NYers fear gas pipeline near nuclear reactor could spell disaster

by @aaronmiguel_ December 3, 2015 5:00AM ET

Whistleblowers and experts allege safety violations, inadequate oversight surrounding new project near Indian Point

A sign signals construction of a high-pressure natural gas pipeline in Montrose, New York. Some residents say they oppose the construction due to safety concerns and declining home values.
Yana Paskova for Al Jazeera America

BUCHANAN, N.Y. — The day before Halloween at Buchanan-Verplanck Elementary School in Westchester County, Courtney Williams watched her 5-year-old daughter participate in the school’s annual Pumpkin Olympics. As kindergartners balanced tiny gourds on wooden spoons and rolled big plastic pumpkins across the school’s lawn, the sound of heavy machinery competed with teachers for the children’s attention.

The school is just 400 feet from the path of a massive new pipeline expansion project that’s being carried out by Spectra Energy, an oil and gas infrastructure company based in Houston. The Algonquin pipeline expansion is one of at least 22 pipeline projects designed in recent years to transport natural gas from shale fields across the U.S. to distribution points in the Northeast. But the noise isn’t the only thing troubling local residents like Williams. The pipeline will run within several dozen feet of electrical infrastructure necessary to operate Indian Point, an aging nuclear plant on the Hudson River. Residents worry that if the pipeline were to rupture, it could trigger a chain of events that might end in a nuclear meltdown, devastating their communities and turning New York City into a radioactive evacuation zone.

Courtney Williams speaking at a protest outside of Sen. Chuck Schumer's Peekskill, New York, office on Monday, July 13, 2015. Along with other members of SAPE (Stop the Algonquin Pipeline Expansion), Courtney delivered a petition to the senator's office with the signatures of more than 23,000 civilians.
Brandon Lavoie

“It will be a catastrophe,” said Williams, a cancer researcher and mother of two small children. “With [the pipeline] 400 feet from my front door, 400 feet from my kids’ elementary school, worrying about the worst case scenario is something I do on a routine basis.”

While the chances of a nuclear accident are low, locals say that Spectra, in its haste to begin construction, misled them about what’s happening in their backyards. Some were angry to learn of the project second-hand, from neighbors. Nuclear and pipeline safety experts working with the nearby town of Cortlandt allege that Entergy, the owner of Indian Point, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the federal agency responsible for nuclear power plant safety, have provided overly rosy assessments of Spectra’s ability to respond should the pipeline rupture. Adding to residents’ anguish are the accounts of two whistleblowers, inspectors involved in the pipeline’s construction and safety, who described incidents they saw involving Spectra employees as violations of basic safety and quality standards.

Residents have fought for months to stall construction. In a recent action, pipeline opponents blocked Spectra workers from accessing trucks and other company equipment; nine of the protesters were arrested. Under pressure from constituents, prominent lawmakers such as New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, along with Reps. Nita Lowey and Eliot Engel, have asked the NRC and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to require an independent safety evaluation of the pipeline’s risks. On Dec. 1, they were joined by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., chief prosecuting attorney of the environmental group Riverkeeper, who said it would be “unconscionable” if the agencies did not address the safety concerns that have been raised. Both the NRC and FERC, which greenlighted the pipeline project in March based partially on Spectra’s in-house safety assessment, have so far denied the requests.

“We have all these different experts of gas pipelines and nuclear plants who are asking questions and really are not getting any answers,” said Westchester County Assemblywoman Sandy Galef. “We’re really being almost told to go away by the NRC.”

On Dec. 1, they were joined by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., chief prosecuting attorney of the environmental group Riverkeeper, who said it would be "unconscionable" if FERC and the NRC did not address (these) safety concerns. 
John and Linda Hanley inside their house in Cortlandt Manor, New York. They live less than 400 feet from where the pipeline is being built.
Yana Paskova for Al Jazeera America

The extraction technology known as fracking has unearthed a vast domestic supply of natural gas, which some have hailed as a cleaner way to meet the nation’s energy demands. But the construction of new infrastructure necessary to transport the fuel troubles environmental groups and some citizens, who cite loss of wildlife, methane gas leaks that contribute to global warming, and the risk of accidental explosions.

Pipeline accidents are up, according to the Pipeline Safety Trust, a watchdog group. For gas pipelines built since 2010, the rate of incidents rose to 6.64 per 10,000 miles, compared with 1.289 for pipelines built in the previous decade, says the trust. In one particularly deadly accident in 2010, a natural gas pipeline ruptured in a residential neighborhood in San Bruno, California, killing eight people.

