Activists seek immediate halt to Algonquin pipeline near NY's Indian Point nuclear plant

They Walk the Pipeline. Demonstrating against AIM in August. © Erik McGregor They Walk the Pipeline. Demonstrating against AIM in August. © Erik McGregor

As a Nov. 1 target date for the opening of the Algonquin Incremental Market expansion project (A.I.M.) approaches, project developer Spectra Energy and community and environmental activists united against it are each rushing to their own emergency measures. The activists are organizing statewide demonstrations on Oct. 26 at the offices of Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, demanding that he come out from behind his desk and take a "now or never" stand against the natural gas pipeline project. Meanwhile, Spectra subsidiarity Algonquin is rushing to get the gas running through the just completed network—or nearly completed to be most accurate.

The company has failed to get a drill bore across the Hudson to connect the pipeline segment in Rockland to the next segment in Westchester county. According to activists, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission filings indicate Spectra is now seeking permission to use the old pipeline that A.I.M. was supposed to replace to move gas across the Hudson to the new section already laid alongside the Indian Point nuclear power plant.

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That emergency mix-and-match approach has only heightened concerns among community members already alarmed by the project itself, its hurry-up construction schedule and its route through beloved parkland and among middle-class homes throughout northern Westchester. A.I.M. has been criticized by just about all the local residents directly affected by its construction and by the local politicians and municipal officials who represent the communities that will play host to it.

Texas-based Spectra is expanding sections of its Algonquin transmission line in several states to increase delivery of natural gas to meet what the company says is growing demand in New England. In campaigns against the pipeline, residents complain that while communities in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts will live with the risks of the rupture or leaking of the 42-inch pipeline—it is replacing a 26-inch line—they derive little to none of the benefits of the gas flow. Most homeowners in this part of New York, for example, heat with oil, not natural gas. Many of the workers employed in A.I.M.’s construction have come from Spectra’s Texas and Oklahoma homeworld.

Of course, the most obstinate concern to anti-A.I.M. activists is the positioning of the high-pressure gas line alongside an aging nuclear plant that itself has long been the source of existential safety concerns in northern Westchester.

Paola Dalle Carbonare is a member of Holy Name of Mary parish in Croton-on-Hudson who has been a long-time resistor to the expansion. Many of her neighbors in Croton and other Hudson River towns affected by the project live closer to the pipeline than she does. But proximity is a relative notion in this case, she points out. Should the worst occur and a pipeline explosion damage critical structures at Indian Point, millions of people in the tri-state area will discover how truly small the Indian Point neighborhood actually is.

“We are all involved,” she says. “There are 20 million people involved here. This is a national security issue.

“Pipelines do have a tendency to blow up,” she adds. “That’s a fact—too often. And the new ones more often than the old ones.” In that critical assessment, Ms. Dalle Carbonare is backed up by federal watchdogs at the National Transportation Safety Board, who report that newer transmission lines, perhaps because they have been built with untested components or different techniques, have indeed been failing at a higher rate than older infrastructure. The Pipeline Safety Trust reported last year that gas transmission lines installed in the 2010s had an annual average incident rate of 6.64 per 10,000 miles, three to four times the rate for pipe installation in preceding decades and even exceeding the failure rate of transmission lines installed before 1940.

In 2015, the U.S. D.O.T. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration reported 708 pipeline incidents, which included anything from excavation accidents to pipeline failure due to corrosion, that resulted in 12 fatalities. Some industry analysts expect such incidents to rise as the fracking revolution drives more natural gas across what has become aging transmission lines.

That is not an acceptable risk, according to critics, for a pipeline that crosses so close to critical infrastructure alongside the Indian Point nuclear power plant in Buchanan, N.Y., primarily an emergency back-up fuel system storage tank. Local homeowners argue New York city residents a few score miles downstream should be just as concerned since any emergency at Indian Point would surely affect them as well.

