Jul 27 2011

Citizen Regulators 2

Neighbors Track Incidents at Spectra Energy Compressor Station:

Water Contamination Issues, Compressor Blowdowns, Livestock Deaths

‘Footprint’ of Problems Suggest Pattern;

Waiting for Spectra Energy Response to its Stakeholders

Map shows cluster of properties (#1-12) surrounding Spectra Energy's industrial compressor/underground storage facility with 13 injection/withdrawal wells.


Angel and Wayne Smith own a 100-acre farm in Clearville, PA, with more than 500 blueberry bushes (where visitors can pick their own), 12 beef cows, plus hay and a large vegetable garden.

They are among a circle of property owners surrounding Spectra Energy’s huge compressor and underground natural gas storage facility with 13 injection/withdrawal wells.

The Smiths and other property owners are, by necessity, volunteer ‘citizen regulators.’  They track incidents related to health, water, operational complaints – even livestock deaths – near the facility in Clearville known as Steckman Ridge.

They are seeking answers to a pattern of adverse incidents since the facility began phased-in operations in 2009.  Part 1 of this series reported on the company’s installation of a reverse osmosis water system and a methane vent or separator on two private properties nearby.  Link to Part 1: http://www.spectraenergywatch.com/blog/?p=1328

Spectra Energy was repeatedly asked for comment, but no response has been forthcoming to date.

Compressors Do What?

“Compressor stations are ‘pumping’ facilities that advance the flow of natural gas,” according to a report from the Energy Information Administration of the Department of Energy.1 Sited every 50-100 miles along natural gas transmission pipelines, that amounts to a lot of compressor stations along Spectra Energy’s 19,000 miles of North American transmission pipeline.2

In addition, a compressor station is a “critical component” at any natural gas underground storage reservoir, according to a Spectra Energy brochure published for Winter 2010 and mailed to residents.

In a Summer 2010 brochure, the company states that its Steckman Ridge compressor in Clearville “operates during injection [of gas] to increase the pipeline pressure and during withdrawal service to increase the field pressure …. in order to move natural gas in and out.”

Angel & Wayne Smith

Angel and Wayne Smith’s property is number four on the attached map and is near injection/withdrawal well SR6.  According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), SR 6 was placed into service in May of 2009.

Their ongoing problems with Spectra Energy’s heavy industrial facility in Clearville are a matter of public record.  They have filed a lawsuit against Spectra Energy’s Steckman Ridge, LP.  It is currently in federal court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (Johnstown).

Their lawsuit alleges illegal taking of their property rights for the company’s gas storage field.  In addition, their suit contends that the company is responsible for the contamination of their water supply, via its storage facility.

Water levels in their well, pond and a nearby creek rise and fall in synch with the operation of the nearly 5,000 horsepower compressor station, according to the Smiths.

Livestock Deaths

Since May of 2009 when Spectra Energy’s SR6 well was officially placed into service, the Smiths say they have lost approximately two dozen livestock and pets.  This includes a 600-pound steer, 3 calves, one cow, 3 dogs, 12 chickens and 4 cats.

Recently, there is an unconfirmed report of more livestock deaths – ten young animals; but we emphasize that this is second-hand information.  If the information is accurate, Spectra Energy will no doubt report it to FERC and/or the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

Livestock and pets can die for many reasons, but the pattern is disconcerting in Clearville. Moreover, the industry treats such incidents as anecdotal or isolated. But the more one looks from Pennsylvania to Texas, many adverse effects follow a pattern near gas industrial operations.

Property owners in several states have learned that they must, in effect, become citizen regulators who track and record incidents at gas industry facilities – from drill sites to pipelines to compressor/storage reservoirs.

Compressor Station Track Record

The Steckman Ridge compressor station – with homes nearby and an elementary school 3 miles away – has had problems from the beginning with shutdown/blowdowns that can result in uncontrolled releases of Volatile Organic Compounds and, sometimes, a liquid contaminate which has fallen on nearby properties.

Despite Spectra Energy’s stated commitment to transparency, accountability, safety, and being a good neighbor, the company declines to share statistics on compressor station performance across its system.  For example, it operates a major compressor station nearby known as the Bedford Compressor Station.

