hungering for climate justice

September 12, 2015

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Fasters in front of FERC say they are tired but steady and strong.

All along, fasters with Beyond Extreme Energy have had two questions: How will this feel, and how will I pass the time? Of course, that’s in addition to the broader concern about how to ensure their actions help bring change.

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Faster Jane Kendall takes her message to FERC.

From the day after Labor Day until Sept. 25 — 18 days — a dozen people are on a water-only fast on the sidewalk in front of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, on First Street NE in Washington, just down the street from Union Station. Some have stayed overnight on the sidewalk as well, although most head for Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ to sleep.

Other people are fasting for a shorter time, at FERC or in their communities. They are calling on FERC to stop issuing permits for pipelines, compressor stations, storage and export facilities, the machinery of a fracked-gas-powered economy. They want to end the revolving door for employees between FERC and the industry it regulates. They have the support of more than 80 health professionals who have signed an open letter to FERC asking it to stop its “unethical experiment” on communities. They are fasting to show their “unwavering commitment,” as one faster’s sign says, to people and places in the way of fracking. And to a climate overheated by our insatiable appetites that require ever more fossil fuels to be extracted and burned.

The fast ends Sept. 25, the day Pope Francis speaks at the United Nations and the day after his address to Congress, when he is expected to call for climate, economic and environmental justice, topics from his encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.  Because the “earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” — as the pope phrased it.

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A film crew interviews faster Mackenzie McDonald Wilkins.

Beyond Extreme Energy activists have been at FERC before, blocking its entrances in nonviolent disobedience actions or speaking out at its meetings. They are always hauled out, sometimes to jail. They and affected residents have written letters, testified, lobbied. So far, FERC has not slowed the pace of permits. It has called BXE activists a “situation,” which it has handled with new rules intended to silence dissent and isolate FERC commissioners. FERC members are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate but have no oversight other than the courts.

As the days pass, the fasters, ages 19 to 72, remain optimistic, sometimes tired, sometimes lightheaded and dizzy, particularly if they forget to get up slowly. Many say they feel weaker. Food comes only in dreams. One dreamed of a trolley of teacakes rolling by, another of eating a cookie in front of the others. One said he dreamed he had eaten a sandwich and woke up feeling shame and fearing the dream was real. One evening, Steve Norris, a retired history professor and, at 72, the oldest faster, took his son to dinner: “It was very interesting, because I was not tempted by the food. … It’s not that food doesn’t appeal to me. It does a lot. But there’s something about this mysterious journey being more important now than anything else.”

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Clarke Herbert explains the fast to seniors in town for Elders Climate Action events, including lobbying and two flash mobs.

Faster Clarke Herbert, a former teacher, says one key benefit is that those fasting are getting outside their routine. “And that is what we are asking others to do” to solve our environmental and climate crisis. “We will have to move into a new world, to change from compulsive consumption. That makes fasting really beautiful,” he said.

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Steve Norris rides the bicycle generator.

In an email on Day 5, Norris of Asheville, NC, wrote that “the experience so far is one of both joy and sorrow: There is the great exuberation and learning that comes from working and fasting daily alongside people with rock-solid determination to challenge climate change and its attendant economic, social and racial injustices. And the exhilaration each time I see a stranger’s eyes light up and they say something like: ‘thank you for being so bold. Please keep it up.’ Then too there is the sadness of dealing daily with the reality that millions of people (the victims of Hurricane Katrina and emigrants from Syria, for example) are already dealing with the impacts of climate change, and that nothing in the short term is going to stop their uprooting and pain, and that ultimately my own grandchildren and great-grandchildren may be similarly impacted.”

Faster Lee Stewart posted on Facebook Saturday: “Today is day 5 of the 18 day water-only hunger strike at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) — an agency that fuels community destruction and climate pollution. My energy and spirits ebb and flow. Sadness, joy. Fogginess, clarity. Breathlessness, stability. Can hardly walk, ready to stand strong. Much love to those who stand up to FERC all over the country. Much love to those who act for justice in the face of bleakness.”

Among the youngest fasters, at 23, Sean Glenn says she is feeling mostly “sleepy and grateful to be doing this with such amazing support.” After the fast, she heads to Rome, where she will join a 500-mile pilgrimage with former Filipino diplomat Yeb Saño, among others, to the Paris climate talks.

With no need to shop, cook or wash dishes or be much of anywhere but FERC, how do fasters fill the time?

  • They offer a glossy card with information about the fast to passersby, often FERC employees. Some accept it, others walk by stony-faced. A few offer words of support. On Day 1, someone driving into the FERC parking lot accepted a flier and said FERC employees had been instructed not to talk to the fasters.

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    Charlie Strickler passes out information about the fast to passersby at FERC.

  • They take a turn on the bicycle generator, which is used to power phones and laptops during the day. No passersby have taken them up on offers to try out the bike.
  • They put dots on a United States map to show the locations of communities fighting fossil-fuel projects.
  • They use fabric paints or markers to design fast T-shirts.

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    Charles Chandler, aka boxturtle, worked for days on his T-shirt.

  • They design and will be making quilt squares showing the harm to communities from FERC-approved projects. During the summer, faster Jimmy Betts traveled across the country with the United States of Fracking banner, which was made for an earlier BXE action at FERC. He talked to people fighting fracking and other fossil-fueled projects and now is connecting them with the fasters. Each faster will call one or more of the contacts and design a quilt square based on the conversation. BXE is also spreading the directions for the quilt squares through social media.
  • They read. Some read Pope Francis’ encyclical, which was part of the inspiration and timing for the fast. Or newspapers. Or Rivera Sun’s new novel, The Billionaire Buddha, a story of love, connection, healing and awakening. “Imagine that one generation could change the course of all the generations of humanity yet to come. Imagine that the human story does not end in the chapter of today,” Rivera writes in the novel. The fasters can imagine that. Day 1 of the fast happened to coincide with International Literacy Day, which was celebrated with a read-in.

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    International Literacy Day did not go uncelebrated in front of FERC.

  • They get interviewed by alternative media. CNN, just steps from FERC, hasn’t even poked its head out the door to ask what’s going on.
  • Every few days, one of two nurse volunteers checks their blood pressure and pulse.

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    Thomas Parker, who is 19 and the youngest faster, gets his blood pressure checked.

  • They know the sun’s cycle, which beats down on the sidewalk in front of FERC from about 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., before slipping behind the building. During the first three days, the fierce sun and humidity had them crossing the street to the shade for meetings and respite. In the sun, they mostly sit on camping or beach chairs under rain umbrellas. They apply sunblock.
  • One day, some fasters joined Elders Climate Action for a flash mob at Union Station and in the cafeteria of the Longworth House Office Building. In the evenings, some attend #BlackLivesMatter and environmental justice meetings in DC, because all these struggles are intertwined in a system built on inequality and sacrificed communities.
  • On Day 1, Doug Hendren, the Musical Scalpel, entertained the group with his guitar-playing and anti-fracking and social justice songs — “The Ballad of Pope Francis” and “Fracking’s Just a Bad Dream,” for starters.

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    Faster Charlie Strickler holds song lyrics for musician Doug Hendren, a retired orthopedic surgeon.

  • They hold morning and afternoon meetings to check in with each other and plan activities, including the Sept. 25 action to end the fast. That day, starting at noon, the program will include music, speakers, a procession and an attempt to deliver five copies of the pope’s encyclical to the FERC commissioners. BXE is inviting passersby who have seen the fasters daily, as well as people who have rallied in DC during the pope’s remarks to Congress the day before, to join in the ceremony to break the fast and deliver the encyclical.
  • They nap.
  • And they fill and refill and refill again their water bottles from jugs of spring water that faster Debbie Wagner brings from her home. Periodically, they add a bit of salt or potassium. And they hunger for climate justice.

