fracking’s collateral damage

December 31, 2012

myersville protesters

Myersville residents protesting the planned compressor station.

Myersville, population 1,600, is the collateral damage in the battle over fracking.

Fracking for natural gas won’t happen in Maryland for at least a couple years. If the General Assembly approves a proposed moratorium, fracking won’t be allowed here unless it can be shown to be safe. Nevertheless, Dominion Transmission Inc. (DTI) received federal approval Dec. 20 to construct a 16,000-horsepower compressor station in this rural Frederick County town so it can transport fracked gas through Maryland to its 1.5 million customers in the region and beyond.

Rick Millward protester

Rick Millward with protesters in Myersville.

The Myersville Town Council, which will discuss the ruling at a workshop Jan. 2, and residents have 30 days to decide what to do. Myersville Citizens for a Rural Community, which started in October 2011 and has set up a website and Facebook page to educate and update residents, has spent $2,400 for legal assistance and will need to raise $1,500 to appeal the ruling. It is up against the relatively bottomless pockets of DTI.

Compressor stations are needed every 40 to 100 miles along a pipeline to keep natural gas flowing at the proper pressure. As industry extracts more natural gas using the technique known as fracking, it will alarm more towns with plans for compressor stations. And these compressor stations will be in addition to the drill rigs, drill pads, chemically infused water, frack ponds holding toxic waste, earthquakes caused by reinjecting wastewater, more pipelines and truck traffic already imposed on rural communities.

Compressor stations can be noisy, contribute to air pollution and occasionally blow up. In November 2011, 40 to 50 homes were evacuated after a fire broke out in a compressor station in Artemas, Pa. Here’s an explosion near Dimock, Pa., and one in Falcon, Wyo.

More than 650 Myersville residents signed a petition against the compressor station, and more than 750 wrote letters to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the agency charged with approving or denying the station. The mayor, the Town Council and the town Planning Commission voted to reject DTI’s application. In the local newspaper, following the council’s unanimous vote, Councilman Mark Flynn said: “It’s important to note that over and over, DTI said they want to be a good neighbor, and this is an opportunity for them be a good neighbor. The people have spoken, the Town Council has spoken, the Planning Commission has spoken. If they now try to force it down our throats, they’re proving they are not a good neighbor. They are a neighborhood bully.”

The Planning Commission called the compressor station a nuisance, based on the dictionary definition: “annoying, unpleasant or obnoxious.” One commission member said it requires many more safety features than required by other allowed uses in the area and so was “inherently hazardous.” The commission also said that the zoning for the site was designed to attract businesses and local jobs, not an industrial site with no long-term job opportunities.

Democratic Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Benjamin Cardin wrote letters on behalf of the residents and mentioned the compressor station fire in Artemas. Maryland state Sen. David Brinkley (R) wrote to FERC as well, noting that the state has invested millions in agricultural preservation easements as well as numerous state parks in the area.

FERC, however, can and does overrule local wishes and preempt local and state regulations. In its decision, FERC said that it “encourages cooperation between interstate pipeline companies and local authorities,” but local and state municipalities cannot “prohibit or unreasonably delay the construction or operation of facilities approved by the Commission.” FERC found that the project would pose no harm or “significant impacts”  to the community or environment of Myersville. Although the community found the project “highly controversial,” FERC disagreed. Under the commissioners’ legal definition, the project is not considered controversial “merely because individuals or groups vigorously oppose, or have raised questions about, an action.  Here, we find that no substantial disputes exist as to the effects of the project.”

The compressor station would be located south of Interstate 70, which cuts through the southern portion of Myersville. The site is adjacent to the wastewater treatment plant for the town, a mile from Myersville Elementary School and a mile from the fire station that contains the town’s evacuation shelter. It’s less than two miles from an arts-centered teacher training school that doesn’t even use markers that emit volatile organic compounds and a third of a mile from a pediatric medical practice. All of Myersville is within two miles of the compressor station. The surrounding area is mostly farms and state parks.

In its application, DTI said that the compressor station would annually emit 23.53 tons of nitrogen oxide (NOx), 5.32 tons of carbon monoxide (CO), 1.14 tons of volatile organic compounds, 0.25 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2), 2.83 tons of particulate matter, 0.93 tons of hazardous air pollutants (including formaldehyde) and 53,892 tons of CO2 and its equivalents.

