Con Ed Feeling the Pressure from Pipeline Opponents

BY EILEEN STUKANE  |Valentine’s Day was anything but soft lights and whispers for the lovers of lively debate gathered at a Community Board 4 (CB4) Waterfront, Parks and Environment Committee meeting that had Spectra Pipeline safety issues leading the agenda.

The Spectra natural gas pipeline that has arrived at the Gansevoort Peninsula at the edge of the Meatpacking District will affect the CB4 area of Chelsea as well as the West Village. This high pressure 30-inch pipeline — which seemed not to affect Chelsea at first — is being extended by Con Edison with a new 1500-foot extension pipeline going north on 10th Avenue to its West 15th Street terminal.

Realizing that construction from West 14th Street to West 15th Street brings the pipeline into the CB4 district, residents have begun educating themselves to the safety issues surrounding the pipeline — issues that include the possibility of explosion and the sanity of having a high-pressure pipeline of 350 psi (pounds per inch) in a dense urban area. Environmental activists have been bringing these issues to the attention of Community Board 2’s (CB2’s) West Village residents for more than a year. Now it was Chelsea’s turn to reckon with the pipeline.

Held in the Piano Room of Project Renewal’s Holland House (351 West 42nd Street), the CB4 meeting highlighted the Spectra Pipeline and its Con Edison extension, but also offered Con Edison’s follow-up to Hurricane Sandy. The main focus, however, was the pipeline. Interested residents took this opportunity to question representatives of the Spectra Pipeline and Con Edison face-to-face. The grilling from participants, in an audience of 80 to 100 people, was intense.

The Committee’s Co-Chair, Maarten de Kadt, opened the meeting by stating “We are in a learning stage for this pipeline…we’re looking forward to an evening of gathering information and having exchange. We’ll consider ourselves students in the area.”

However, it would be clear, as a presentation from Con Edison wound down and the questions kept coming, that residents and attending activists were well-prepared with information about the history of exploding natural gas pipelines, the presence of radioactive radon in natural gas and the nuances of high pressure transmission.

Most of the evening was devoted to the questioning of Anthony Leto, Con Edison’s section manager in gas engineering. In addition, David Gmach, Con Edison’s director of New York City Public Affairs and Christian DiPalermo, a consultant for Spectra, came forward from time to time. Leto reported that in the next two weeks, Con Edison is going to excavate and document what is underground in the area due for construction.

The construction will take 16 weeks beginning late March or early April, when it is assumed that Department of Transportation (DOT) permits will be in place. There will be a trench six feet wide, seven feet deep, closed over at completion with three feet of ground cover.

Now experienced in Downtown relations, having presented at a CB2 public meeting in December 2012, Leto also said that he was neither going to answer questions about the controversial hydrofracking of natural gas from Marcellus Shale in upstate New York, nor about the content level of radon (a tasteless, colorless, odorless gas that is naturally created in hydrofracked natural gas). Radon, when inhaled, is the leading cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers, and the second leading cause among smokers. He explained that Con Edison is the carrier of the gas, and not the producer, and questions about production were not in his purview.

He proceeded to offer a PowerPoint presentation, with headings such as “Gas Transmission Risks and Mitigating Measures,” which listed how Con Ed checks for corrosion and water leaks, and looks daily for “Third Party Damage” from weather and other underground infrastructures. Leto pointed out the daily monitoring of the pipeline extension by Con Ed and the safety features to prevent catastrophe built into the hydraulic operations, with remotely operated valves, battery backups, phone monitoring.

In order to connect to the Spectra Pipeline at Route 9A and dig up 10th Avenue north to West 15th Street, Con Edison needs those permits from the DOT but it is not required to do an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) relating either to the construction or the safety of the pipeline it is installing.

The Q&A portion of the meeting was expertly moderated de Kadt — who systematically went from right to left across the room, allowing questioners to have only one turn each. The first question was from Clare Donohue, a founder of Sane Energy Project, who wanted confirmation of the high pressure level of gas transport at 350 psi.

Leto explained that interstate transmission of natural gas allows for up to 1,000 psi — but that Con Edison was operating conservatively and “stepping down” the pressure in New Jersey to travel the 15 miles of pipeline through Staten Island, under the Hudson River and to the Gansevoort Peninsula. He also said that Con Ed had been bringing in natural gas at 350 psi since the 1950s, and that this pipeline was not going to be used to the full capacity of its pressure, which already gets reduced along the way. The pressure is reduced at West 15th Street and throughout the Con Edison distribution pipeline by pressure regulators. Depending on where the gas is in the pipelines, it can be at 99 psi, 15 psi or lower. Con Ed has 88 miles of pipeline in its service area.

What was clearly on the minds of the Chelsea questioners was the risk of the high pressure pipeline exploding and causing loss of life and property.  Similar pipelines have exploded in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and California. An audience member brought up the San Bruno, California explosion in 2010 that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes, and the fact that the Pipeline Safety Trust (an advocacy group out of Bellingham, Washington) has claimed that every nine or 10 days, on average, someone ends up dead or in the hospital from pipeline accidents. As de Kadt concisely put it, “We’re worried about frying our own butts.”

DiPalermo, Spectra’s consultant, defended that the San Bruno explosion was not a Spectra pipeline. “Most of the accidents you hear are third party,” he said. This was cold comfort to other audience members who brought up Spectra’s safety record of violations and the discovery by Denise Katzman that the company was concerned about its capability of acquiring Risk of Loss insurance. Asked by de Kadt whether there was an emergency plan that Con Edison might have in place. Mr. Leto said there was a plan, that he did not have it with him, but he promised to provide it to CB4. Mr. Leto reiterated the daily monitoring that Con Edison does and the fact that “Con Edison could increase the pressure and use more of the design of the pipe but we choose not to, we’re more conservative.”

There was palpable frustration coming from the gathering. People wanted to know what they would do if an accident occurred. They also wanted answers as to why they might be in danger of inhaling radon, which still has high radioactive levels. Radon’s radioactivity has a half-life of 3.8 days and delaying its delivery from gas hydrofracked in New York and Pennyslvania would allow the radioactivity to dissipate. The question of whether Spectra might build storage tanks to hold the gas before delivery was answered by DiPalermo who said, “According to FERC [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] and its Environmental Impact Statement, there is no problem.”

Half of those attending left the meeting as the agenda moved to Con Edison’s follow-up to Hurricane Sandy. Gmach explained the changes being made to the East 14th Street substation so that it wouldn’t blow out again the way it did during Sandy. Structures are being raised, barrier walls are being built, control panels are being renovated, water pumps are being installed. Also, states like Florida — which have more experience dealing with hurricanes than New York City — are being consulted. This was the better news that ended the meeting.

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