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    Faster Sean Glenn seeks shade across from the FERC office.

by elisabeth hoffman

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the fracking rebellion

November 13, 2014

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Penni Laine, Maggie Henry, and Alex Lotorto from Pennsylvania help block FERC entrances to protest the agency’s approval of infrastructure for fracked gas. //photo by Wendy Lynne Lee

In Western Maryland last week, the Marcellus Shale advisory commission and state officials scrambled to finish reviewing three years of studies on whether to proceed with fracking in Maryland.

The election the night before, though, shifted the landscape utterly. The few commissioners who have consistently raised concerns about fracking in Maryland recognized that whatever safeguards were in the works, insufficient though they might be, could be dismissed by the newly elected governor, Republican Larry Hogan. What the science was starting to show about the health, economic and environmental hazards for the many could be ignored for quick profit for a few.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the state and in Washington, DC, a week of peaceful and bold protests was under way, showing what people will resort to when their fears are ignored, their lives disrupted, their communities shattered, and their remaining choices few.

As part of a week of actions called Beyond Extreme Energy (BXE), determined protesters headed for Cove Point and briefly took over a dirt hill where Dominion is building a pier for a fracked-gas export facility. Another protester locked herself to Dominion equipment at a predawn sit-in. In Washington, BXE activists blocked entrances at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the mostly invisible and always intractable agency that rubberstamps pipelines, compressor stations and export facilities and is therefore the chief patron of the fracked-gas industry. The industry — and industry-bought politicians — have promoted fracked gas as clean energy and a solution to climate change when science and experience shows it is neither.

In all, about 80 people were arrested over five days in Washington and Cove Point. Some protesters had just finished walking across the country as part of the Great March for Climate Action. In addition, 15 people were arrested blocking a FERC-approved gas storage facility in salt caverns on Seneca Lake, NY.

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Protesters used huge portraits of harmed families and a miniature town to block the front entrance to FERC’s offices.//photo by Erik R. McGregor

On Monday, protesters blocked the main entrance with giant photographs of Rachel Heinhorst and her family, who live across the street from Dominion’s Cove Point front gate, and the Baum family, who live near a giant compressor station for fracked gas in Minisink, NY. In front of the portraits was a small town of shops and homes, schools and parks. Homeland Security officers guarding FERC offices eventually pulled apart this little village, much as FERC destroys communities with its rulings.

On Friday, the final day of the protests, residents of the Pennsylvania shalefields told tearful yet angry stories to FERC staff who were blocked from their offices and who had gathered on the sidewalk to watch police cut out five activists linked by lockboxes. “You have no right to poison people,” said 61-year-old Maggie Henry, who was labeled an ecoterrorist in an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force report. Her family’s 88-acre organic farm, mentioned in a 2009 New York Times article, is surrounded by the fracking industry. A mile away is a cryogenics plant; 4,100 feet away is a frack pad; a fracked-gas pipeline skirts the land, a gas-fired power plant is being built a few miles away. Four homes three miles away have replacement water tanks: “Water buffaloes dot the Pennsylvania landscape like lawn ornaments,” she said. An earthquake in March from nearby fracking damaged her home’s foundation and cracked the drywall. That farmhouse, which has been in her husband’s family for 100 years, sits empty and she is searching for land elsewhere. “I don’t have the nerve to tell people [the food] is organic,” she said, because of the nearby emissions of carcinogens, neurotoxins, endocrine-disrupters such as toluene, ethylene, butylethylene.

Penni Laine of Summit Township told a similar story: Her tap water can ignite, and she has an air monitor in her house. On a good day, she said, her daughter can say, “Yay, Mom, the air is ‘unhealthy’ today. It’s not ‘hazardous.’ ”

“We are living now in a war zone,” said Wendy Lynne Lee, a philosophy professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania who writes the impatient and scathing blog, The Wrench, about the fracking industry’s devastating occupation of her state. Trooper Mike Hutson with the Pennsylvania State Police/FBI Joint Ecoterrorism Task Force once showed up uninvited at her door. “FERC does not listen. FERC does not care. FERC needs to be disbanded. FERC needs to be dissolved,” she told the FERC crowd. “FERC exists to broker permits [for Chevron, Anadarko, Exco, Williams Partners and others]. FERC does not do anything but the bidding of big industry.”

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Protesters hold a photo of an empty swing with three frack towers nearby. //photo by Penn Johnson @ Spencerhjohnson.com

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A protester holds up a poster with the abbreviated list of demands for FERC.//by John Abbe

A giant poster at the FERC action shows an empty swing with three frack towers rising in the background. Another showed a map of schools and frack sites and asked: “Our children are at risk. Would you send you kids to these schools?”

BXE protesters called on FERC to repeal permits for the Cove Point export plant, the Myersville and Minisink compressor stations, and the Seneca Lake salt-cavern storage facility; to halt future permits for fracked-gas infrastructure; and to consider as a priority the rights of human beings and all life on Earth.

Back at the Eastern Garrett Volunteer fire hall in Finzel, members of the shale advisory commission were reviewing the last three studies, all done by the staff at the state Departments of the Environment (MDE) and Natural Resources: a 241-page risk analysis, a 7-page traffic study and a climate study that barely runs over onto a fourth page.

Notable about the risk study is what it doesn’t cover: risks from downstream infrastructure (such as export plants and gas lines). The risk study doesn’t say one way or the other whether fracking can be done without “unacceptable” risks, the benchmark Gov. Martin O’Malley set in the executive order that put the commission and studies in motion. And the study says more monitoring and modeling would be needed to understand the cumulative and synergistic effects of fracking on air quality in Garrett County and the rest of the state. The overall probability of air emissions is high, the report says, while the “consequences cannot be determined at this time” because of a lot of unknowns. (Appendix B, p. 44) (Comments on the risk study, due Nov. 17, should be sent to marcellus.advisory@maryland.gov with the words “Risk Assessment” in the subject line.)

The greatest risks to humans, the report concludes, would be from truck traffic and accidents, noise, and methane migration to water wells. The last of those perils, the report says, could be reduced to a low risk if fracking operations are at least 1 kilometer (3,280 feet) from drinking water sources. (The state’s best practices propose a 2,000-foot setback from drinking water sources, with reductions allowed under some circumstances.) The greatest threats to the environment are from fragmenting forests and farms, and “subsurface releases or migration” — underground leaks — of frack fluid and frack waste. All the risk levels assigned assume that the state’s best management practices will be in place and enforced.

“We don’t know what the level of enforcement is going to be, we don’t know how many staff are going to be hired,” said Matthew Rowe, the MDE deputy director of the Science Services Administration who led the study.

“There’s no way you can verify and enforce some of these [best practices],” Commissioner Ann Bristow said, “but you use them to reduce the risk.” She called this one of the Catch-22s of the study.

The other, she said, is that the study ranks risks as lower only because few people in any one location would be affected. “You are studying risk analysis in an area that you know is sparsely populated and now you are using sparse population as a reason not to assess risk as severe.”

She held up a paper titled “LOCALIZED, AND DISENFRANCHISED: Who Endures Fracking Risks?” that lists numerous occasions when the study reduced the risk from high to moderate or moderate to low because the risks were “localized.” She had worked on the paper with Nadine Grabania, who co-owns a winery and farm outside Friendsville with her husband, Paul Roberts, the citizen representative on the shale advisory panel. For example: “The consequence of the release of drilling fluid is classified as moderate because, although it could cause considerable adverse impact on people or the environment, the damage would be localized.” (Appendix, p. 15)

“What I hear you saying is that because it’s occurring to a very small number of people, the risk isn’t that great,” Roberts said.