The facility, DTI says, will be equipped with a catalyst to control hazardous air pollutants, including carcinogens such as benzene and formaldehyde. As a result, it says, emission rates will be even lower than typical gas-burning facilities and well below levels deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.

But the compressor station will, for example, more than double the annual nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution in Myersville. (NO2 at high levels has been linked to sudden infant death syndrome.) Much of the existing NOx and NO2 pollution that settles into the valley is from traffic on I-70. SO2, along with NOx, is a principal contributor to acid rain. SO2 has a “pungent and suffocating odor” and can react with other chemicals to form particulate pollution. Adults and children with asthma or heart or lung disease are sensitive to SO2 exposure, especially if they are active outdoors.  (Tox Town, on the U.S. National Library of Medicine site, has complete information on harm from exposures to all these pollutants. Communities in Pennsylvania are starting to worry about the cumulative harm from multiple compressor stations.)

Residents are also concerned about periodic blowdowns, or venting of natural gas to relieve pressure. DTI “officials have said the blowdowns … do and will occur,” said Ann Marie Nau, a member of Myersville Citizens for a Rural Community. “Their own superintendent described these as ‘violent’ and ‘ugly’ events. I am concerned about the proximity of the school to the compressor station when one of these violent events occurs.” Here’s a blowdown that lasted 50 minutes at the Williams Central compressor station in Brooklyn, Pa.

Not to worry, though. DTI told the town Planning Commission that it could make the compressor station look like a barn.

Myersville residents have followed intently the 16-month struggle by residents of Minisink, N.Y., to stop two 6,130-horsepower compressor stations. Like Maryland, New York has yet to approve fracking, but the infrastructure spreads. FERC, in a 3-2 vote, approved this compressor station, despite protests from residents, many of whom are former first responders from New York City who moved to rural Minisink to recover after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (The dissenting commissioners, Chairman Jon Wellinghoff and Cheryl A. LaFleur, voted to approve the station in Myersville.) In October, Minisink residents picketed as construction began. FERC has denied them a rehearing, so they will challenge the decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals. (Information about Minisink residents, including an excellent video, is here.)

ann nau

Ann Marie Nau at a protest in Myersville.

DTI initially considered placing its Frederick County compressor station in Middletown or Jefferson, but after meeting resistance there, it settled on Myersville. “The gas companies and FERC seem to pit the communities against each other,” Ann said. “No one wants it in their community, so they foist it on the next one.” Ann, who had never been politically active before this fight, said one Middletown resident even surveyed surrounding towns, “finding available properties, calculating the distance from the existing pipeline, creating a 1- to 5-star rating system. . . . Obviously, he gave the Middletown property a negative rating. He rated this Myersville site a 5. And to be perfectly fair, commentators in the Myersville docket have pointed out the suitability of the Middletown site versus the Myersville site.”

DTI sent notices about an August 2011 informational meeting only to residents within a half-mile of the site. Ann, who lives outside the magic half-mile line, said she and her husband learned about the compressor station when someone from Myersville Citizens for a Rural Community dropped off a flier for a meeting in November 2011 with DTI and FERC. “We were shocked to find that it was standing-room only,” she said. By August 2012, the Town Council had voted to reject the compressor station as incompatible with its codes, only to be overruled by FERC last week.

In her research about the station, Ann said she “was struck by one thing: Slick hyrdrofracking is scary. And dangerous. And, while for now I am not faced with a fracking well in my community, these wells are in other communities, and they are adversely affecting the health, well-being and safety of individuals no different than myself or my family. It is not okay. And then there are the issues as they relate to the environment, climate change and water consumption/contamination. . . . Understand one thing, I hope that I am wrong about fracking. As Ronald Reagan said, ‘Trust, but verify.’ So far, the gas companies cannot verify that what they are doing is safe; therefore, I do not trust them.”

Myersville residents will “continue to battle for their community and the health and safety of their children,” Ann said. They contend, for starters, that the FERC ruling fails to address Clean Air Act rules and has flaws in its historic impact study. “Frankly,” she said, “it seems that FERC places the onus on the citizens to find flaws in the projects as opposed to conducting any real analysis, leaving citizens to battle not just big gas but big government.”

–elisabeth hoffman

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