By Peter Rugh Jun 19 2014 ~ A pipeline marker near the Minisink Compression Station
Leanne and Robert Baum used to take their children sledding in thefield across the road from their house in Minisink, New York. Butthese days, Leanne, who drives a school bus for a local Christianacademy, and Robert, who runs a hardware store, say they're afraid toeven let their kids play in the front yard. The couple's smalltownship in Orange County has for decades supplied fresh organic andheirloom produce to the restaurants and farmers' markets in New YorkCity, 60 miles south. Now, it is the site of a growing health crisis.Property values are plummeting and locals are complaining of chronicnosebleeds, rashes, migraines, and dizzy spells. The smell in the aircan range from rotten eggs to burning paint.
The Baums, along with many of their neighbors, believe Minisink'snosedive in quality of life to be the handiwork of the MillenniumPipeline Company, who run two 6,000-horse power natural gascompressors in town limits--both located in the field right across fromthe Baum's home.
Business has been good for Millennium and other fossil fueltransporters, thanks to fracking--a process of retrieving gas or oil byfissuring shale rock beneath the Earth's surface. Studies show thatfracking can potentially poison the water, soil, and air, contaminatethe food supply, and even cause earthquakes--basically everything shortof awakening a giant, prehistoric lizard. With these negative effectsin mind, fracking is under a moratorium in New York State. Yet eventhough New York has so far prohibited fracking, Leanne and Robert Baumare still suffering its consequences--and it is threatening to stompout their country way of life. Just 15 miles across the border fromMinisink, where New York's fracking restrictions are not in place, thestate of Pennsylvania's been cashing in on a frack-zilla invasion.
In 2013, Pennsylvania exported 3.3 trillion cubic feet of gas fromnearly 5,000 wells. Penn State's Marcellus Center for Outreach andResearch estimates that by 2015, 4.5 trillion cubic feet worth of gaswill be fracked out of the state's shale formations. Much of that fuelwill go through Minisink, which has emerged as a nexus point for theexpanding spider web of natural gas transmission lines that startedspreading up and down the Eastern Seaboard when federal restrictionson fracking were lifted in 2005.
The compressing site across from the Baum's home pressurizes thenatural gas to increase the amount Millennium can carry and optimizethe speed with which it is transported. However, compressors and thepipelines that feed them tend to blow up. Last year, fires broke outat compressors in Williams, New Jersey, Bradford County, Pennsylvania,and Tyler County, West Virginia. All the more disconcerting forlocals: Minisink does not have a professional fire department, butrelies on an all volunteer force instead.
When they are not exploding, compressors also emit volatile organiccompounds, nitrogen oxides, and poly-aromatic hydrocarbons that canstick around in the surrounding environment and cause respiratoryillnesses, cancer, and chronic skin disease."
They told us the only emissions at the station would be from 'watervapors,'" Leanne said to me, the eyes narrowing knife-thin on the38-year-old mother's face as she recalled the day Millennium firstproposed the compressor station back in August 2011. The company heldwhat they called an "open house" for the proposed project, handing outfree bottles of water and donuts while glad-handing locals at TownHall. Leanne had just delivered her fourth child. That day, with hernew born in her arms, she cornered one of Millennium's executives. "Iasked if he would let his family live beside a compressor station,"Leanne remembered. "He admitted that no, he wouldn't."
Two and half years later on Christmas morning, 2013, Robert Baum was chopping wood for the family's stove when he caught a strong whiff ofnatural gas in the air. "He came inside and tells me, 'You've got tosmell this,'" Leanne recounted. "I went out there and it just reeked."Two days of what Leanne describes as "debilitating headaches" followed for the couple.
The Baums aren't the only ones impacted by the gas in the air. DougBurd, age 41, lives about two miles from the compressor station but hecommutes past it five days a week on his way to the body shop in NewJersey where he works. He gets sick sometimes, too. "I come home lateat night and drive up in the area and I can smell it," he said. "I'vegot no choice. Within a couple of hours, my nose is bleeding. My eyesare watering. It never happened before and I've lived up here going on 11 years.
"The heaviest emissions from Millennium's Minisink Compressor occurwhen the company performs "blow down" operations, which vent naturalgas in order to reduce pressure in the pipeline system. These usuallyoccur at night, although the toxic emissions linger in the air well into the next day.
Until recently, the blow downs were accompanied by a loud combustiveracket from the site. This year, however, Millennium installedsilencers at the station. On the one hand, the silencers have reducednoise. On the other, Asha Canalos told me, she now has no clue whenshe is going to get sick. Asha lives about a mile from the compressor.The former Brooklyn-based artist and art dealer, whose short croppedpigtails are reminiscent of a young Bjork, had recently moved into herdream home in Minisink--a cabin with high ceilings and plenty ofacreage surrounding it for her to take up farming full-time--whenMillennium announced plans to build. Since then, Asha's dream of escaping the bustle of the city and devoting herself to the land hasturned into a nightmare. Since the compressor has been installed, she's suffered a dizzy spell that caused her to walk into a wall after a stint in the field behind her house. A rash later broke out over herbody. This year she has opted out of farming completely.
Instead, Asha has concentrated her efforts on an ongoing lawsuit sheand her neighbors have launched against the Federal Energy RegulatoryCommission (FERC) over its approval of the Minisink compressor. By herestimation, she and her neighbors filed thousands of written publiccomments on the compressor station and have traveled to Washington 20times since Millennium first sought a permit for the compressors in 2011.