“We are talking about human beings who are living close to these facilities … where there is going to be considerable adverse effect,” Bristow said. Then ensued a brief discussion about how many people harmed is too many. Three? 500? Bristow said they would be “sacrificed.” Commissioner Harry Weiss objected, but Bristow said, “I am going to use some superlative language here” when so much is a stake.

Also troubling was that the risk study labeled many threats as “moderate,” which at first glance sounds downright reasonable and benign. All things in moderation, as they say. But, Bristow and Roberts said, the study defines moderate as: “Considerable adverse impact on people or the environment. Could affect the health of persons in the immediate vicinity; localized or temporary environmental damage.” Suddenly, moderate is sounding rather grim. And keep in mind that all but four counties in Maryland lie on top of shale basins.

Commissioner George Edwards, re-elected state senator in the Republican rout of the night before, was getting impatient. Worried about trucking? A distribution center brings traffic, too, but no one would ask for a risk study on that, he said. Forest fragmentation? Wildlife and hunters like it, he said. You can’t get 100 percent guarantee on anything, he also said. And, mocking Trout Unlimited’s push for a ban on fracking in the Savage River watershed, Edwards said, “Maybe we need to do a study on the fishermen to see if they might get hurt if they slip on a rock.” One of the commissioners, Nick Weber, who had long pushed for the risk study, is a past chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Council of Trout Unlimited.

“You are going to see a big change in Annapolis this year,” Edwards said. “We had an election. … People went and voted, and they elected people that publicly said they supported drilling but they want it done right.” He also mentioned that he had not read the risk analysis.

And on Friday, the day Pennsylvanians told their stories of despair outside FERC’s offices, the day protesters were shouting “The people are rising. No more compromising,” and signs said “Protect Our Children. Stop Drilling Near Our Schools,” and “Climate Can’t Wait,” The Cumberland Times-News published reactions from Edwards and Del. Wendell Beitzel about the election. Beitzel called the election a “game-changer.” The commission’s onerous proposals would squash drilling in Maryland, he said, and he hoped the new administration would moderate regulations, “more like what other states have done.”

Indeed, during the campaign, Hogan accused the state of “studying [fracking] to death.” As an “all-of-the-above kind of guy” on energy, Hogan called natural gas a “clean energy” and fracking “critical to our state economy.”

Protests continued Monday at Cove Point, where Lusby resident Leslie Garcia was arrested while trying to deliver an eviction notice to Dominion. About 50 residents and other supporters picketed at the entrance of the construction site. “I have nothing to lose by protesting, because I have everything to lose if this project continues,” Garcia said.

–elisabeth hoffman

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FERC: Face families you hurt.//photo by Erik R. McGregor

 

 

 

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Among those blocking the entrances at FERC are, starting at second from left, Mike Bagdes-Canning, Ann Bristow and Gina Angiola.//photo by elisabeth hoffman

Among the 25 arrested for civil disobedience at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in Washington this week was Ann Bristow, a member of Maryland’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission.

Also arrested was Gina Angiola of Olney, a retired doctor on the board of directors of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Another was a retired teacher and borough officer from Pennsylvania, Mike Bagdes-Canning, who last month traveled to Garrett County for the unveiling of the final progress report on Maryland’s health study on fracking. There, he issued a warning to Marylanders not to do what his state has done.

The civil disobedience came a day after Sunday’s spirited rally and march to FERC. The actions also followed a week of lunchtime picketing in front of FERC’s offices at the end of June.

“It is no longer business as usual,” said Steve Norris of North Carolina, who proposed the arrest action as a “punctuation mark” to the rally. He also dreamed up and helped organize the weeklong, 100-mile Walk for Our Grandchildren climate march last summer. “Usual will kill us all. It is time to be unreasonable.” (Of the 25 arrested, 15 had participated in the Walk for Our Grandchildren or in the related arrest action at ERM, the State Department contractor tied to TransCanada that concluded the Keystone XL pipeline was just fine for the climate.)

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Steve Norris, as Uncle Sam, and Kendall Hare, as Lady Liberty, block an entrance at FERC. //photo by e. hoffman

The trigger for the protests was FERC’s full-of-holes preliminary approval of the plan by energy giant Dominion to liquefy and export fracked gas from its Cove Point terminal in Lusby. But the protests united groups fighting every stage of shale gas extraction and production: the fracking with secret toxic chemicals, the truck traffic and diesel-fired equipment, the radioactive waste that has no safe disposal, the flaring, the methane that leaks into water wells and disrupts the climate, the forests fractured and the land taken by eminent domain for pipelines, the noise and pollutants from compressor stations, the unthinkable hazards from the export factory. Those protesting came for their children and all children, for grandchildren and future generations, for rivers, mountains and farms, for people trapped by encroaching destruction, for clean water and air, for wolves, turtles and hawks.

wake up, FERC!

Monday morning, as he headed out to be arrested at FERC, Bagdes-Canning got 36 phone messages from people in the shale fields. “They are with us,” he told the others.

“In Cove Point, the people are also counting on you,” said Ted Glick, the national campaign coordinator for Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), who helped organize the action. “And people around the world affected by climate change are counting on you.”

That morning, a few dozen people headed from Union Station to FERC’s offices, chanting “HERE WE COME, FERC” and “WAKE UP, FERC.” The pipelines and compressor stations FERC allows as a “public necessity and convenience” mean communities are gassed and fracked, they said. “As a public necessity and convenience, we are stopping FERC,” another protester from Pennsylvania shouted.

They sang, “No more frackers. We shall not be moved.” And “Stop the rubber-stamping. We shall not be moved.” And “Fighting for our future. We shall not be moved.”

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Alex Lotorto, blocking an entrance at FERC, shows a map of land leased for fracking in Bradford County, PA.//photo by e. hoffman

As he sat in front of FERC’s doors, Alex Lotorto spread out large maps covered with color-coded rectangles signifying drilling companies and land leased for fracking over much of Bradford County in northeast Pennsylvania. Shell, Chesapeake Energy, Talisman Energy, EOG Resources, Chief Oil & Gas, Southwestern Energy.

After a couple hours of constant maneuvering to try to block both entrances as well as driveways adjacent to the building, 25 activists were arrested. They were handcuffed, escorted a few hundred feet to an office for processing, fined $50 and allowed to leave.

Ann Bristow, the commissioner, said she took part in the arrest action because she has become increasingly alarmed about the threats to public health and the environment from fracking and the infrastructure required to produce and transport the gas headed for Cove Point. “I am protesting [the project] because its impact is being assessed without consideration of the negative health effects from the infrastructure that will supply it,” she said. “I am protesting FERC’s rubber-stamping of Cove Point because all aspects of [unconventional gas development] are connected when you consider public health and the health of our environment. I am protesting because I do not have confidence that the [Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene or the Department of the Environment (MDE)] will strongly advocate for public health monitoring for toxic air emissions.”

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Ann Bristow, a member of Maryland’s Marcellus shale advisory commission, is escorted from FERC in handcuffs.//photo by e. hoffman

Bristow joined the shale commission late, replacing a resigning member. As a volunteer with the state Department of Natural Resource (DNR) Marcellus Monitoring Coalition, Bristow arrived with a background in monitoring water quality. During the past two years, though, research in states that have allowed fracking is showing that air contamination — from compressor stations and condensate tanks and particularly from “wet gas” — could pose an even greater hazard, she said. Already, she said, the compressor station in Accident in Garrett County is processing and storing Marcellus gas from Pennsylvania; another is being built in Myersville, with a portion of the gas eventually headed for Cove Point. The state should “measure toxic air emissions at existing facilities … and measure air quality at Myersville before and after completion of the compressor station,” she said.

In a few months, based on recommendations from the 15-member advisory commission, MDE and DNR will send a report to the governor with conclusions about whether or how fracking could be done safely in Garrett and Allegany counties. Only four commissioners, including Bristow, have expressed abundant concerns and pressed for caution.

