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Dominion, DEC Say Pipeline Is Safe


Route of the Dominion gas pipeline south from Ellis Hollow Creek Road.
(Photo: Bill Chaisson)

The Ithaca Times followed up on a protest by Walter Hang of Toxic Targeting by contacting representatives from Dominion Transmission and the New York State Department of Conservation (DEC) for responses. Hang opposes the upgrading of a natural gas pipeline that runs through our region.

On July 29 Hang called a press conference on Ellis Hollow Creek Road near the Borger Station of the Dominion natural gas pipeline. The distribution company is in the process of going through the permitting process to build the “New Market expansion,” so-called, Dominion says, because there is increasing demand for natural gas in the Capital Region, which is served by National Grid. The expansion consists of adding a total 33,000 horsepower of compressor power at three locations along the route of the pipeline, although not the Dryden station, where the proposed work does not require permitting from the New York State Department of Conservation (DEC).

Hang used the Freedom of Information Law to get access to complete records of 114 accidents along the pipeline, including the pre-2000 period when it was owned by Consolidated Natural Gas (CNG). The data accessible to the public is full of redactions; Hang’s report included the full record kept from the DEC database. He made seven accident reports available to the media; two of them described incidents at the Borger Station that occurred in 1991 and 1998.

The 1998 report documented the spilling of 1 gallon of “unknown petroleum” and stated that the cleanup operation did not meet the standards of the Clean Water Act. Hang’s argument is that Section 401 of the act is quite clear that no pipeline may be expanded or upgraded if it has experienced spills that have not been cleaned up to standards stipulated by the Clean Water Act, which means drinking water supplies may not be affected.

The 1991 report states that the cause of the spill was “tank overfill” but lists the amount spilled as 0 gallons. It also states that it is unknown as to whether the cleanup met standards. In comments at the bottom of the report it is noted that the concern is whether PCBs have gotten into the soil surrounding the buried tank (the report is associated with its removal) and contaminated groundwater. The residents of Ellis Hollow Creek Road draw their drinking water from wells supplied by groundwater.

The final comment on the report, added a month after the incident, notes that no PCBs were found upon testing of soil samples from the site.

The reports from other sites along the pipeline described larger spills, but followed the similar pattern of apparently not having met cleanup standards.

“The mandate is that they must absolutely guarantee that there are no problems for groundwater,” said Hang on July 29. His general statement regarding gas pipelines was “anything that can go wrong, does go wrong.”

Dominion Transmission representative Frank Mack said that the gas distribution company’s environmental technicians looked at the DEC database and found that all the spill incident cases were declared to be closed.

“We’ve had some accidents,” Mack said, “some so minor that there’s not even an environmental impact, but if we have a drop spilled, we always call the DEC because the state has more stringent guidelines that the feds do.”

Mack said that from Dominion’s perspective all the incidents that Hang described had been taken care of. “But you should call the DEC to verify this,” he said.

Mack said that Dominion had received certification for the New Market project from FERC on April 28 and that they also have the Section 401 water certification permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. They were still waiting for approval of their air quality permit from the DEC. (Compressor station motors vent to the atmosphere.) “We applied almost two years ago,” he said of the DEC process. “We’ve provided them with everything they need.”

The Virginia-based Dominion representative described the demand for gas in Albany and Schenectady as “huge” and it would be used to heat the homes and businesses of National Grid customers. Further compression of the gas in the pipeline would make possible transmission of greater volumes without adding pipe (there are already two, running parallel).

Kevin Hale, the chief emergency response coordinator for the DEC and a hydrogeologist who has worked for the department for 20 years, admitted that their database was not perfect. When he double-checked on whether or not incidents had met cleanup standards, he was able to find records indicating that they had been, although the public database FOILed by Hang did not indicate it.

The reports themselves appear contradictory on the face of it. The category of the 1998 Borger Station spill was said to be “Possible petroleum release with minimum potential for … drinking water contamination …” Yet the data sheet also indicates the “Resource(s) Affected” to be “groundwater.”

“The initial information rarely proves to be completely accurate,” said Hale. “We get 14,000 phone calls a year, and we do triage to find out what needs a response. Half the time it’s someone complaining about their neighbor.” In the case of the 1998 incident the caller was an employee of the environmental consulting agency who was overseeing the removal of a tank.

As for whether or not cleanups meet standards, when supplied with the DEC spill numbers, Hale said that his records showed that they had met standards.

“Petroleum is biodegradable,” the hydrogeologist said, qualifying this by stipulating that it be in the presence of oxygen. Groundwater is oxygenated. “We essentially ‘lance’ it and Mother Nature takes care of the rest. A year or two after a spill things are back to normal.”

He described products like #2 heating oil and diesel as having little ability to have health and environmental impacts. One of Hang’s reports, however, showed a spill that included benzene. Hale said benzene was more dangerous because it was water-soluble and could therefore cross the cell membrane in organisms.

“Groundwater moves in feet per day,” Hale said. “As long as we’re talking about naturally-occurring hydrocarbons [which includes benzene], by the time they reach 50 feet away from the spill we can’t measure them in groundwater.”

As of Aug. 10 there was no record at the DEC’s Environmental Notice Bulletin of approval for the Dominion permit.