“We don’t have an evacuation plan,” Ms. Dalle Carbonare says, “or at least one that makes sense.”

Safety First?

On Oct. 17, A.I.M. critics, local media and health officials toured the pipeline's route past Indian Point with the New York chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility (P.S.R.), a national organization of medical professionals who have been advocating for public health and safety for over 50 years. At a presentation that followed at the Hendrik Hudson library in Buchanan, P.S.R. members urged an immediate halt to the pipeline construction. A.I.M. runs directly through lanes of modest homes in this small Westchester County river town.

A P.S.R. statement argues that the pipeline presents an “unacceptable risk…to more than 20 million people in the region,” suggesting its immediate suspension “to avert a potential nuclear disaster.”

Speaking at the presentation in Buchanan, Dr. Irwin Redlener, the director of the National Center of Disaster Preparedness and professor of health policy and management at Columbia University, said:

Given the population density surrounding the Indian Point nuclear facilities and the potential catastrophic consequences of a major disaster from the installation or malfunction of the AIM pipeline, it is imperative that these plans be aborted now. To make matters worse, plans to repair a developing problem in the pipeline and plans to safely evacuate at-risk populations are entirely inadequate. From a public health point of view, this project should not be allowed to proceed.

The physicians’ group was joined by residents whose concerns are more direct. "I live 500 feet from the old pipeline route and my daughter's elementary school sits 400 feet from the new pipeline route, well within the official impact radius, so my family are impacted residents," said Erik Lindberg, a Westchester resident. "We are asked to accept increased yearly emissions of pollutants from valves and compressor stations, and the ever present risk of leaks or catastrophic failures.”

Mr. Lindberg adds:

If you live within 50 miles of Indian Point, you, too, are an impacted resident because the pipeline runs close to safety infrastructure at the plant. New York has banned fracking, but we still face the threat of fracked gas infrastructure in our communities. This project is an unacceptable risk to all of us.

According to local media, Jerry Nappi, a spokesperson for Entergy, called the P.S.R.’s assertions “absolutely false” and “overheated rhetoric.”

The vital structures to which the P.S.R. was referring, Mr. Nappi said, is an electrical substation across the road from the Buchanan plant. The pipeline itself is 1,320 feet, from Indian Point reactors, he said, adding that the substation that P.S.R. worried would be within a blast zone has “zero effect on Indian Point’s safety.”

But anti-pipeline activists, who have long been critical of the risk assessment accepted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in approving A.I.M. in March 2015, argue the blast radius should an accident occur could be significantly wider than Indian Point operators suggest.

F.E.R.C. approval for the expansion was based in part on an analysis conducted by Indian Point’s Entergy Corporation and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That review determined that the plant could continue to operate safely in the event of a rupture or could be temporarily shut down if one occurred.

Not everyone was convinced by that positive assessment. Many have dismissed the Entergy/N.R.C. analysis as a cursory and predetermined exercise.

Paul Blanch, who worked with northeast utilities for 27 years before becoming a self-described nuclear power whistleblower, joined P.S.R. in Buchanan. He said:

The N.R.C. has underestimated the probability of a gas line accident impacting the Indian Point nuclear plant by at least a factor of 1,000. Moreover, the N.R.C. and Entergy have failed to provide any supportable documentation that Indian Point can safely shut down the plants in the event of a gas line rupture, and Entergy has no emergency procedures in place at Indian Point to respond to a gas line rupture.

According to Blanch, the blast radius from a gas line rupture would likely encompass the entire Indian Point site, “disabling all vital equipment required to prevent core damage and major radioactive releases to the environment” and well past the structures, which Entergy spokesperson Nappi dismissed as non-critical.

Mr. Blanch continued:

It is my expert opinion that once gas is introduced into the A.I.M. pipeline there will be a grave and imminent danger to the surrounding area and residents. The consequences of a nuclear event at Indian Point may impact millions of lives in the Hudson Valley and New York City and cause social and economic impacts in the trillions of dollars range.

