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Volatility in Seneca

On a hot summer day last June, about 80 individuals set out in kayaks, sailboats and other marine vessels onto the calm waters of Seneca Lake—a watery remnant of glaciers that millions of years ago rambled through upstate New York. Each year, the Finger Lakes region draws millions of tourists to its bounty of vineyards, wineries, bed and breakfasts, and other sustainable industries. The lake also happens to be the drinking water source for 100,000 people.

That day, however, the crowd wasn't there to sample the region's prize-winning Riesling. Instead, they were protesting plans to turn this tranquil, agriculture- and tourism-based community into ground zero for an industrialized gas storage and transportation hub for the northeast. Their outrage over this plan is backed by more than 180 businesses and legal support from Earthjustice.

"Who's Lake? Our Lake!" shouted the crowd as they made their way to the lake's west side, near a series of depleted salt caverns. In 2008, an out-of-state gas storage company called Inergy Midstream bought the property, which it now intends to use to store millions of barrels of highly pressurized and highly flammable liquid propane and butane into the caverns.

In one of the crowded boats is Yvonne Taylor, co-founder of the nonprofit Gas Free Seneca. Taylor owns a cottage about 100 feet from the lake and has celebrated every birthday of her life there. "Seneca Lake is literally in my blood and bones. I drink it. I have swam, water skied, kayaked, motor boated and sailed on this lake my entire life," says Taylor. "When I'm home, I'm always looking out the window at this gorgeous lake. It's been the only constant I have ever had."

Inergy is proposing to use a series of the caverns to store 88 million gallons of liquid petroleum gas. The company has also proposed to use adjacent caverns for additional natural gas storage, expanding capacity at the site to two billion cubic feet. Both proposals are awaiting approval by state and/or federal regulators.

The list of concerns that Taylor and others have about Inergy's plans run as deep as the lake itself. For starters, the structural integrity of the two caverns is questionable. According to a news report, one cavern was plugged and abandoned in the early 2000s after an engineer found that its roof had collapsed in a minor earthquake. [Editor's note: The engineer has since changed his conclusion, though details of the analysis have not been released.] Another cavern sits directly below a rock formation plagued by "rock movement" and "intermittent collapse." In September of 2013, an earthquake that registered as a 2.0 on the Richter scale occurred on the west shore of Seneca Lake, a mere 12 miles from the caverns.

If natural gas—an invisible, flammable vapor—were to escape from the caverns, the results could be deadly. In 2001, in Hutchinson, Kansas, gas leaked from salt caverns, traveled seven miles through underground cracks and set off explosions that killed two people. This was not an isolated event. An analysis by industry insider John Hopper found that between 1972 and 2004, there were ten catastrophic accidents involving underground storage sites for gas. All of them occurred in salt caverns.

Other concerns include the cumulative environmental and health impacts that come with building an industrial storage facility in a rural area. For example, Inergy plans to install a transportation depot capable of loading and unloading four semi-trucks per hour and 24 rail cars in 12 hours, a 60-foot flare stack, and noisy compressor stations that emit air pollution that can lead to groundlevel ozone (i.e., smog) as they force the propane and butane into the ground at high pressure.

In May of 2013, Earthjustice sent a letter to New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) on behalf of Gas Free Seneca, demanding that state officials scrutinize the combined environmental and community impacts of the gas storage projects. Both proposals are awaiting approval by the DEC, which has so far failed to do an adequate environmental review of the projects. Only one, the natural gas storage project, requires approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a regulatory agency with a reputation for rubberstamping these types of projects.

"The DEC cannot possibly make an informed decision about these large-scale projects without understanding their cumulative effects, including impacts to air quality, public safety and the region's economy," says Earthjustice attorney Moneen Nasmith who is representing Gas Free Seneca in legal proceedings.

Since February of 2013, Earthjustice has worked alongside Taylor and Gas Free Seneca to ensure that the issue receives the national attention that it deserves given the potential for these projects to lock the U.S. into continued extraction and use of dirty fossil fuels and discourage the growth of renewable energy. In 2013, a coalition of 40 groups and local businesses along with nearly 40,000 people nationwide submitted public comments to FERC, outlining their serious concerns about expanding natural gas storage in the area. Additionally, a group of 12 citizens blocked access to the facility in protest and were arrested. In April of that year, three opted to serve time in jail. The projects have also raised concerns among elected officials.

Says Taylor, "Seneca Lake is a world-class tourist destination. It should be protected and preserved, not just for those of us who happen to live here, but for everyone and for future generations."

Written by Jessica A. Knoblauch. First published in the Winter 2013 issue of the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.