Gina Angiola, the retired physician arrested at FERC, is on the steering committee of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility. If built, Cove Point would endanger thousands who live near the facility and increase fracking across the region, “further feeding our unsustainable fossil fuel addiction,” she said. “A few people will get wealthy, many more will be harmed.

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Gina Angiola is arrested at FERC.//photo by e. hoffman

“It’s becoming ever more obvious that traditional channels of democratic participation simply aren’t working,” she said, “and we are running out of time. Although policymakers pretend that these issues are very complicated, they really are not. It’s all very simple at this stage. Climate change is happening NOW, people are dying or being displaced by the millions around the globe, regional conflicts are escalating, and the U.S. is failing to act rationally. Our scientists are telling us loudly and clearly that we must leave 75 to 80 percent of the remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we hope to avoid the most catastrophic climate alterations. Why on earth are we allowing massive new fossil fuel infrastructure projects to move forward? This is insanity.”

“If we would redirect our investments toward efficiency improvements and distributed renewable energy, we could lead a global transformation to an economy that serves everyone. I’m sick and tired of government agencies rubber-stamping bad ideas just to advance corporate profits. Those agencies are there to serve us, the people. If we can remind them of that mission, the Cove Point project will be stopped.”

fighting for existence

The day before the arrest action, nearly 2,000 people rallied at the U.S. Capitol and marched to FERC’s offices with the same message. They carried signs that said: “Don’t frack up our watershed,” “Don’t frack our towns for export profits.” On the stage, a group holding a giant cardboard yellow submarine with a giant rubber stamp sang, “We all know FERC’s a rubber-stamp machine” to the tune of “Yellow Submarine.”

The Rev. Lennox Yearwood looked to the future. We are on the way to stopping coal and the Keystone pipeline, he said, but if we export fracked gas, “then we are defeating our purpose.” He called the climate change battle this generation’s Birmingham and Montgomery. “Sometimes, you don’t see the transition,” he said. But in 2114, he said, “they will look back on this time. They will say, ‘Those are the ones who fought for us to exist.’ ”

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The marchers head for FERC. //photo by Beth Kemler at CCAN.

Biologist, author and fractivist Sandra Steingraber drew inspiration from past victories. Dryden, she said, was one of the first towns in New York to use zoning laws to ban fracking within its borders. “Lots of people warned the citizens of Dryden not to do it, pointing out that a local ban on fracking would only invite ruinous lawsuits by armies of industry lawyers,” she said. “All the citizens of Dryden had was sheer determination, a sense of their own righteousness and a willingness to do whatever it took,” Steingraber said. And on June 30, New York’s highest court ruled in the town’s favor. “Dryden beat Goliath with a slingshot made out of a zoning ordinance and so set a precedent that is now reverberating around the world.”

She said she spent the Fourth of July weekend with members of the Dryden Resource Awareness Council. There, they talked of tomatoes, grandchildren, recipes and arthritic knees and hips, she said. “Did you catch that? The people of Dryden, who brought the world’s largest industry to its knees, have arthritic knees. But they are motivated by love. Love for the place where they live and love for the people who will come after them. They feel a responsibility to protect what they love. Because that’s what love means,” she said.

More inspiration from the past: Forty years ago, residents in Rossville, NY, fought another seemingly long and impossible battle against storing liquefied natural gas (LNG) in tanks in their town. For 13 years, united as Bring Legal Action to Stop the Tanks (BLAST), Rossville residents “ignored the counsel of those who said that it couldn’t be done. That the tanks were already built. That of course they would be filled with LNG. That it was all inevitable. That you couldn’t fight the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But in the end, BLAST won,” Steingraber said. In part, it won because of an LNG explosion in 1973 that killed 40 people and led New York to ban LNG facilities. All the LNG hazards present in 1973 remain, Steingraber said, including that it will flash-freeze human skin and, if spilled, will disperse as a highly combustible vapor cloud and that an LNG fire is not extinguishable. Plus now we know about fracking and about climate change.

“We New Yorkers Against Fracking pledge our support, assistance and solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Maryland who are fighting the LNG terminal in Cove Point. Our destinies are intertwined. Our success depends on yours,” she said.

The present consumes Rachel Heinhorst, whose family’s front lawn faces Dominion’s front lawn in Lusby. “We do not deserve to live in fear of an explosion, of the water we drink, of the air we breathe,” she told the crowd. “FERC and President Obama, please hear my family and all the others living so close to this. Feel our worry, know that it is real, know that we are coming to you, not looking for a fight. We are coming to you looking for compassion.” Her family, though, is preparing to move. If they can sell the house.

Fred Tutman, Patuxent Riverkeeper, said the gas industry tries to divide people into those fighting climate change, compressor stations, fracking, export facilities. “We stand together,” he called out. “They have to fight all of us.”

Tim DeChristopher of Peaceful Uprising called FERC a lapdog to the president and the Democratic Party. “Being slightly better than Republicans on climate change is not enough,” he said. “We will not have that energy plan of ‘Frack here’ and ‘Frack there.’ ”

One prop for the rally and march was a large slingshot. “This has been a David and Goliath fight from the start,” said Mike Tidwell, director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “We have been throwing stone after stone. We have more stones to throw.”

–by elisabeth hoffman

gina and ann at ferc

Ann Bristow and Gina Angiola help block one of the entrances at FERC.//photo by e. hoffman

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Ron Meservey and Diane Wittner, dressed as drill rigs, played a support role in the arrest action at FERC.//photo by e. hoffman

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A Homeland Security officer warns protesters that they will be arrested if they don’t leave. //photo by Tom Jefferson

 

 

 

 

 

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[This post is for day three of the Stop Fracked Gas Exports Blogathon and social media week. Read other posts here. Follow twitter posts #StopGasExports. The blog blitz will make clear why we need to show up for the mega rally Sunday, July 13, at FERC’s DC headquarters. Speakers include Mike Tidwell, Sandra Steingraber and Tim DeChristopher. So, be there.]

In December, I spoke briefly on the phone with a Dominion spokesman. Near the end of our conversation, I mentioned concerns about fracking. “Oh, we won’t be doing any fracking at Cove Point,” he rushed to assure me.

We know that no fracking will take place at Dominion’s Cove Point facility.

That remark, however, shows Dominion’s duplicity throughout this approval process. Its stance has been that the shale-gas liquefaction and export facility proposed for Cove Point has nothing to do with fracking. And yet, this project has everything to do with fracking. That is the only source of the gas. To approve the project is to require the fracking.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission failed us in its review of Dominion’s plans. FERC accepted Dominion’s mantra that this facility has nothing to do with fracking, in Maryland or elsewhere. Or at least nothing measurable. Because Dominion couldn’t be sure where and how many wells would be drilled, FERC concluded that all this fretting about fracking was mere conjecture. “[D]etails, including the timing, location, and number of additional production wells that may or may not be drilled, are speculative,” FERC said on page 25 of its review. “As such, impacts associated with the production of natural gas … are not reasonably foreseeable or quantifiable.”

And with that shrug of its regulatory shoulders, FERC dismissed all harm from this project of fracking, pipelines and compressor stations next to our homes and schools, parks and rivers. Even as the List of the Harmed steadily grows. Even as research mounts about the threats to our health, especially for pregnant mothers and children. Even as illness and water contamination from methane, radon and hormone-disrupting chemicals comes to light despite industry’s efforts to hide behind nondisclosure agreements. Even as health professionals repeatedly call for a fracking moratorium.

In addition, FERC’s review says that methane, which leaks at every stage of gas exploitation and transmission, is 25 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2. That ratio is over 100 years, an arbitrary and useless time frame. We don’t have 100 years. Over 20 years, according to the International Panel on Climate Change, methane is at least 84 times more powerful than CO2. FERC needs to redo the math.

