By Josh Brokaw
Representatives of Dominion Transmission heard their company’s commitment to being a good neighbor questioned over and over in a meeting at the Varna Community Center on Monday, May 1.
The Borger Compressor Station, on Ellis Hollow Road in the Town of Dryden, is slated to receive upgrades as part of Dominion’s $158 million “New Market” pipeline upgrade project. The company wants to push more natural gas from Clinton County, Pennsylvania, to utilities Brooklyn United and Niagara Mohawk. The two National Grid subsidiaries have signed a contract for Dominion to supply them with up to 102,000 decatherms, or over 100 million cubic feet, of gas per day. That’s enough, the company says, to heat 3.6 million households.
There was no specific action by a town board or other agency in question at this meeting: Dominion has all of the permits and permissions from local, state, and federal regulators to move forward with the New Market project, and construction on parts of it are underway. Many of the citizens who spoke asked Dominion to do better as a neighbor – in the areas of transparency, emissions, and neighborhood impact of its facilities and construction.
Dominion: Pipeline Work is ‘Limited’
Asked by Dryden officials to hold a meeting explaining their project and addressing concerns, the Dominion representatives clearly intended Monday night to be more informational than confrontational. After introductions of the nine staffers, Don Houser, state policy advisor for Pennsylvania and New York, and Michelle Pugh, supervisor of engineering products, launched into a slideshow showing pictures of the site around the Borger Compression Station on Ellis Hollow Road.
No new compressor engines are being installed at the Borger station, Pugh explained. The station already has 22,000 horsepower of compressing power from two turbines built in the 1980s and a third added later – no more will be added.
[The New Market project includes adding new compressor stations in Chemung and Madison counties and adding three more compressors at an existing station in Montgomery County. Here’s Dominion’s informational site.]
The scope of work at Borger includes adding coolers, putting in three more microturbines for internal power, making underground modifications to the piping, and installing a filter separator, Pugh said. The Dominion engineer did make one faux pas that inspired snickers: while explaining the role of silt fencing in erosion control, Pugh described one slide as “black snake looking stuff.” That “Kill the Black Snake” was a rallying cry of the water protectors at Standing Rock clearly has not made Dominion’s internal memos.
“We’re hoping you understand really the limited amount of work at that location in the New Market project.” Houser said after about 20 minutes of presentation, with somewhat limited interruptions.
A Quick Promotional Break
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Citizens: Stop the Proposed Expansions
Locals filling up the room, about 130 at the meeting’s peak, then took over and interrogated the Dominion staff for the next two and a half hours.
The first question to get emphasis, as noted by the Journal and Times in their wrap-ups of the first hour or so of the meeting, had to do with the new pressure and amounts of gas running through the Dominion pipeline after the project is done relative to what is already flowing through the pipeline. The current maximum pressure is 900 pounds per square inch [PSI], and that won’t be increased. Citizens asked Dominion share a figure in the increase in gas volume, by at least identifying an approximate order of magnitude.
“We can’t disclose that information,” Pugh said, “our customers don’t even know … It’s critical energy infrastructure information.”
After much pestering, Houser eventually said he would find information about how much gas Dominion was last permitted to move, in 2010, and get back to the town board with a baseline figure.
Ross Horowitz stood up and said that the Town of Dryden board “should do everything at its disposal to stop the proposed expansions pending local approval of the [Stormwater Polllution Prevention Plan] and requiring a special local permit, that should be denied because of conflict with Dryden’s comprehensive land use plan.”
Dryden supervisor Jason Leifer, who moderated the meeting, responded to that comment: “The town has limited authority … even with the special use permit process we could not stop this because of the oil and gas act, which is federal level.”
Though Leifer has written letters on behalf of constituents to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission [FERC] as well as the state, Hang asked him again to withdraw the stormwater permit and ask the governor to do the same thing, as a follow-up to a request Leifer made in February. [Dryden’s consultant has said that the stormwater permit application does not encroach on wetlands, as Hang has said.] Then Hang turned his attention to the gas company’s staffers.
“Dominion has to answer the key question,” Hang said, “will you withhold this project from going forward until these contamination problems are fully investigated and fully remediated?”
“To the DEC it remains closed,” Houser said of the spill cases, after the room’s applause lessened.
“So your answer to Walter is no, you will not hold up the project,” another man cut in.
“We are under construction,” Houser replied.
A bit later, Cornell professor Tony Ingraffea stood up to say that he measured methane levels in the atmosphere in 2015, and found them to be 2.6 parts per million, or 50 percent more than the natural background level.
“You said you had no leaks,” Ingraffea said. “It is impossible to run a compressor station without leaks. Why don’t you just tell us?”
Holly Payne then stood up, before Dominion people had a chance to respond, and “went a bit off the handle,” by her own later admission. Her 10-year-old daughter has been experiencing unexplained migraine headaches.
“These are our kids. they’re not your kids. These are our children breathing that. They’re our children. My kid has an issue with her health that is unexplained. What is she breathing? We live point seven miles below the gas pipe. What are you hiding? What are you doing to my child? What is it? it’s not a neutral issue about money to Schenectady and New York City. It’s not. It’s our children. And I’m glad you make good salaries. But what are you doing to my kid? She’s not a data point. Explain to me what’s going out in the air that you blow off that rattles our windows over and over again. Tell me. What is it?”
Houser deferred Payne’s question to Gary Comerford, Dominion air quality consultant: “We’ve already talked about what’s in emissions and permit tests. I’ll let him go over it again,” Houser said.
Dominion does provide emissions testing results to the Department of Environmental Conservation [DEC], Comerford said, but Lisa Marshall of Mothers Out Front said that her organization has had trouble getting detailed reports of the most recent results. Mothers Out Front is planning on spending over $9,000 for a baseline air monitoring report before construction begins at the Borger station, and Leifer has supported their request for Dominion to fund the testing. Mothers Out Front is also sponsoring a petition drive to get Gov. Cuomo to stop the project — it has garnered over 650 signatures.
The question was then asked by Keith Schue why improvements, like oxidation catalysts, hadn’t been added to the compressors to reduce emissions. The Dominion response was it was not permitted in this project. Marshall took exception to this explanation:
“When you do modifications to your house you have to bring things up to code that weren’t code when the thing was put in 30 years ago,” Marshall said. “And you know it. The best technology that protects the air quality of this community is not being put in – not because it’s not permitted but because it costs money.”
“Dominion could say we would like to be better neighbors to people in Ellis Hollow and we could upgrade,” Marshall later added, as the meeting ground to a close near 10 p.m. A “make it happen” chant began.
Dominion received their initial notice to proceed from FERC in April 2016, and a subsequent one in January of this year. The DEC issued air permits in December 2016, after three hearings in the Horseheads area on air quality. A request from the Dryden town board to get a DEC hearing in the area never had a result.
The only thing the town could do at this point, Leifer said, is ask them to voluntarily go through a special permit process. The Dryden board had done everything in its power to stop the New Market project upgrades, town board member Linda Lavine said early in the evening.
That “doesn’t mean as activists we shouldn’t do everything in our power we can do,” Lavine said.
Ken, a retired teacher from Cooperstown and one-time arrestee at a We Are Seneca Lake protest in Schuyler County, had a more direct statement for this reporter as the meeting was breaking up: “When are we going to see some blockades down there?”
The FERC docket number is 14-497 for the New Market project, but your best bet to find documents is probably just searching “New Market Project” in the FERC elibrary.
There’s more information on this project, including links to air permits, at Otsego 2000.
Here’s TruthSayers’ raw audio recording of the May 1 meeting at archive.org.