Starkey Citizens for a Clean & Healthy Environment
Earthjustice Cites Quebec Rail Disaster in Letter to DEC about Schuyler County Project

By G. Jeffrey Aaron

It looks like Earthjustice, which has joined the fight against plans to establish an LPG, or liquefied petroleum gas, storage facility in Schuyler County, has armed itself with some new ammo — July’s catastrophic train wreck in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

Earthjustice bills itself as a non-profit, public interest law organization that protects natural resources and defends peoples’ right to a healthy environment.

The organization has joined with others that don’t think Inergy Midstream’s plans to build a storage facility on the west side of Seneca Lake in the Town of Reading is a good idea. Lac-Mégantic has become the latest rallying point for increasing oversight of the project, the group says.

In a Sept. 4 letter to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Earthjustice says “In Lac-Mégantic, a train of only 72 cars filled with crude oil caused a fire and explosion that incinerated much of the town and killed at least 42 residents.”

According to news reports on the fiery mishap published in the New York Times, “the leaves and needles of trees several blocks downwind from the blast are brown and curled. The apples sprouting on trees are green on one side and burned on the other. The vinyl siding on houses and apartments is sometimes the same way: blistered and warped on the side facing the fire.”

Meanwhile, NBC News reports described a “river of fire” flowing from the accident site, through the town and into a nearby lake. Even after extinguishing the fires, Earthjustice says, the town still must contend with the toxic remains of the train and its cargo, the oil in the nearby lake and the clean-up costs.

I think we’d all agree that a similarly horrific accident happening in the area of the proposed Reading facility would be like lightning striking twice. But the fact remains the train crash did happen. So Earthjustice is pushing the DEC to analyze the risks of spills, explosions and other accidents involving the pipeline carrying LPG to the proposed facility and the trucks and rail cars transporting it away. Inergy made the proposal to store huge amounts of propane and butane in depleted underground salt caverns alongside Seneca Lake in 2011. Since then, the Missouri-based energy company and the project’s opponents have waged a high-profile battle over the $40 million facility. The opponents have cited the potential harm to the lake, those living near it and its agri-tourism economy as reasons for squashing the proposal.

The safety issues surrounding Inergy’s plans have been raised before. Early last year, the two sides were battling over the completion of a risk assessment on the proposal. The spat ended when Inergy relented and completed the study. But the Quebec accident is sure to bring those safety issues back to the surface.

According to information provided to DEC by Inergy, 450,000 barrels of propane and a similar amount of butane will leave the facility by rail, for an estimated 1,379 outbound LPG-filled rail cars each year. About 1.12 million barrels of propane and 150,000 barrels of butane will leave the facility by truck, for an estimated 3,696 trucks per year.

Inergy claims the rail and truck safety is the responsibility of the transport companies. The company also says its facilities and operations have achieved the highest safety levels and regulatory compliance, and propane has been stored and transported safely in this region for decades.

Let’s be clear. Earthjustice isn’t demanding the project be put to bed. It only wants “the potentially significant impacts, including the hazards presented by the use of trains, trucks and pipelines to carry the LPG to and from the facility, to be carefully considered and properly mitigated.” And it’s putting the responsibility of including the new safety material in a revised draft of the original environmental impact statement on the DEC’s shoulders. A DEC spokesperson would only say the agency is reviewing Earthjustice’s letter.

I’m not sure if the comparison of Lac-Mégantic to Reading is an apples to apples comparison. And I have to repeat that an accident of that magnitude is a rare occurrence. But those transport numbers sure do give me something to think about.

P.S. In a somewhat related event, the U.S. Geological Survey reported a minor earthquake, 2.0 on the Richter Scale, on Sept. 9 under Seneca Lake, about 6 miles northeast of Dundee. I mention that fact because an Inergy engineer, while vouching for the stability of the caverns planned for the LPG storage, stated there were no fault lines on the western side of the lake. G. Jeffrey Aaron is the business writer for the Star-Gazette. His column on business happenings and issues appears weekly on the Sunday business page. To contact him call (607) 271-8288 of e-mail him at jgaaron@gannett.com.

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