If FERC had conducted its highest level of review and bothered to calculate the damage to our health, economy, environment and climate from fracking millions of metric tons of gas a year to ship to Asia, the agency could not have approved this project.

Once upon a time, FERC’s approval of every energy project imaginable raised few questions. That template no longer works. Because of the twin threats from our poisoned planet and climate change, we can no longer afford to have FERC be the handmaiden to the fossil fuel industry. On Sunday, July 13, we’ll tell President Obama and FERC to get this right. 

–elisabeth hoffman

a tale of two walls

June 2, 2014

wall and boxes

A mock vapor-cloud wall suggests what’s at stake from Dominion’s plans for Cove Point. //photo from Calvert Citizens for a Healthy Community.

Outside was the mock vapor-cloud wall.

Listed on the mock wall were the air pollutants and carcinogens that Dominion’s proposed plant would routinely or accidentally send from its compound into the lungs of playing children and their parents. Forming part of the mock wall were boxes with labels, each written on by opponents of Dominion’s plans: Wall of Shame, Wall of Poisons, Wall of Cancer, Wall of Decreased Property Values, Wall of Corruption.

Inside the Patuxent High School auditorium in Lusby was the seemingly impenetrable wall of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Also possibly mock, as two FERC staff members and a court reporter — instead of the commissioners — sat at a table on the stage Saturday for this single public hearing on the environmental review of Dominion’s planned facility that would liquefy and export fracked gas. FERC concluded in May that the facility would pose no significant risks.

Outside, Dominion erected a tent and catered pulled-pork sandwiches and side dishes for its mostly blue-shirted supporters.

Between the Dominion tent and Chesapeake Climate Action Network’s mock vapor wall, Chesapeake Earth First! and Food Not Bombs set up a card table and handed out brown bag lunches with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, an apple and a banana to the mostly red-shirted opponents waiting in line to enter the school.

Initially, opponents of the project and the real vapor wall had wanted to set up the replica in another spot opposite Dominion’s tent. But an officer had rejected the idea.

“This is their event. This is their expansion,” the officer told Lusby resident Tracey Eno. By “their,” he meant Dominion’s.

“Whose event?” Eno said, incredulous. “This is everyone’s event.”

Back inside, the FERC staff seemed earnest enough and extended the hearing an extra 90 minutes, until 7:30 p.m., giving everyone who had signed up a chance to speak. Anyone who could wait that long, anyway. Drew Cobbs’ name was called out in the late afternoon, but the executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council was long gone.

One of the FERC staff, Environmental Project Manager Joanne Wachholder, became tearful while praising the patience of 13-year-old Katie Murphy, who spoke late in the day.

“Please stop this expansion. You might just save some lives,” Katie said.

“I’m so glad you got to talk,” Wachholder said, rising and walking to the edge of the stage to offer a box of doughnuts to the girl.

Mostly, the staff listened intently, took notes and kept track of time, cutting off the very few who went beyond the allotted three minutes.

Those in favor called Dominion a “great corporate citizen” and the project a source of jobs and tax revenues and perhaps a pool for the high school. “This is about jobs, about good family-sustaining jobs,” said Mark Coles of the Building and Trades Council. Tax revenues would pay for teachers and public safety, said Brad Karbowsky, a Huntingtown resident and member of United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters. Kelvin Simmons of the Lusby Business Association said he had confidence that Dominion would protect the Chesapeake Bay. “All construction jobs are temporary,” said Austin Pacheo, whether 2 days, 2 weeks or 2 months. These jobs, he said, would last three years.

Where proponents see jobs, those opposed see poisoned air, the threat of a catastrophic fire, and increased fracking with accompanying pipelines and compressor stations. They pressed FERC to conduct its most thorough environmental review and said the risks to safety, health and the climate of this venture far outweighed jobs, tax revenue and corporate benevolence. Most were from Lusby and Southern Maryland, but some had traveled from Montgomery, Howard and Frederick counties, Baltimore and Virginia.

“Come to my house, sit on my front porch swing and look across the street and imagine the future of my home,” said Rachel Heinhorst, whose front door is a hundred yards from Dominion’s front door. Her three children play football, soccer, Frisbee and catch fireflies less than 200 yards from where the boilers and turbines would be.

Coming from the plant, she said, would be nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, carbon dioxide, hazardous air pollutants. “My children will be breathing dangerous levels of these pollutants every day. They will know what is across the street, because we will have to explain emergency preparedness, and they will be scared. My daughter will be scared. She will look at me and want me to assure something that I cannot. I cannot say that I can protect my children from this, but you can.”

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“Dominion and the Calvert County commissioners focus on two things:  jobs and tax revenue,” Tracey Eno said. “That’s all they’ve got. They never talk about the risks.” Such as, Eno said, “Risk of death by asphyxiation in the event of a flammable vapor cloud; 20.4 tons of air pollution emitted every year; 275,000 gallons of water used every day; constant noise for the next 20 years or more; up to 85 more tankers polluting the [Chesapeake] Bay each year; foreign ballast water bringing invasive species to the Chesapeake; more traffic; increased greenhouse gases; terrorist target. Does Homeland Security know about this?”

Don’t sacrifice people for profits, Eno said. “Everyone says ‘money talks’ and ‘this is a done deal.’ It’s ‘David and Goliath.’ … I want you to at least know who your decision will affect and how unfair this is.”

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Bill Peil lists the hazardous and cancer-causing chemicals that would come from the plant. //photo by @johnzangas DCMediaGroup

“Who would put 20 tons of toxic and hazardous pollutants on a neighbor’s lawn?” asked Bill Peil of Dunkirk. Hearing no takers, he continued: “That’s what’s going to happen every year” if Dominion’s plans proceed. And that would be in a routine year, never mind an accident. Many of the pollutants are carcinogens, he said. “Unfortunately, the word carcinogen is not mentioned” in FERC’s environmental review.

“This is not about jobs,” said Marcia Greenberg of St. Mary’s City. Although everyone is concerned about jobs, she said, “Dominion has turned this into a discussion about jobs.” She voiced her outrage that the commissioners weren’t present. They have “a huge responsibility” to balance the facts in this divided community, she said.

Several speakers noted that the environmental assessment omitted the population of Lusby: 2,473 live within a mile of the plant, according to Calvert County emergency planners. The evacuation plan is not so much a way out as a way in for emergency crews, Eleanor Callahan of Lusby complained: The plan “maroons residents.”

“No jurisdiction can handle a fire” of the sort that could happen at Cove Point, said Mickey Shymansky, a DC firefighter and Lusby resident. In April, he resigned his post as local assistant fire chief because he thought the department was understaffed and ill-trained to handle an accident at the export plant. “I am so brokenhearted,” he said. His brother was a firefighter at the Pentagon when terrorists attacked on 9/11. “We cannot have that here. Please hear my words. When I’m at work protecting the nation’s capital, who’s going to protect my family?”

For six and a half hours, the FERC staff called on speakers according to names on sign-up sheets at the entrance to the school auditorium. By the end, 105 people had spoken, 38 in favor, 67 opposed and urging the more stringent environment impact statement. Dominion said on its Facebook page that 75 to 80 percent were in favor. Which is wrong even if Dominion counts the 50 comment sheets that one proponent turned in.

Wachholder, from FERC, had sharp remarks for only one speaker: Mike Tidwell, executive director of Chesapeake Climate Action Council.

The day before, Tidwell told the FERC staff, the state Public Service Commission had ruled that the proposed project would provide no “net benefit” for Marylanders. For causing higher utility bills, the PSC ordered Dominion to pay $400,000 a year for 20 years to help compensate low-income families. For contributing to climate change, Dominion would have to pay another $40 million over five years into a fund for renewable energy. But the PSC approved the permit for the on-site power plant.