Marylee Hanley, the director of Spectra Energy’s Stakeholder Outreach issued a statement countering Mr. Blanch’s threat assessment. “Spectra Energy's Algonquin Gas Transmission pipeline system has been operating safely in the area for more than 60 years,” she said. “Algonquin has existing pipelines across the Indian Point property that have operated safely without incident.”

She said Spectra has cooperated with Entergy, the owner of Indian Point Energy Center, to determine an agreed-upon location for the pipeline near the plant and included additional safety measures in its design and construction, “above and beyond what is required by federal law.”

Ms. Hanley adds:

Entergy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission provided a thorough review of the A.I.M. Project pipeline, including the additional construction and design features, as well as an on-site review and came to the conclusion that the installation of the A.I.M. Project pipeline would pose minimal or no increased risk to the safe operation of Indian Point.

She notes that the N.R.C. conveyed its conclusions to F.E.R.C. and the agency concluded that “because of the distance of the proposed project from the [Indian Point] generating facilities and the avoidance and mitigation measures that it would implement, the proposed route would not pose any new safety hazards to [Indian Point] in its approval of the A.I.M. Project.”

Entergy officials have also consistently denied any concerns on the part of Indian Point operators about the presence of the gas pipeline nearby. But among area residents, worries were reignited in April when a Spectra-maintained pipeline ruptured and exploded in the small community of Salem Township, Pa. Local media report that the blast sent a fireball hundreds of feet into the air, left a crater 12 feet deep and 1,500 feet wide and scorched about 40 acres of farmland. One man was seriously burned and his home destroyed by the ensuing fire.

Spectra investigators blamed the explosion on an “unprecedented” rate of rapid corrosion of pipeline metal and a convergence of other unforeseen conditions that were unique to Salem Township. A preliminary investigation by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration this year suggested corrosion at weld joints contributed to the explosion. The company has indicated it would accelerate its inspections of similar transmission lines from every seven years to every three to four years as a precautionary measure.

Care of Creation

For many who have come to resist it, A.I.M. is quite literally a “not in my backyard” proposition. The 42-inch high-pressure natural gas line will move fracked natural gas from the Marcellus shale fields of Pennsylvania and Ohio north into New England and across New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, often alongside middle-class homeowners who had no idea they resided or bought property near a natural gas pipeline.

Like many others, Ms. Dalle Carbonare worries that A.I.M. could act in effect as a pipebomb alongside Indian Point. But that is not her only motivation in speaking out against the project. Ms. Dalle Carbonare reports she has been inspired by marching orders issued by Pope Francis in “Laudato Si’” regarding care of creation, especially in connection with the pressing worries of climate change. Ms. Dalle Carbonare says she resists A.I.M. for “the future, for my kids.”

“I don’t know if I want to stay here and put my kids at risk,” she says, noting that even the safest pipelines are known to leak carcinogenic gasses.

But it is not just the pipeline, she objects to, but the extractive industry it helps support. The hydrofracturing of oil and natural gas deposits has created entirely unique threats to the environment, contaminating groundwater in Pennsylvania and bedeviling residents in Oklahoma, Ohio and Arkansas with unprecedented seismic disturbances now connected to fracking wastewater deep-injection. Millions of gallons of toxic wastewater are also created at the perhaps 2 million fracking wells around the country, she points out.

Beyond those direct perils, Ms. Dalle Carbonare wonders how the United States plans to meet Paris Agreement commitments to reduce carbon emissions as it continues to extract and burn fracked fossil fuels. Should even mid-level climate change crises scenarios be realized, “the poor will suffer the most in Africa and Asia, wherever they are,” she says.

“Are we saying it’s ok to frack for another 40 years? We’ve banned it here [in New York], but it’s O.K. to frack in Pennsylvania?”