The trust says the increase may be due in part to hasty construction and shoddy materials. Insufficient government oversight has made matters worse, the group says. Responsibility for pipeline safety monitoring and inspection oversight lies with the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety (PHMSA), while responsibility for issuing permits for interstate natural gas pipeline construction lies with FERC. Companies are largely responsible for their own safety evaluations once operational and PHMSA lacks the resources to inspect every pipeline and rarely levies significant fines, critics say. “With all the advances in technology and engineering over the past couple of decades, we would hope to see a real drop in the rate of pipeline failures,” said Samya Lutz, a spokesperson for the trust. “But that is not the case.”

According to PHMSA, Spectra and 14 pipeline operators that share some of the company’s safety program management plans have reported 31 major incidents, including large explosions and leaks, between fiscal years 2006 and 2014. While this rate is around the industry average, according to the trust, critics say some of the events call into question the company’s emergency management procedures. This past June, for example, a Spectra pipeline exploded underneath the Arkansas River, near Little Rock, releasing 3.9 million cubic feet of gas. According to the Arkansas Gazette, the company didn’t tell the federal agency that records hazardous substance spills about the rupture until the next day and waited nearly 48 hours to notify the city’s mayor. (Marylee Hanley, a spokeswoman for Spectra, wrote in an email that the company views PHMSA’s inspections and oversight as an “opportunity for continuous improvement of our written standard operating procedures.”)

Construction of the natural gas pipeline, seen in Buchanan, New York. Two whistleblowers, former inspectors involved in its construction, allege that the pipeline company violated basic safety standards.
Yana Paskova for Al Jazeera America

Safety concerns are now being raised around Spectra’s new project on the East Coast. The company’s Algonquin Gas Transmission pipeline system is a half-century-old network that runs from New Jersey to Boston and already passes within roughly 400 feet of a control room at Indian Point. The new project seeks to expand this infrastructure, installing a 42-inch-diameter pipeline near the plant capable of pushing natural gas at 850 pounds of pressure per square inch, significantly expanding the pipeline’s capacity.

One of the whistleblowers, who was contracted by Spectra to help oversee safety during construction, said the company took dangerous shortcuts in its rush to begin the billion dollar pipeline expansion. He witnessed “at least two dozen” serious safety violations and transgressions, he said, such as the use of pipes parts that were not properly vetted over the roughly three month period he was employed on the project. The inspector, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also said some workers spent up to 15 hours per day on the job and routinely experienced serious injury. Spectra’s management, he alleged, actively discouraged workers from speaking to the three safety inspectors working on-site. (Hanley, the Spectra spokesperson, wrote in an email that the company follows “federal, state and applicable local regulations as well as our own rigorous standards and procedures.” Contractors are required to report safety incidents on the job, she said, which are “investigated and documented, and critical learnings are shared within the organization.”) 

Meanwhile, other critics, including Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline consultant and a member of PHMSA’s safety committee who was hired by Cortlandt in August to review Spectra’s FERC application, point to evidence that this new, wider pipeline, carrying highly pressurized gas, has a much higher potential for serious harm than the existing Algonquin infrastructure. If the new pipeline ruptures, Kuprewicz said, it “will probably explode and burn.”

There are two possibilities for how that scenario might unfold, according to Kuprewicz and Paul Blanch, a nuclear energy expert who is providing pro bono consulting to Westchester residents concerned about pipeline safety. The rupture could quickly cause a fiery explosion or leak gas that would eventually explode if accidentally ignited. An accident such as this could quite literally leave Indian Point in the dark, first by severing its connection to the electrical grid and also possibly damaging its backup power systems. A larger explosion could also compromise the safety equipment that keeps the plant’s nuclear reactor core from overheating.

Both experts say that a major breach of the cooling system or a loss of the power to that system could lead to a core meltdown or melt-through similar to what occurred at Fukushima, Japan, in 2011. Fearing that radiation could drift toward Tokyo, the Japanese government considered evacuating the city. The Fukushima plant is about 150 miles north of Tokyo; Indian Point is around 30 miles from New York City.

The site of construction of the Algonquin pipeline, seen in Verplanck, New York. Residents have been fighting for months to halt the construction until an independent safety evaluation can be completed.
Yana Paskova for Al Jazeera America

Spectra and the NRC dispute these characterizations of what would happen should the pipeline rupture. For example, in a letter last month to Blanch, Christopher Miller, director of the NRC’s division of license renewal, wrote that the potential for a pipeline rupture causing an explosion with a radius of 3,000 feet, as Blanch had estimated, was “not realistic.” He also defended the agency's "thorough review" of Entergy's analysis of the project. NRC spokesperson David McIntyre emphasized that the possibility of a pipeline break setting off a chain of events that would result in a nuclear accident was extremely remote.