“It’s inconceivable that FERC doesn’t see the hazard” of this plan, Tidwell said. “FERC seems to not want to see how hazardous this is….Why wouldn’t FERC want to quantify the risk?” He criticized FERC’s failure to consider the consequences of fracking: “If fracking weren’t happening, what would Dominion export?” He called FERC’s environmental assessment a failure and said the people in Garrett and Frederick and other counties across the state want a similar public hearing.

“NO. We are not doing that,” Wachholder said sternly.

Tracey Eno says she remains an optimist. That David and Goliath battle? We all know how that turned out, she said. “All we need is one stone.”

— elisabeth hoffman

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The hearing is underway.//photo by @johnzangas DCMediaGroup

day of reckoning

May 15, 2014

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I’m back in front of the courthouse doors with Steve Bruns, Joanna LaFollette and Sweet Dee Frostbutter.//photo by Ann Marie Nau

As penalty for disturbing the peace and blocking safe passage at the courthouse in Frederick on an icy day in March, Steve Bruns, Joanna LaFollette, Sweet Dee Frostbutter and I — aka the Frederick 4 – must perform 24 hours of community service at a nonprofit of our choice and be on our best behavior for a year. (That would be the state’s definition of best behavior.)

Our action was one of several protests opposing Virginia-based Dominion Resources’ expansion plans in Maryland, including a compressor station in Myersville and a fracked-gas liquefaction and export facility at Cove Point in Lusby.

We know who is really disturbing the peace and hindering safe passage through our communities. Not the Frederick 4 or the Cumberland 4 or the Calvert 6.

Just hours after our sentencing, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) released its 242-page environmental review for Cove Point. Despite pages of discussion about deflagration (when a vapor cloud “encounters” an ignition source) and fireballs, of fragments flying through the sky “at high velocities” and shock waves, of radiant heat and unconfined ethane and propane clouds, FERC has concluded that all this will be taken care of. Not to worry. 

In addition, FERC apparently agrees with Dominion that fracking has nothing to do with this project. Because Dominion can’t be sure where and how many wells will be drilled, all this fretting about fracking is mere conjecture: “In addition, specific details, including the timing, location, and number of additional production wells that may or may not be drilled, are speculative. As such, impacts associated with the production of natural gas that may be sourced from various locations and methods for export by the Project are not reasonably foreseeable or quantifiable.” 

FERC also says methane’s global warming potential is 25 times that of carbon dioxide. Wrong. That compares the two greenhouse gases over 100 years, an arbitrary time frame, particularly given our climate emergency. Methane’s toll is 84 times worse over 20 years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But FERC is not considering this project’s full climate harm from fracking, piping, compressing, spilling, exploding and shipping anyway. (The latest fracked gas pipeline would run through Maryland, just east of Cumberland. The lastest spillage has oil flowing through the streets of Los Angeles.)

Also deemed speculative was the “No Action Alternative,” because FERC has to consider that only if it does the most thorough type of review. FERC has decided this lesser review is sufficient for the Cove Point project.

We get one public hearing to object to this report: Saturday, May 31, 1 – 6 p.m., Patuxent High School, 12485 Southern Connector Boulevard, Lusby.

Last week, the Obama administration released the latest National Climate Assessment, which shows that climate change is happening here and now, not just in far off lands and in the future. Although that has begun as well. More deluges, droughts, heat waves, wildfires and rising seas are upon us. Scientists also released a report showing that the West Antarctic ice sheet has begun an inexorable retreat. The cause of all this chaos: our insistence on exhuming and igniting fossil fuels to power our economy. Which was fine (for some) — until we realized it wasn’t.

The Frederick 4’s action was “part of our continuing protest against the accelerating destruction of our environment by the natural gas industry,” said Steve Bruns, one of my co-conspirators. “We protest the silence of our government officials at every level. It’s time that all of them, from the local, state and national levels, spoke out and put a stop to the pollution of our air and water, the ubiquitous fire and explosion hazards, the sinkholes, and the earthquakes, which have all resulted from gas fracturing and transport. … We ask that all parties join us in the fight for clean air, clean water, and safe, renewable energy in Maryland.”

Although FERC repeats this fallacy in its report, fracking is not a bridge fuel. Once the frack pads and wells, pipelines, compressor stations and export facilities are in place, fracked gas will be an endless highway to an environmental, health and climate disaster. The path of extreme energy extraction is part of the business-as-usual strategy. It’s utterly inadequate. 

Before our sentencing, we asked about serving our time with, say, Sierra Club, Myersville Citizens for a Rural Community, HoCo Climate Change or Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN). Our CCAN-provided lawyer, John Doud, said not to push it. So be it. Better, perhaps, to work with an unrelated group. We can learn of their struggle. And tell them of ours. I’m thinking recruitment.  

–elisabeth hoffman

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[This blog post first appeared on CCAN’s web site.]

While they’re in town this week, Dominion officials and shareholders should stop by Cleveland’s Grdina Park.

That playground marks where three shiny spheres and a giant cylinder once held millions of gallons of liquefied natural gas (LNG). They were a technological wonder in 1944, because 600 times more natural gas could be stored when liquefied at minus 260 degrees F.

But on Oct. 20, 1944, a spark ignited gas vapor seeping from one of the tanks, unleashing a fiery explosion. Homes along 61st and 62nd streets burst into flames, trapping residents. The gas flowed into the sewer system, launching manhole covers, bursting pavement, rushing into basements. Numerous blasts and waves of blistering heat shattered windows miles away. Telephone poles smoked and bent, grass caught fire, walls turned red, people’s shoes felt as if they were melting.

Blog05-06-14 (2)The East Ohio Gas Co. disaster left 131 people dead and hundreds injured. It destroyed a square mile of Cleveland’s east side, including 79 homes, two factories, 217 cars, seven trailers and a tractor. Nearly half the victims, including 21 never identified, are buried at Highland Park Cemetery on Chagrin Boulevard, where a monument honors the dead. If children had not been in school, the toll would have been much higher. After the disaster, public utilities started storing natural gas underground, in depleted wells, rather than as potential bombs in aboveground tanks.

This week, on May 7, less than four miles from Grdina Park, Dominion shareholders will consider dazzling CEO compensation packages and lucrative projects, including the proposed Cove Point LNG export plant in the Chesapeake Bay community of Lusby, Maryland. This $3.8 billion facility would liquefy fracked gas, pump it onto tankers and ship it to Asia.

But fears about explosions, thermal blasts, and limited escape routes dominate the debate. This facility, if approved, would once again place LNG tanks and much more next to too many people.

Opponents have raised numerous objections. The facility would ensure more fracking, compressor stations and pipelines. Exports would also raise prices for American consumers and manufacturers. A U.S. Department of Energy report shows that exporting gas harms every sector of the economy save one: the gas industry. And all that fracking, piping, compressing, chilling, shipping and re-gasifying is a climate nightmare.

But the most poignant alarms are from Lusby residents who live nearby. So near, in fact, that 360 homes are within a 4,500-foot radius. A vapor cloud, according to a state report on an earlier expansion, could drift nearly that far and still ignite — with a spark from a car, a lighter, a grill — enveloping all in a flash fire. Which sounds too much like Cleveland 1944. The nearest homes are 850 feet away. Confusion is widespread about a 60-foot-tall, three-quarter-mile-long wall around the site. Dominion calls it a sound barrier; documents suggest it would also serve as a vapor barrier; and company officials recently told residents that flames from an explosion could travel up the wall and, thereby, over the houses.

