Natural gas divides Seneca Lake community

Nov 25, 2013

Jenna Flanagan reports on the community debate over a development that would see natural gas reserves stored in the salt caverns at Seneca Lake.

Arlington Storage, a company acquired by Inergy Midstream (now known as Crestwood Midstream since Oct. 7 2013), would operate this storage project. Natural gas from other states (where hydraulic fracturing is allowed) would be pumped in via underground pipes and stored in the caverns 2,000 feet below the surface.

The gas storage project is actually an expansion of existing storage. For years New York State Electric & Gas stored natural gas in the salt caverns in the Schuyler County community of Reading. According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, NYSEG stopped using the salt caverns in 2010 and sold the surface and subsurface facilities to Inergy (now Crestwood) to the tune of $65,000,000.

Under NYSEG two interconnected salt caverns, referred to as Gallery 1, stored as much as 1.45 Bcf (that’s Billion cubic feet) compressed below the ground. Crestwood literature says Arlington wants to increase their capacity by adding two more connected salt caverns - referred to as Gallery 2 - bringing their total storage to 2.0 Bcf, enough natural gas to heat 20,000 homes in a given year.

Arlington Storage Natural Gas Well Head.
Credit Jenna Flanagan / Innovation Trail

Above ground the Arlington Storage facilities would include 2 compressor stations and 2 withdrawal wells, one for each gallery. The natural gas would be connected to the millennium and dominion pipelines to be delivered across the state and country.

So what’s the problem?

As Kate Bartholomew, chair of the Schuyler County Environmental Council (an impartial advisory council to the county legislature) puts it, “I just worry about the level of their intended development. That’s our concern because there are 50-some caverns and I don’t know what their intentions are.”

The company website says it intend to “pursue its strategy of creating an integrated Northeast gas storage hub.”

The salt caverns that are being re-purposed for fuel storage are the result of 100 years of mining by US Salt. The company has thrived on the shores of Seneca Lake and now it is also owned by Crestwood Midstream.

Gallery 2, the caverns that would be used for the expansion aren’t empty. They’re currently filled with brine, a salt water solution used in solution salt mining. Water is pumped into the salt bedrock creating a cavern, then pumped out and evaporated, leaving the salt. Unused by US Salt, the brine is currently holding the connected caverns open.

This proposed ‘storage hub’ is not just for natural gas. Crestwood also owns Finger Lakes LPG Storage, which wants to store propane and butane in the underground in caverns.

Together the two separate projects by the same company have generated a lot of resistance.

Lou Damiani, a local wine maker whose winery bears his name, feels both storage projects are laying the ground work for something else.

“You have to understand that the whole picture is about setting up the infrastructure and storage capacity to then allow fracking.”

Crestwood Midstream is a gas storage and transportation company, not a hydraulic fracturing company but the suspicion remains.

A vineyard overlooking Seneca Lake.
Credit Jenna Flanagan / Innovation Trail

Seneca Lake is a popular tourist destination, surrounded by numerous wineries and dairy farms.  FingerLakes tourism generates over $2.5 billion and employs close to 60,000 people. For Damiani, maintaining the scenic allure of Seneca Lake is crucial to the industry's survival.

Arlington Storage brine pool at Seneca Lake.
Credit Jenna Flanagan / Innovation Trail

“When you have a week or two of vacation you want to go to the right area that gives you the right experience. That experience is part of the country rural living here, it’s not seeing heavy industry with fracking wells and gas storage.”

There may not be ‘fracking wells’ as part of this particular project but there will be brine pools. The salty water used for solution mining must be pumped out for natural gas to be pumped in. The displaced brine will be kept in specially made pools or ponds on the edge of the lake.

Environmentalists worry that a   breach in a containment pool or a pipe leak would contaminate the lake. Seneca is the saltiest of the Finger Lakes as well as the largest and deepest. Theoretically any brine that spilled in should just sink and disperse.

Waterloo Water Treatment Plant Director Jim Bromka thinks that answer is too convenient.

“Some people think the solution to pollution is dilution. Why do that? I would not want to have any contaminates coming into my drinking water no matter how small it may be.”

One Hundred thousand people get their drinking water from Seneca Lake. Not everyone is against Crestwood’s gas storage project.

Watkins Glen Historic Building
Credit Jenna Flanagan / Innovation Trail

Chris Franzese owns the Villager Motel and Glen Manor in Watkins Glen.

The village is next to the location of the salt caverns proposed for the expansion. Unlike the seasonal tourism industry, Franzese says the development could add year-round jobs to the community.

“The kind of jobs I’m looking at, not only the jobs with the company, but the support jobs that will come along with the storage itself.”

He’s not solely concerned with economics. He cares about the environment but says storing natural gas and drilling for it are two very separate things.

“I think this is something that could have peaceful coexistence, that the company would be responsible to the citizens of the community.”

None of this is a done deal. Crestwood has applied to the DEC for permit applications to re-purpose the salt caverns under Seneca Lake for natural gas storage. Their application is currently under review by the DEC.