According to Jerry Nappi, a spokesperson for Entergy, the company worked closely with Spectra to introduce additional safety precautions, such as increasing the thickness of the pipe. Hanley, the Spectra spokeswoman, said that Spectra’s Algonquin system has operated without incident near Indian Point for more than 60 years, since the first pipelines were installed in 1952 and 1968.

Certain portions of Spectra’s and the NRC’s safety reviews are not public because of concerns that the information could be used in a terror attack. But emails obtained by Blanch through freedom of information requests suggest that the agency recognizes the possibility of a more dangerous scenario than it publicly admits. For example, an analysis performed by Entergy and confirmed by the NRC states that if the pipeline ruptures, workers at Spectra’s command center in Houston would be able to shut down the gas flow in three minutes. But in an internal email, David Beaulieu, an NRC project manager, pasted conclusions from a PHMSA-sponsored study indicating that in general it could take five to 10 minutes after a pipeline break for a change in gas pressure to register. At a July hearing held by the NRC to discuss the safety concerns, Blanch accused the agency of violating its own compliance rules and misleading the public and members of Congress with its “back of the envelope” calculations.

Kuprewicz points to other internal documents, including the NRC analysis of the safety evaluation conducted by Entergy. In the review, the agency says it used computer modeling to conclude that the amount of time it took Spectra workers to shut off the gas was “inconsequential” because the heat emitted from a pipeline rupture would not change significantly even if it took as long as an hour to stop the flow. Kuprewicz strongly disagrees with this assessment. He also said that the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which jointly developed the modeling software, note that the product is not designed to model gas pipeline breaks in which the pipe is leaking from two ends.

A retired pipeline consultant who has no connection to the pipeline case said Spectra probably has the ability to turn off the gas within three minutes. But he said a ruptured pipe could cause an explosion powerful enough to destroy both of the plant’s backup power sources. (The expert declined to provide his name, citing the sensitivity of the Algonquin project.)

Linda Hanley says that gathering information from Spectra and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been a struggle.
Yana Paskova for Al Jazeera America

On April 2, many towns, community groups and residents from New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts filed requests asking FERC to reconsider its approval of the project. The agency has yet to consider the request, but residents who signed on are organizing in other ways. In the summer, they sent a petition with more than 23,000 signatures to Schumer and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, demanding that they push harder for an independent study and that FERC rescind its approval of the project.

Galef, the Westchester County assemblywoman, has also asked the Cuomo administration to use its executive authority to halt the pipeline construction until an independent assessment can be completed. The governor is seeking to close Indian Point, citing safety concerns. He has meanwhile pushed to expand the state’s investment in natural gas, which, he argues, would reduce energy costs and benefit New York’s economy. Cuomo’s office did not return a request for comment.

Frustration over what residents describe as an information void surrounding the pipeline has flared in other ways. Locals in the Westchester municipality of Yorktown are suing Spectra, the town supervisor and the town board over the marring of 7.5 acres of parkland with pipeline infrastructure. Residents have also raised concerns about pipeline construction on the Blue Mountain Reservation in Westchester County, where Spectra was also granted a license to build. According to the office of Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino, which provided the license, the company wasn’t required to go through the legislature because FERC’s approval of the project superseded state environmental law. But residents say that Astorino, a fracking supporter, ignored constituents’ concerns. Spectra paid Yorktown’s town board $1.5 million and Westchester County $2 million.

Linda Hanley, who lives with her husband, John, less than 400 feet from where the pipeline will be built, said she was never notified by Spectra of the pending construction because her home fell just outside the easement zone. She said that gathering information from Spectra and FERC has been a struggle.

“We’ve lived here 17 years, and we were actually thinking of moving on because our son’s 22; he just moved to Manhattan,” said Hanley, who is originally from the city. “But how do you sell your house with this happening?”

Dozens of other residents, including Courtney Williams, have been organizing through a group called Stop Algonquin Pipeline Expansion. Williams said the members have become “part-time pipeline experts,” working together to keep each other informed. This fall, fed up with a lack of legal options, a coalition of residents formed a new group, Resist AIM Pipeline, which led the November protest outside Spectra’s construction yard and is threatening to obstruct pipeline construction in the coming months. Williams said there are other protests happening in every northeastern state the pipeline passes through.

“I don’t have hobbies,” said Williams. “I just fight this pipeline.”