By Mina Hamilton
A little known aspect of gas pipelines is that they require large compressor stations to help concentrate and move the pressurized gas along.As compressor stations release large amounts of methane, plus other toxins, they contribute significantly to global warming. They are noisy, humming 24/7, and are subject to dangerous explosions and fires. At public meetings and during the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission application process, gas pipeline companies have not revealed the number, location and size of planned compressor stations.
The large compressor stations, part of every gas pipeline project, can include acres of industrial plant, plus buffer zones.1 At these stations gas is pressurized to move it along high-speed gas pipelines more efficiently. The stations are spaced every 30 to 70 miles, though sometimes they are much closer.
Kinder Morgan/Tennessee Gas Pipeline plans to build a massive high-pressure gas pipeline from Marcellus Shale deposits in PA, across NY to Wright, NY and then to Dracut, MA. In addition there is a segment from Richmond, MA to Sandisfield, MA and down into CT. Multiple compressor stations are planned.
One hundred and twenty-nine miles of this pipeline in MA is “greenfield” – meaning it cuts through terrain previously untouched by gas pipeline infrastructure, including working farms, state forests, wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas.
Compressor stations are significant contributors to global warming. During ventings known as “blow-downs” large quantities of methane are released to the atmosphere. In the first two decades after methane is released it is 79 to105 times more powerful than CO2 at destabilizing the climate.2
Compressor stations also leak methane via valves and gaskets that weaken and leak from corrosion and thermal stress. A recent study by Cornell University scientists Bob Howard and Anthony Ingraffea estimates leaks. They found that anywhere from 3.6% to 7.9% of unburned methane leaks out at gas wellheads and along pipeline infrastructure before reaching end users.3
Compressor stations release huge amounts of toxins. These toxins include benzene, toluene, sulfuric oxide, and formaldehyde. Citizens within 1500 feet of compressor stations in PA, TX, LA and other states have suffered from nose bleeds, rashes, headaches, sore throats, dizziness and nausea.
A typical compressor4 also emits 46.2 tons of nitrous oxide per year. An anesthetic for dental surgeries, nitrous oxide can cause numbness and mental impairment. It has a sickly sweet smell. Nitrous oxide and volatile organic compounds interact to produce ground level ozone. Ozone inhibits crop growth by up to 30%.
Compressor stations emit radon-222. This radioactive gas precipitates out as radioactive polonium and lead. During blow-downs these toxins deposit in surrounding areas.5
Compressor stations are noisy. “Blow-downs” can last for two hours. The noise is comparable to a commercial jet taking off. Blow-downs are needed if a gas pipeline is taken off-line for maintenance, in the event of emergencies, or to accommodate fluctuating demand. They often occur in the middle of the night.6
The sound of regular compressor station operation has been compared to four diesel locomotive engines running 24/7. Residents as far as a mile away can hear the racket. This humming can cause hearing impairment, learning disabilities and cardiovascular problems.
Compressor stations are dangerous. Since 2011, there have been explosions and fires at compressor stations in Lathrop, Pa, Brooklyn Township, PA, Montrose, PA, Branchville, NJ, Windsor, NY, Pinedale, WY, Marengo County, AL, Oaktown, IN, Langton, OK, Nine Mile Canyon in UT – among others. Explosions have required midnight evacuations of nearby residents, with people evacuated out to a one-mile radius.
Compressor stations are fully automated, without staff present. In emergencies local fire departments (often volunteer) must wait for gas pipeline crews to arrive from distant depots hours away.
Pipeline companies are not transparent regarding the location of planned compressor stations. For years it has been standard gas pipeline company policy not to reveal the location or specifications regarding planned compressor stations – until the last minute. During the spring and summer of 2014 Kinder Morgan repeatedly refused to identify either the exact locations, or planned horsepower, of compressor stations planned for MA.
In its September pre-filing to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission – Kinder Morgan finally identified at least three compressor stations planned for the Northeast Segment. A station in Canaan, NY, in Conway/Deerfield, MA and in Townsend, MA. Existing compressor stations in Wright, NY and Dracut, MA will also be substantially “upgraded.” An “upgrade” usually means additional compressors on site – and more noise and pollution.
To mask the full environmental impact of a proposed line, gas pipeline companies sometimes do not include all planned compressors stations in initial Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) applications.
An example of this tactic is the case of the Millennium Pipeline and Compressor Station in Minisink, NY: Millennium put in its FERC application for the pipeline in 2006 and the compressor station application in 2011, five years later.7 This type of segmentation is illegal, but remains an industry-wide practice.8 Whether Kinder Morgan will “pop-out” additional compressor stations for its MA and NY pipelines is not yet clear.
The author wishes to thank the following for valuable advice and in-put: Anna Gyorgy (whose marvelous collaboration with photographer Lionel Delevingne’s To the Village Square, Nouveau Monde Press/Prospecta Press has just been released), Jim Cutler of MassPLAN, Pramilla Malick of Stop the Minisink Compressor Station, and Tracy Carluccio of the Delaware Riverkeeper. This paper released on October 19, 2014. (Please note an earlier version of this paper was entitled “It’s Not Just A Pipeline, It’s a Toxic Industrial Infrastructure.”)
1Mina Hamilton writes on environmental issues. Her articles have been published in Mother Jones, the Progressive, the Nation, and In These Times. She has been a Research Associate at Radioactive Waste Management Associates, was Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Sierra Club Radioactive Waste Campaign, and served on Greenpeace USA’s Board of Directors. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Kinder Morgan’s September, 14, 2014 pre-filing with FERC says that the compressor station at Deerfield/Conway, MA will be 50-75 acres – an acreage equivalent to about 56 football fields.
4 FERC application for the Compressor Station in Reed, PA.
5 Rowan, E.L. and Kraemer, T.F.,2012, Radon-222Content of natural gas samples from Upper and Middle Devonian sandstone and shale reservoirs in Pennsylvania: Preliminary data: US Geological Survey Open File Report 2012-1159. Available at http://pubs usgs gov/of/2012/1159
7 Personal communication Pramilla Malick of Stop the Minisink Compressor Station.
8 US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled on June 6, 2014 that segmentation is illegal and that FERC should not permit segmented applications. Whether Kinder Morgan or FERC will abide by this ruling is unclear. An application for non-contiguous sections of the Northeast Pipeline has been submitted to FERC by Kinder Morgan in the summer of 2014 – after said District Court ruling.