The unusual design, confined to the footprint of the existing and dormant import facility, means Dominion has to cram into tight quarters a utility-scale power plant, compressors and liquefaction equipment, and storage tanks for gases and toxic chemicals. Even minor accidents could escalate into a catastrophe. And 1,000-foot tankers would frequently lumber out of port with their explosive load.

Dominion insists accidents won’t happen. But residents have read with growing anxiety about the deadly 2004 explosion at an LNG export facility in Algeria, and more recent blasts at gas-processing plants in Washington, Wyoming and at Dominion’s Blue Racer in West Virginia.

In April, the local assistant fire chief resigned over concerns that his all-volunteer department lacks the staff, training and equipment to handle a disaster at the plant.

Despite all the hazards and questions, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is sticking to its lighter-weight environmental review and plans only one public hearing. The Obama administration even wants fast-track approvals for gas export facilities as another hammer in the geopolitical toolbox to use against Russia. Dominion will tell shareholders that Cove Point fits well with this nationwide rush to export gas.

Ideally, we would weigh the long-term effects of fracking and exporting on gas prices, our health, foreign policy, the climate. At the least, though, the explosion in Cleveland nearly 70 years ago teaches that LNG facilities have no place near homes and schools, playgrounds and parks, beaches and fishing docks. If they belong anywhere, and that is not a given, they belong in remote areas, not next to neighborhoods.

–elisabeth hoffman

 

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Some of Myersville is off in the distance in this image from Frostown Road.
//photo by Ann Nau

Federal  regulators have denied Myersville residents a rehearing on the permit for a planned compressor station in their rural community.

Myersville Citizens for a Rural Community (MCRC) had asked for a rehearing on Dominion Transmission Inc.’s planned 16,000-horsepower compressor station for fracked natural gas, saying in part that the environmental review was insufficient and the process was inadequate and unfair. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), however, agreed with itself. On every issue.

In its 35-page ruling issued today, it disagreed with each of MCRC’s points, from concerns about the need for the compressor station and the size of the facility to the noise, danger, air pollutants, environmental assessment and effect on property values. In a ruling summary issued this morning,  FERC said, “The order makes clear that the local laws and regulations upon which the Town bases its denial are preempted by the Natural Gas Act.”

Ted Cady, secretary for MCRC, said in an email that the group “is frustrated with the FERC decision.  It is not surprising that FERC denied our request along with the other 12 intervenors.  . . .It is amazing that each and every argument we raised was rejected.  FERC has never fully addressed why the compressor station is so large saying there’s no relationship to [export of liquefied natural gas] – but if LNG isn’t the reason for the overbuild, then what is the reason for it.  Also, FERC’s assertion that ‘the system works’ is entirely untrue and not based on the facts given the numerous procedural flaws.”

He said MCRC has 60 days to decide whether to appeal this decision. The group also lacks a hearing date for Dominion’s suit against the town, Town Council and mayor. And it awaits a ruling from a case heard this week, when Myersville got its day in court. Well, Myersville got its 15 minutes in court.

Monday morning, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a lawyer for Dominion argued before a three-judge panel that Robert Summers and his Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) should not be allowed to hold up the $112 million compressor station in Myersville.

FERC issued a certificate for the compressor station in December but stipulated that Dominion had to get required local and state permits before moving ahead.  MDE has said it won’t approve the air quality permit because Dominion doesn’t have the necessary local zoning. And Myersville won’t grant the local zoning in part because the town, nestled in a valley adjacent to I-70, is already out of compliance on federal air quality standards.  The proposed compressor station — which would spew volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, formaldehyde, carbon dioxide and the like — would only push the town more out of compliance.

The court allots 30 minutes for each case, so each side got 15 minutes to make its point. The lawyer for MDE gave the lawyer for MCRC some of its time. With so much to say and so little time to say it, everyone talked very quickly. (I note this because I am not a lawyer and I was forced to relinquish my laptop at the courthouse door. So keeping up was a challenge, but I got the gist.)

If not for this “one final stumbling block” – MDE’s failure to approve an air quality permit  – this compressor station could go forward, Dominion lawyer Christopher T. Handman argued.

Handman argued that Myersville’s zoning laws and the state’s air-quality enforcement efforts “certainly” couldn’t preempt the federal Natural Gas Act, otherwise utilities such as Dominion would have to consider local regulations on even the “right color brick.”  Which was an odd example, because Dominion had offered to make the compressor station look like a barn to blend in with the countryside.

“FERC has considered and rejected all arguments of Myersville,” Handman said.  The town was “holding things up,” he said, referring twice to the “radical nature” of Myersville’s appeal, which “puts local land-use regulations above FERC.”

He urged the court to give MDE direction and a deadline. Typically, states will say they need more time or manpower, Handman said, but MDE and its chief, Summers, “say they can’t go further.”   

Judge Thomas B. Griffith asked what MDE should be considering.  Handman said there “isn’t much left” because the Natural Gas Act preempts all local laws.

Griffith: “Have we been presented with all the land-use regulations that Myersville could rely on?”

Handman paused, then replied that the town had already raised whatever it could.

Roberta R. James, the lawyer representing MDE,  said the state has been involved in regulating clean air for the federal government since 1967. Without this federal-state partnership, the Environmental Protection Agency “would have all the regulatory burden.”

“The department has no real dog in this fight,” she said. Instead, Dominion “need[s] to get something from this  town.”

Carolyn Elefant, the lawyer for MCRC who specializes in energy and FERC cases, spoke with a passion otherwise absent from the roomful of fast-talking, case-name-dropping people in robes and suits. “This is a case about a gas company having made an imprudent decision to put a facility in a non-attainment  [air quality] area,” she said.  And now Dominion is “desperate because it needs a federal permit.”

Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh asked about the conflict with the Natural Gas law:  “It seems a little odd that a small town can prevent a facility.”

Elefant replied that the federal statutes — the Clean Air Act and Natural Gas Act — coexist. In this case, she argued, Dominion has the FERC certificate, but the FERC certificate says Dominion has to get local permits, including the air quality permit required under the Clean Air Act.  “Well, they haven’t gotten it. So they aren’t in compliance,”  she argued. “If you’ve got a loop, the tie goes to [upholding] the statute” rather than to presuming preemption of local laws. She also cited a similar case, involving Islander East Pipeline Co., in which FERC issued a permit for the pipeline to carry gas across Long Island Sound, but the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection refused to issue a water-quality permit, saying the project threatened aquatic life and was inconsistent with Clean Water Act standards. The courts upheld Connecticut’s position.

At one point, Judge Griffith asked the attorney for Dominion, “Isn’t there another way to thread the needle?”  After the hearing, Elefant and  Cady, the MCRC secretary,  said that question could indicate that the judges, instead of choosing between the National Gas Act, the Clean Air Act and municipal self-determination, will simply tell MDE to either grant or reject the air quality permit. At that point, MDE would  have to stand with Myersville and clean air — or cave.

Cady and Ann Nau, vice president of MCRC, said in emails after the hearing that Elefant had been “eloquent” in articulating their position. “If the Court were to side with DTI, it would undercut federal authority granted to the states in implementing the Clean Air Act,” Nau wrote. “DTI continues to attempt to portray us as radical because we continue to challenge their attempts to railroad state and local rights and to protect our community.”

Cady wrote: “DTI claims we are radical in our interpretation of the federal statutes where it is DTI that is taking the radical and rare step of filing suits against the Town and MDE. There are numerous faults with this process and suit.”

“The judges,” Cady wrote, “have a difficult decision and could take either position.  Hopefully we will get a decision in our favor within the next couple of months.  In one regard, we have been successful to get to this point since this started two years ago.  We continue to battle a seriously flawed governmental process and a multi-billion dollar company which has stacked the deck against local citizens and their local zoning to ensure our rural community survives.”