In addition, it operates a compressor station and natural gas underground storage facility near Accident, Maryland – less than two hours from Steckman Ridge in Clearville, PA.

Facts about comparative performance could help stakeholders understand if the problems at Steckman Ridge are typical.

In response to the company’s lack of transparency, some Clearville residents have formed the equivalent of a neighborhood watch.  Based on unofficial record keeping by nearby landowners, there have been 44 shutdowns and/or blowdowns at the Steckman Ridge compressor station between August 2009 (which included the first, big emergency shutdown) and June 2011.3

This information has been furnished to FERC which is reviewing it with Spectra Energy to determine what is going on.

Maggie Suter, who is the FERC project manager for Steckman Ridge, took pains to explain the difference between shutdowns and blowdowns, based on what she learned from Spectra Energy.


“It was explained to us that when Steckman needs to shut down the station or stop operations (not for emergency use, but just to stop), they must vent the individual compressor units,” Suter notes.  “This was referred to as an individual unit blowdown as compared to an emergency shut down.”

“The big difference here is that Emergency Blow Downs last longer (all of the gas from the station needs to be vented) and route the gas to the blow down silencer,” she explains.  “The station was not originally designed for unit blow downs to have the gas routed to the blow down silencer so it was quite loud.”

Some folks get sidetrack by the noise issue – which is significant – but the core issues are:

  1. Why is this heavy industrial facility having such frequent blowdowns?
  2. Why is the facility not designed for unit blowdowns in the first place?  (What else is this industrial facility not designed for?)
  3. At least one Spectra Energy bi-weekly report from June 2009 suggests the blowdowns are “not normal.”

For example, on May 28, 2009, property owner Lee Glover “called to ask if the ‘blowing down’ noises were going to continue and wondered if these were normal day-to-day function,” according to the Steckman Ridge form filed with FERC.4

Under Resolution, the form states (emphasis added):  “The Agent explained that the noise was not normal day-to-day operations but was the result of a relief valve malfunction and that the valve was being repaired.”

Recurring patterns of adverse effects generally indicate something is wrong.

As Sharon Wilson of the Texas Oil & Gas Accountability Project points out:  The goal of the gas industry is to dismiss case after case as anecdotal, ignoring the growing pattern.

As even The Dallas Morning News observed in an editorial:  “But the industry’s tendency has too often been to deny, deflect and use judicial bullying to get its way.”

Such a pattern is visible near Spectra Energy’s Steckman Ridge storage facility in Clearville, Pennsylvania.

In part 3, we hope to share comments from Spectra Energy about the operations of its Steckman Ridge storage facility, as well as information from PA DEP.  If not, we’ll have more to share about operations at the heavy industrial facility.


Links & Resources

1 Natural Gas Compressor Stations on the Interstate Pipeline Network:  Developments Since 1996 – Special Report from the Energy Information Administration, Office of Oil and Gas, November 2007.  Pdf file:  ngcompressor

2 Overview of Operations for Spectra Energy – the 19,000 mile transmission pipeline number comes from the company’s website: http://www.spectraenergy.com/Operations/Overview-of-Operations/

3 Shutdowns/Blowdowns Count – from August 2009 to June 2011, monitored and recorded by neighboring property owners near Steckman Ridge facility.  Document:  SR Shut:Blowdowns

4 Steckman Ridge – Landowner Environmental Complaint and Issues Resolutions Report – This form is submitted by Spectra Energy to FERC.  The last page of the document indicates that Property Owner Lee Glover called on May 28, 2009 with the following issue:  “Landowner called to ask if the ‘blowing down’ noises were going to continue and wondered if these were normal day-to-day functions.”

The responder to this complaint was Kevin McCrary.  Under “Resolution” it states (emphasis added):

“The Agent explained that the noise was not normal day-to-day operations but was the result of a relief valve malfunction and that the valve was being repaired.” Pdf file:  SR BiWeekly 6-12-11

NOTE: This article is cross-posted on the Accountability Central website at this link: http://www.accountability-central.com/nc/single-view-default/article/voices-from-the-shale-citizen-regulators-track-incidents/

Accountability Central is part of the Governance & Accountability Institute, Inc.

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