The Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, frequented by tourists for its vistas, recreation and vineyards, is dotted with caverns left behind a century ago when the area was a major salt-producing region. Now, an energy company is eyeing those caves as ideal spaces for storing natural gas, upsetting opponents who are trying to prevent a resurgence of industry to what they call an environmental gem.
The plans call for six new rail spurs to handle 24 propane tanker cars every 12 hours. A round-the-clock cycle of trains and tanker trucks seven days a week would bring propane in and out of the facility. Four 700-horsepower compressors would be built, and two open brine ponds would be placed on a hillside above Seneca Lake.
Opponents say the industrial site and related heavy traffic will harm the wine and tourism industries that flourish around the Finger Lakes. An accident at the brine ponds could pollute Seneca Lake, which supplies drinking water to 100,000 people.
Critics also fear accidents such as the gas explosion and fire that burned for six days at a salt storage facility in Moss Bluff, Texas, in 2004, or the massive sinkhole over a collapsed salt-dome gas-storage site in Louisiana in August that forced the evacuation of 350 people.
“Protecting our kids, making sure they have a future: It seems to be a basic part of our job description,” biologist Sandra Steingraber wrote in a blog post from the jail she was sent to last month for blocking access to the cavern. She and a coalition called Don’t Frack New York have collected more than 3,000 signatures on a “Pledge to Resist Fracking,” which says signers will engage in “nonviolent acts of protest” if Gov. Andrew Cuomo lifts a 5-year-old moratorium on shale-gas development in the state.
Companies have been solution-mining salt beside Seneca Lake for more than a century. The process involves drilling about 2,000 feet down into a salt formation left by an ancient sea. Water is injected to dissolve salt, creating brine that’s evaporated to yield salt. The caverns left behind make ideal storage spaces for natural gas and propane, and previous owners have used the Seneca Lake salt caverns for gas storage for decades.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration says depleted gas fields account for the vast majority of the nation’s 410 underground storage facilities. But most new storage facilities built since 2007 have been salt caverns, which are strong and impervious to gas.
Inergy Midstream, based in Kansas City, Mo., bought the U.S. Salt plant on Seneca Lake, 2 miles north of Watkins Glen, in 2008 and announced plans to use depleted salt caverns to store liquid propane gas that is pumped into the open spaces. New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation is expected to decide on the company’s environmental impact study soon.