The public is prohibited from speaking when the federal energycommissioners meet publically and the gatherings are typicallyjargon-infused snooze affairs during which FERC bureaucrats discusshow the nation's electrical grid is holding up. Individual permitapplications, like Millennium's Minisink compressors, are rarelydiscussed. Those decisions are made behind closed doors. Minisinkresidents attended the meetings regularly nonetheless, chatting withfederal regulators before and after they took the podium."
We thought that if the commissioners could meet us, meet people's kids, that if we could put a face to this thing, they would rule inour favor," Asha said.
As Minisink residents sought to put a human face on the project for FERC, Millennium Pipeline was also in touch with the commission,monitoring the activities of the "Stop the Minisink Compressor Station" Facebook group and alerting the government body of thegroup's activities."
It looks like several landowners plan to attend the Commission's OpenMeeting this Thursday," Ryan Collins, an attorney for Millennium wroteon February 13, 2012--one of two "FYI" messages left for FERC employeesthat extensively quoted Asha and her neighbors' Facebook posts. Ashalater obtained the email communications through a Freedom ofInformation Act request to FERC.
Steve Sullivan, with the public relations firm Power Communications,responded to my inquiries on behalf of both Millennium and RyanCollins in writing. "Like all companies, Millennium monitors media, both traditional and social, about the company and the industry ingeneral," he wrote.
In July 2012, the commissioners approved Millennium's permit, albeitin a rare, split three-two decision. Residents appealed the rulingand, when that failed, filed their suit. While this extended legalprocess was underway, Millennium simply went ahead and built their compressors.
In "approving the project, FERC considered all factors bearing on thepublic interest, including those raised by the Petitioners before theCourt of Appeals," Steve told me. FERC declined to comment on thematter for itself, since it is still before judges.
The ruling came as no surprise to Carolyn Elefant, an attorneyrepresenting Minisink citizens before the Court of Appeals. Sheestimates that the commission "rubber stamps" approximately 98 percentof the projects that come before it, raising the stakes for the legalconfrontation she is engaged in.
"If the community does not win here," she said, "when they've got acompressor station across the street from their homes, I don't thinkanybody will be able to defeat any type of gas infrastructure in this country.
"Not everybody in Minisink is against the compressor station, however.The plaintiffs in the suit told me they've had "Stop the MinisinkCompressor Station" signs ripped from their lawns by neighbors worried that if too much of a stink is made it will harm the reputation of theagricultural industry the town's economy depends on and depreciate thevalue of their homes. But home values are already going down-"because we've got an industrial facility in our backyard," Asha told me.
As an alternative, the plaintiffs want the court to consider aproposal that would force Millennium to dismantle the compressors andbuild one the next town over. Yet, the citizenry of Deer Park are nottoo jazzed at the prospect of Minisink pawning their fracking problemsoff on them and the town's board passed a resolution rejecting theproposal. Another possibility, one that is not on the table at all, isthat New York could scrap natural gas altogether.
The stuff has been hailed as a "transition fuel" with significantlyless of an impact on global warming than traditional oil. But the growing health crisis in Minisink illustrates that fracked gas is not exactly Polar Springs. Some research suggests that it is worse thancoal for our climate, due to the frequency with which frack wells leak methane. At the same time, a widely cited study from Stanford's MarkZ. Jacobson argues that, with investment and political will, New York State could derive the bulk of its electricity from wind farms and photovoltaic cells.
While new technology exists that could render fracked gas obsolete,Minisink is a town firmly rooted in the past. There are no JambaJuices and box stores dominating the scenery. Peach and appleorchards, barns, and old stone houses lay dispersed across a verdant landscape.
Standing near the Baum's house this May, I could see Millennium wasdoing its best conceal its machinery. About the size of an aircraft hanger, the compressor station barely rose above the grove of treessurrounding it. It almost blended in, but vague refractions of light--like a horizon seen from a distance in the desert--rippled in theair above the station. That was the only sign that it was running,mutely emitting toxins for the people of Minisink to inhale.
Connecting Millennium's compressor to the strange symptoms strikingMinisink residents could prove difficult, particularly in the shortterm. But locals are conducting their own health impact surveys whichthey hope will lay out the evidence scientifically rather than anecdotally.
In a 2012 study investigating the connection between fracking, deadlivestock, and sick humans, veterinarians Dr. Michelle Bamberger andDr. Robert Oswald argued for a precautionary approach toward fracking.The drilling industry has approached recriminations against fracking"in a manner similar to the tobacco industry that for many yearsrejected the link between smoking and cancer," they wrote. "That is,if one cannot prove beyond a shadow of doubt that an environmentalimpact is due to drilling, then a link is rejected. This approach bythe tobacco companies had a devastating and long-lasting effect onpublic health from which we have still not recovered, and we believethat a similar approach to the impacts of gas drilling may haveequally negative consequences.""
It is hard to tell which of the symptoms are directly from thecompressor station and what is caused by the stress of living near thecompressors," Asha told me. Fighting the federal government and thepipeline company takes "an insane amount of work." Then there's therisk of the compressors blowing up and the fear of "knowing that youare exposed to toxins all the time." Fracking itself is like asickness, she said. "It moves into your town and infects everyone around you."