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Aftershocks of gas boom ripple through NY’s wine country

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Julie Grant / Allegheny Front
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Driving around Seneca Lake, evidence of industry is everywhere.

The wine industry, that is.

There are fields upon fields of grapevines, wineries and tasting rooms nestled along the lakeside. Lou Damiani, co-owner of Damiani’s Wine Cellar, grew up around here. He and his partners started clearing land and planting grapes back in the early 1990s.

“(We) realized the revolution that was taking place here in the grapes we could grow and the wines we could produce,” Damiani said.

In recent years, internationally known vintners have moved to this part of New York’s Finger Lakes region. The industry has blossomed to include more than 100 wineries, distilleries and breweries. It’s been named a top destination for wine lovers. But even with that kind of momentum, Damiani decided to hedge his bets and keep his job at Cornell University.

“It’s a struggle,” he said. “It’s a tough, competitive business, and every little thing matters in this business. And the main part of it is tourism.”

Tourism is a $3 billion-a-year industry in the Finger Lakes, employing nearly 60,000 people. On a late spring weekend earlier this year, the town of Watkins Glen in Schuyler County — especially the nearby state park on the southern edge of the lake — was packed with people taking selfies. It’s one of the most visited state parks in the country.

The wine is a big part of the draw here. Tourists also boat and fish on Seneca Lake — a deep, salty lake that supplies drinking water to 100,000 people. In fact, salt has been mined under the lake for more than a century.

Looking out the tasting room window, past the grapevines, Damiani points to the US Salt plant across the lake. Mike Gilbert, who’s worked at the plant for 15 years, said to get the salt, they pump millions of gallons of water down thousands of feet into the caverns at high pressure. The salt dissolves in the water; then they pump it back up.

“It’s a brine,” he said. “It looks like water. You wouldn’t know unless you actually taste it that it’s very salty.”

The brine is stored in open ponds or pits. When it’s heated, the water evaporates and the salt that’s left behind is harvested.

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Credit Julie Grant / Allegheny Front
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The US Salt plant in Schuyler County, on the shores of Seneca Lake.

But now an energy company wants to use those salt caverns for a completely different purpose. Crestwood, which has owned the US Salt plant since 2008, wants to use the caverns to store propane and butane. The company already stores some methane — the main component of natural gas — in the salt caverns and also wants to expand that capacity.

Gilbert said his United Steelworkers local supports the project. Crestwood plans to add up to 17 full-time jobs.

“I would love to be able to give 17 people the same chance that I’ve had to raise my family,” Gilbert said. “If 17 more people could do that in this area, that’d be phenomenal.”

But a lot of people think the plan carries too many risks. More than 600 protesters have been arrested during the years Crestwood’s storage plans have been under consideration. They regularly stand at Crestwood’s front gates with signs like, “Make love, not methane,” and “We are Seneca Lake.” California anti-fracking activist David Braun recently joined them.

“I am risking arrest with you all today because of disasters with gas storage that I have seen up close,” Braun said at a July rally at Crestwood’s gates. “Don’t let it happen here.”

Braun is talking about the huge leak from a facility in Aliso Canyon, where gas is stored in depleted oil fields. The leak spewed methane into the air for nearly four months before being plugged in February.

“Like the facility here at Seneca Lake, the Aliso Canyon facility was created from unlined holes in the ground that were never engineered to store anything — let alone highly pressurized flammable gas,” Braun said.

Last year, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation found that opponents haven’t provided adequate proof or scientific evidence to back up their concerns about Crestwood’s plan — although the agency hasn’t given final approvals for the project. But the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has already approved the natural gas expansion project.

“Based on that, I don’t know why it just can’t get going,” said Philip Barnes, a retired security officer who’s now a legislator in Schuyler County. “It’s really a political situation. It’s totally up to the governor to make a decision. And it’s been six, seven, eight years now in the making.”

But Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration hasn’t been the greatest ally of the natural gas industry. In 2015, Cuomo banned fracking in New York. And this spring, the state DEC denied water permits for the Constitution natural gas pipeline, a project that will transport gas from Pennsylvania to Albany. That decision is being appealed.

Opponents of Crestwood’s plans want the DEC to continue this trend. They say the company is trying to make Seneca Lake a hub for fracked fuels from Pennsylvania to supply the entire Northeast, and they want the administration to stop it.

In the region’s wine country, many are worried about the project’s impact on water quality. Tina Hazlett, who manages a vineyard that’s been in her husband’s family since 1852, said Seneca Lake is already the saltiest lake in the Finger Lakes. She said research shows moving pressurized fuels into and out of the salt caverns could push the salinity of the lake even higher. That could make the lake unusable as drinking water.

“They’re already telling people, ‘If you’re young or elderly or have high blood pressure, don’t drink this water,’ ” Hazlett said. “This is the water source for over 100,000 people. There’s no other water source, so what are people supposed to do?”

Geologist John Halfman lives here and has been studying the salinity issue in Seneca Lake for 25 years. He said storing fuels in the salt caverns should be safe.

“If everything goes as planned, nothing’s going to happen, in which case, I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “If there is some unfortunate mistake, then it’s a horrible idea.”

Neither Crestwood nor the DEC would comment for this story. The community is awaiting permitting decisions.

This report is from The Allegheny Front, an award-winning public radio program covering environmental issues in Pennsylvania and an Innovation Trail partner.