is an appropriate site for this facility, and they issue a certificate, that’s the site, and the town can’t stand in the way of that.” The same is true for the Liberty Drive project, Kraemer said.

FERC’s role

FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen said, “FERC’s decisions pre-empt state and local laws. There is federal court precedent that supports the commission’s actions.”

Kraemer said the planning boards can deal only with local questions such as fences, lighting, drainage, aesthetics and access roads. But Gary A. Abraham, the attorney Pendleton hired to fight the compressor station, disagreed. He said National Fuel isn’t allowed to “run over the town.”

For instance, Pendleton is considering a noise ordinance. The Town Board held a public hearing Jan. 11 at which the law received overwhelmingly negative reviews from residents who said it would interfere with everything from lawn mowing to snowmobiling. Abraham said they’re wrong – the law’s noise limits are based on hourly averages, so typical activities such as those opponents wanted to defend would remain legal – and they missed the point.

The key factor, he said, is that the law imposes a day-night average noise limit of 45 decibels. FERC regulations limit compressor stations to a day-night average of 55 decibels. Abraham said he will argue that a lower limit is suitable for a rural town, because the 55-decibel limit is pegged toward city or heavily populated suburban settings.

“We’re asking FERC to comply with our limit,” Abraham said. “The town’s interested in protecting the sound environment. Compressors generate a lot of noise, especially low-level noise, which can be especially harmful.”

“We’ve designed very, very quiet compressor stations,” Kraemer said.

Abraham contended, “It’s up to (National Fuel) to do a reasonable analysis of all feasible sites. They have to show Killian Road is the best of all reasonable alternatives.”

FERC also must analyze the need for the project – not merely for National Fuel, but for customers and utilities, Abraham said.