The compressor station battle has also sucked Myersville into Pennsylvania’s —and the nation’s — fracking frenzy.  Although Maryland is still deciding whether to allow fracking and under what circumstances, fracked gas from rural communities in Pennsylvania would flow through the Myersville compressor station on the way to customers in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast but also — if Dominion gets its way — overseas, via tankers, from the Cove Point LNG facility on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay in Lusby, Md.  Dominion has asked for FERC’s seal of approval  to turn the existing LNG import terminal into an export plant.

Also:  Myersville is mentioned in grist.org.

–elisabeth hoffman

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Myersville residents protested the compressor station last year.
//photo courtesy of Ann Nau

 

myersville marches on

April 17, 2013

map of compressor station and town

The map shows the location of the proposed 16,000 hp compressor station in Myersville in relation to the town’s elementary school and the evacuation center at the fire station.//Information provided by Myersville resident Ann Nau.

Mighty Myersville should have caved by now.

Facing a Dominion Transmission Inc. (DTI) lawsuit, an order from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and a huge stack of documents, this rural town of about 1,600 could have been expected to back off, resigned and chastened, to await its compressor station.

But Myersville residents march on. To industry, they are the ants disturbing the picnic of abundant fracked natural gas that Dominion and company plan to lay out for the country. And so, industry is hauling out the DDT.

Last month, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA), whose members (including TransCanada Corp.) operate 200,000 miles of pipelines, piled on. It filed a friend of the court brief in Dominion’s January lawsuit against Robert Summers, head of the state Department of the Environment (MDE). Myersville Citizens for a Rural Community (MCRC) joined that suit as an intervener. That case will be heard May 14 in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. In a separate suit in January, Dominion also sued the town, Town Council and mayor. MCRC and the town also have asked FERC for a rehearing.

As INGAA indicates in its friend of the court filing, FERC “routinely issues” certificates for compressor stations, which, come to think of it, it did in this case as well.  In INGAA’s view, if towns can thwart a compressor station, they will soon be stopping other fracking infrastructure, such as pipelines and plants for liquefied natural gas (LNG). Myersville residents and elected officials have refused to cave, and the state Department of the Environment is backing them up.

Turns out the Myersville battle is part of a growing revolt against routine FERC approvals amid a rudderless national energy policy, all while the global temperatures soar, the ice caps melt, droughts persist, coral reefs die and the weather goes crazy.  When FERC rubber-stamps compressor stations, pipelines, LNG terminals and the rest of the natural gas infrastructure, industry gets to be the decider. FERC’s role is not to figure out whether fracking, with its expanding infrastructure, is safe or sensible public policy. It doesn’t have to look at the big picture. Its mission is to make sure the energy flows. Given a lack of energy policy beyond the current “all of the above” strategy in Washington, communities such as Myersville can’t be blamed for wondering if FERC is acting in the best interest of communities and the nation or, more likely, the industry.  (A number of environmental groups are planning a day of action April 18 outside FERC’s monthly meeting to complain about its role. More information at wethepeoplematter.org.)

A bit of background on Myersville: After scaring several other towns, Dominion finally settled on Myersville for the 16,000-horsepower compressor station that would pressurize natural gas as it passes through pipelines from fracking sites in Pennsylvania to homes and businesses in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast (and perhaps beyond. More on that later). After several hearings in Myersville, and at the urging of MCRC, the mayor and Town Council decided in August that amending the local Comprehensive Plan to allow the compressor station was not in the best interests of the town. The compressor station would be a health and safety hazard to residents, town officials decided. Furthermore, Myersville already doesn’t meet federal and state air quality standards, and this would only make matters worse.

FERC decided otherwise and in December issued a permit for the compressor station. FERC went so far as to conclude that the compressor station would benefit the town.  But even with the FERC certification, Dominion needed an air quality permit from the state. Secretary Summers, however, said his Department of the Environment couldn’t issue that permit unless Dominion had the required local zoning, which it doesn’t. Dominion maintains that FERC’s order and the federal Natural Gas Act preempt local regulations and the Clean Air Act. Myersville officials, its residents and the state disagree. Hence the lawsuits.

INGAA and Dominion’s court filings reveal exactly what is at stake. Dominion says compressor stations are needed in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland to keep gas flowing. Dominion says it will “suffer irreparable harm” if it can’t construct the Myersville compressor station.  It even claims that the harm from the compressor station to the town of Myersville is less than the harm Dominion will feel if it can’t build the facility.

INGAA also sees a bigger picture behind this Myersville nuisance. Myersville and MDE’s success in stopping this project “would mean, in effect, that a single town can veto a $112 million, FERC-approved, interstate pipeline project spanning three states” and “would provide a blueprint for every other Maryland municipality that wants to block a pipeline project and, by extension, for every other state.” INGAA notes in its filing that from 2000 to 2012, the amount of gas pipeline placed in service increased an average of 1,300 miles per year. Its members, who construct all this pipeline,  would have  to “take the added risks of a municipality-triggered state veto into consideration in planning and proposing new projects.” Whereas now, industry and FERC can ride roughshod over any town.

INGAA also notes how critical this decision will be “as public concern over enhanced natural production techniques has spilled over into movements aimed at derailing all elements of the natural gas industry, including pipelines.” It mentions Sierra Club’s  “Beyond Natural Gas” initiative, the group’s intent to block LNG export facilities because  “[t]hese terminals would be connected by hundreds of miles of pipelines, crossing state and national forests, wild and scenic rivers, sensitive wetlands, and family farms[.]”

Coincidentally—or not—Dominion has filed an application (weighing in at 12,000 pages) with FERC to expand its Cove Point LNG facility in Lusby, Md., so that it can export all this fracked natural gas to Japan and India.  Indeed, one of MCRC’s arguments with FERC is that the proposed Myersville station is oversized—because the town is being in sucked into Dominion’s plans to send excess capacity to Cove Point.

Myersville has a very different view about this compressor station. It is concerned about noise as well as air pollution from volatile organic compounds, nitrous oxide and formaldehyde. It has also compiled a list of accidents in the last couple of years at compressor stations, some of which required evacuation of residents within 1.5- or 2-mile radius. The entire town of Myersville is within two miles of the proposed station, including the  evacuation center at the fire department (one mile) and the elementary school (one mile). The surrounding area is farmland, state parks and some historic sites.

Myersville is defending its master plan in the suit. But MCRC is also taking on the entire FERC system. “The FERC scoping session is absolutely ludicrous and puts the onus on the local citizens to oppose a multibillion-dollar company and a governmental agency with no oversight,” according to MCRC secretary Ted Cady.  Dominion can do endless hours of research to counter any local points. It submitted 1,000 pages of information to FERC, including 12 resource reports, appendix, and other material, Cady said. Under the FERC process, residents, with no background in the subject, then have to review, understand, submit comments. In an arrangement that pits communities against each other, Myersville was also expected to  provide alternatives.

“They must educate themselves on the complexity of the industry and its impacts to air/water/land permitting, cultural concerns such as registered historic sites and … environmental concerns such as the Endangered Species Act, geologic fault analysis, noise safety, air dispersion analysis, etc.,” Cady wrote in a letter about the suits.

In its court filing, MCRC says INGAA and Dominion are exaggerating the doom scenario—i.e., that all towns will rise up against FERC. The courts will rule on Myersville’s unique circumstances. But towns such as Dryden and Syracuse, NY, Pittsburgh and Highland, PA, and many others are saying no to fracking, and Minisink, NY, is still fighting a compressor station there, even as construction moves ahead. Residents in Longmont, CO, call their action a “citizen uprising.” Myersville is joining in.

–elisabeth hoffman

compressor station drawing

A computerized image of how the compressor station will look. Dominion has offered to paint it to look like a barn.//Image provided by Ann Nau.

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