In May, Sen. Schumer expressed “serious concerns with the Algonquin gas pipeline project because it poses a threat to the quality of life, environmental, health and safety of residents across the Hudson Valley and New York State without any long-term benefit to the communities it would impact.”

He joined Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, as well as other local and state officials, in a request for an independent safety evaluation of the risks posed by the pipeline at Indian Point and A.I.M.’s long-term health implications. The New York politicians urged F.E.R.C. to suspend the project while that review was conducted. That never happened and the project’s approval by F.E.R.C. remains in force. A state safety review of the project, ordered by Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York in February, appears to have stalled without issue. Project critics allege the governor has folded before intense lobbying from Spectra.

Activists like Ms. Dalle Carbonare hope to draw politicians who, like Sen. Schumer, seemed to have forgotten their concerns with the project, to revisit their initial demands for a new independent safety review.

Many of community and environmental activists demonstrating outside Sen. Schumer’s offices on Oct. 26 question the need for the pipeline expansion in the first place. They charge that the Algonquin expansion is ultimately not about serving domestic energy needs in New England but part of a long-term plan to develop infrastructure to export liquefied natural gas to markets overseas. A Spectra official insisted that the gas delivered by Algonquin would be used in New England exclusively.

But industry analysts report near-term plans for the development of L.N.G. export facilities in Canada that will be connected to the northeast pipeline grid that includes A.I.M. With control on natural gas exports placed in 1977 lifting as fracked gas swamps the United States, producers have been seeking new markets to absorb U.S. surplus. A U.S. Energy Information Administraton report in 2015 projected that the United States should become a net exporter of natural gas by 2017, and a Spectra executive has said that the company expects to be part of that transformation.

In September, Enbridge Inc., a Canadian oil and gas transmission company, announced it was purchasing Spectra in a $28 billion stock deal that would create the largest energy infrastructure company in North America, a new integrated pipeline “colossus.”

This is the colossus in the backyard that Ms. Dalle Carbonare and her neighbors are now up against. How can she expect to stop its A.I.M.?

Ms. Dalle Carbonare claims to remain optimistic. She recalls that the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant on Long Island took nearly 10 years and billions of dollars to build, yet it was never allowed to go online because of safety concerns not unlike evacuation worries related to a potential emergency at Indian Point. A.I.M. resistors’ chances remain strong to stop the project even as it reaches the end of construction, she says, “because the gas is not going through yet...and if enough people rise up we can do it.”

The United States could be a leader on renewable energy today if it shifted its priorities, she insists, “if we had more [political] support on that. But there’s too much money behind gas and oil. It’s the usual thing.”

“The pope is my hero,” she says. “He has been very vocal on this and I’m sure he is upsetting a lot of people.”

After hearing him expound on the care of creation, she says, “I feel like it’s my job; he told us to go on the street and that’s what we need to do.

“Changes come from people, not from officials,” she says; “They come from us.”

Kevin Clarkeis chief correspondent at America magazine and the author of Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out. Twitter: @clarkeatamerica

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Rydberg
11 months 4 weeks ago
Any parallel/supporting prayer initiatives planned? Perhaps a 40 Hours, or Rosary Procession. Special Intention Mass? in Christ,
Joshua DeCuir
11 months 4 weeks ago
The single biggest factor in the successful reduction of carbon emissions in the last years has been the switch from coal-powered electricity to natural gas powered electric generating plants. This transformation has been made quicker & more efficiently because of fracking. Fracking has also allowed the US to rely less on crude oil imports from OPEC countries. The question for these activists is what is the most prudent course of action in order to promote reduce CO2 emissions & greater global security (not to mention reductions in global poverty that result from greater energy access)?
Aryt Alasti
11 months 2 weeks ago
Fracked gas has a greater impact on climate than even coal, as a consequence of fugitive methane emissions from points of production and all along the transmission routes to the end-user devices.
Tom Fields
10 months 3 weeks ago
there goes more jobs!

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