Fracking foes take hacks at Con Edison and Spectra
BY EILEEN STUKANE | Four police officers stood at the entrance to the Village Community School where a meeting of Community Board 2’s Environment, Public Safety and Public Health Committee took place on Tues., Dec. 4. A New York Police Department van was parked at the curb directly in front of them.
“The officers are just here as a precaution in case of O.W.S.,” an officer said, referring to Occupy Wall Street protesters. He said “the borough,” as in Patrol Borough Manhattan South, had requested the police detail, not the Village’s Sixth Precinct.
On its Web site, C.B. 2 had billed the meeting as an “Update by Con Edison on its connection to the Spectra pipeline.” It was mandatory for the meeting to be held, in that it was part of a negotiation that arose from a lawsuit filed by Sane Energy Project, five other environmental groups and several individuals, against the Hudson River Park Trust.
The suit states that the Trust violated the terms of its charter and did not comply with New York State’s Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA, in granting an easement to allow Spectra Energy to construct its natural gas pipeline across Gansevoort Peninsula, on the edge of the Meatpacking District. The plaintiffs had hoped that the suit might halt the advancing Spectra pipeline, but a Dec. 18 court date was too long to wait. The pipeline is already in place.
The Dec. 4 meeting was the community’s chance to hear Con Edison’s plans for its 1,500-foot-long extension of the 30-inch-diameter Spectra Pipeline from the Gansevoort St. “vault” that terminates Spectra’s construction, up 10th Av. to Con Ed’s W. 15th St. distribution center, and from there, into the utility’s network of narrower pipelines. In the standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people, many were distressed to learn that no environmental impact statement, or E.I.S., was legally required for the Con Ed pipeline extension that will start in April 2013.
Robert Ely, chairperson of the C.B. 2 committee, moderated the meeting as attendees listened to the powerpoint presentation by Ed Gonzales, Spectra’s project director, and Anthony Leto, Con Edison’s section manager in gas engineering, while awaiting the Q&A portion of the evening. The “Project Benefits” section of the powerpoint offered a bulleted list that included: “Improves air quality,” “Environmental and health benefits of replacing dirtier fuels with natural gas,” which elicited sarcastic laughter from the audience. Questions about the larger environmental issues surrounding the Spectra pipeline and hydraulically fractured, a.k.a. “hydrofracked,” natural gas soon overtook the stated purpose of the meeting.
Ann Warner Arlen, former C.B. 2 Environment Committee chairperson, recalling Superstorm Sandy, asked what the plans are for dealing with even higher storm surges.
“How can you protect your equipment from saltwater surge? How can you say this will be O.K.?,” she asked. She also made reference to the 2010 San Bruno, California, natural gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.
Leto spoke of battery backups and remotely operated valves and phone monitoring, and assured that the operations were all hydraulic, inspected regularly by Con Ed employees, and that faulty material had been used in the San Bruno pipeline. Arlen expressed concern that there would be lack of oversight by an outside agency.
Little notice had been given to Greenwich Village residents when the first community meeting about the Spectra pipeline was held in August 2010 — a time of the year when many people are out of town. However, since then, Villagers had clearly educated themselves about hydrofracking, natural gas, radon issues and much more. It was an informed group.
“Do you have a plan if the pipeline explodes under the Hudson?” one man in the audience asked.
Gonzales said company personnel would respond from New Jersey and that there would be a staff in place in New York, but the questioner said that his question was not being answered. Ely advised him to e-mail the committee.
There were many raised hands for many probing questions. People were well aware that hydrofracking and the toxic waste it creates are considered so hazardous to health that the process has already been banned in France, Switzerland and Bulgaria. In addition, the U.K. suspended fracking in summer 2011 and has yet to rescind that suspension. The state of Vermont banned fracking. In Colorado the city of Longmont banned it, and Boulder County is soon to vote on the issue.
The most passionate discussion arose when the issue of radon — a tasteless, odorless, colorless gas that is naturally created during the radioactive decay of minerals in hydrofracked natural gas — was introduced by Mav Moorhead of NYH2O.org. Inhalation of radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers, and the second leading cause among smokers.
“What process have you implemented for handling radon?” she asked.
Patrick Hester, associate general counsel for Spectra Energy, stepped forward and said that Spectra’s and the U.S. Geological Survey’s studies showed safe levels of radon in tested hydrofrack wells. He suggested that Moorhead go to the section (which he cited) of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s 1,500-page E.I.S. that addresses radon safety issues. (There are four paragraphs on this issue in the 1,500 pages.)
Moorhead responded to Hester, “To take safe wells and base studies on safe wells doesn’t present a solution to this issue. No one in this room, including yourself, has any answer. A study of low-producing wells has no consequence. Every kitchen, hotel, restaurant, every single person is at risk. I’d like you to go back and address that. How often will you test for radon-222 coming into New York City? We’re the closest-end users.” Applause erupted.
This reporter asked Spectra’s Gonzales whether gas storage tanks could be constructed to initially hold the natural gas, which would otherwise arrive in less than a day from Marcellus shale locations. Radon’s radioactivity has a half-life of 3.8 days and delaying its delivery would allow the radon time to shed radioactivity. But Gonzales was not given a chance to respond.
“What about the people who live near the storage? We don’t want that,” said Clare Donohue, a founder of Sane Energy Project.
Another woman indignantly asked this reporter, “Are you for the frackers?”
The presentation of construction procedures and safety mechanisms by Spectra Energy and Con Ed was secondary to the primary fact that the residents considered the hydrofracked natural gas, and the pipeline that is bringing it to the West Village, to be dangerous to their health and their neighborhood.
Another point raised was that the pipeline could be a target for terrorists. Also, Gansevoort Peninsula, which the pipeline runs across, is where the Fire Department’s Marine 1 fireboat is berthed. As one Villager, who later requested to remain anonymous, pointed out, if there were an attack or an explosion of the pipeline, the fireboat’s rescue team, which happens to be stationed in the same place, would probably be decimated too. Gonzales said that the Fire Department had been consulted in the early stages and had no problem with the pipeline’s location.
Representatives of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Borough President Scott Stringer, Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, and state Senator Tom Duane attended. Ely, whose C.B. 2 committee members convened after the meeting to draft a resolution, called the long meeting to a close amid loud protests from people who still had questions. The Spectra Energy and Con Edison representatives quickly headed for the exits, leaving no chance to be questioned further.