Nov 18 2009

Spectra PCBs?

Are Cancer-Causing PCBs Part of the Problem at Steckman Ridge?

Spectra Energy’s Amazing History with PCB Contamination:

Paid EPA $15 Million Penalty; Still #7 on EPA’s Top 21 List;

Subject of National News Coverage

Is it possible that Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) have contaminated Spectra Energy’s Steckman Ridge underground gas storage facility in Bedford County, Pennsylvania?

Sounds farfetched since Congress banned PCBs in 1979, correct?  Stayed tuned.

What Are PCBs?

PCBs are man-made chemicals, known as chlorinated hydrocarbons.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has concluded that PCBs cause cancer in animals and is a probable human carcinogen.1 (See also “Links & References” below for a list of sources.)


PCBs — Threat to Health

Regarding the “Health Effects” of PCBs, the EPA’s website notes (emphasis added):

“PCBs have been demonstrated to cause a variety of adverse health effects. PCBs have been shown to cause cancer in animals. PCBs have also been shown to cause a number of serious non-cancer health effects in animals, including effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, endocrine system and other health effects. Studies in humans provide supportive evidence for potential carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic effects of PCBs.” 2


Since Congress banned PCBs in 1979, how could it be a problem today?  As the EPA website notes (emphasis added):

PCBs Last a Lo-o-o-ng Time

“Once in the environment, PCBs do not readily break down and therefore may remain for long periods of time cycling between air, water, and soil.  PCBs can be carried long distances and have been found in snow and sea water in areas far away from where they were released into the environment. As a consequence, PCBs are found all over the world.  In general, the lighter the form of PCB, the further it can be transported from the source of contamination. PCBs can accumulate in the leaves and above-ground parts of plants and food crops. They are also taken up into the bodies of small organisms and fish. As a result, people who ingest fish may be exposed to PCBs that have bioaccumulated in the fish they are ingesting.” 3

Is it reasonable to ask whether PCBs are in the Steckman Ridge compressor station since it was installed approximately 30 years after the ban?

According to Toni Beck, Spectra Energy’s Group Vice President of Internal and External Affairs (emphasis added):

“We manage PCB contamination on our system in compliance with applicable EPA regulations, including the use of engineering controls and operational practices that prevent the migration of PCB contamination into uncontaminated pipeline segments or interconnects.”

What if the Steckman Ridge station is not a source but a conduit?  What if you have a contaminated pipeline system (i.e., Spectra Energy’s Texas Eastern system) connected to a new facility (Steckman Ridge)?  How long does it take to contaminate the new facility?  How would it be possible?

Staggering $15 Million Dollar Federal Penalty for PCBs

First, Spectra Energy’s Texas Eastern pipeline division is very familiar with PCBs. It has more than $15 million worth of experience with the toxic chemical.

Even today, Texas Eastern ranks number 7 on EPA’s hit parade of the 21 “Top Civil Penalty Cases of All Time.”  This list is known as the National Enforcement Trends (NETs) document and you can review it here: nets-top-civil-penalty-cases-w-texas-eastern1

The company’s PCB contamination was so bad and so extensive along its entire pipeline system that Texas Eastern, a division of Spectra Energy, agreed to pay a federal penalty of $15 million in 1987.  Said to be the “largest settlement of an EPA case in history” — at that time — it was a major story covered by national media outlets like The New York Times and TIME magazine.

For example, according to The New York Times (Nov. 10, 1987; emphasis added):

“The Texas Eastern Corporation tentatively agreed today to clean up PCBs and other toxic wastes disposed of at 89 sites in 14 states along its 10,000-mile natural gas pipeline.  The cleanup will cost an estimated $400 million. …  Texas Eastern will also pay penalties and costs of $15 million for violating regulations on the disposal of PCB’s, or polychlorinated biphenyls, along the pipeline. … The pipeline … stretches from Texas and Louisiana into the Northeast.”


By the way, 19 of those sites are in Pennsylvania, according to a 1991 federal court ruling.4


According to a source knowledgeable about gas operations:  ”Long ago, PCB’s were used in the oils and greases at the compressor stations and valves on the pipeline and would get carried out of the station or valve by gas flow.  PCBs are no longer used, but they are extremely hard to get rid of once you get them into your system.  The only way to get rid of them is to completely replace an existing pipeline system with a 100% new system in the affected area.”

“This problem is bigger than it appears because we are talking about contaminated compressor stations, valves, and pipe from South Texas to the tip of the Northeast; and there are lots of compressor stations, valves, and pipe between these two points,” he continued.

“PCBs don’t discriminate and will move freely within the system and follow gas flow, which generally moves from South Texas to the Northeast.  They also have the option of reversing gas flow at the compressor stations and flowing in the other direction.”

“This is a big problem,” the source familiar with gas operations concluded.  ”It could be such a problem that testing for PCBs in South Texas could be nothing compared to the amount of PCBs in the Northeast.  One might even see an exponential increase of PCBs in the Northeast compared to South Texas.”

How Could PCBs Escape to the Environment?

The release of PCBs inside a pipeline or compressor station to the outside environment can happen in two ways, according to our source:  below ground or above ground.

1) Below Ground – The components of natural gas inside a pipeline can form a liquid; OR liquids are brought into the pipeline from a third-party interconnection; OR oils and greases are released from compressor stations, pipeline valves, or other processes.  It is the liquids and oils that pick up the PCBs; and if there is a release of liquid or oil from a contaminated system, it will contaminate the environment.  Gas migration underground is an issue that is receiving serious attention from geologists in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.  If gas and contaminated liquids and oils migrate out of the underground storage field reservoir, it can contaminate other nearby reservoirs and water aquifers.

2) Above Ground – These same contaminated liquids and oils can escape by opening the pipeline or compressor system when doing repairs or routine maintenance activities.  Automated shutdowns such as the emergency shutdown that occurred at the Steckman Ridge compressor station can release contaminated oils and liquids.

Solutions Not Gift Certificates

Finding answers is important.  Spectra Energy’s safety and environmental problems are piling up faster than the gift certificates it gives to area residents so they will “like” them.

Every month we learn more bad news about this company’s performance record over time — from a $15 million federal penalty for massive PCB contamination to a catastrophic failure that turned into an inferno at its Moss Bluff underground gas storage field.  Link to Moss Bluff Incident:

Meanwhile, there are persistent reports of contaminated water supplies in Bedford County and across Pennsylvania in connection with increased drilling and storage of gas in underground formations (through the use of injection wells).

It may or may not be fair, but a reasonable finger of suspicion points to the gas industry.  Bad water is a nightmare no property owner wants to face.  And where family farms are concerned, contamination threatens the destruction of income and property value.  Worse, none of the industry experts has a clue so far.

Instead of answers and transparency, property owners get gift certificates and promises.

Yet the activity goes on.

Every Drilling Mud & Frack Component It Could Use

In its pre-filing draft for the Steckman Ridge project (6-29-07), Spectra Energy told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that the site would have 23 “storage wells.”

To date, Spectra Energy has converted five of the existing production wells, and drilled 8 new wells – for a current operating total of 13 injection/withdrawal wells, according to FERC.  Presumably, the company will drill 10 additional wells for a total of 23.

In addition, Spectra Energy filed for the record, on April 7, 2008, nearly 300 pages of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for every drilling mud and hydraulic fracturing component it could possibly use. spectra-report-to-ferc-4-7-08-fracking-drilling-chemicals1

Most of the data sheets are from Halliburton; and several of the chemical compounds are listed as cancer causing or probably carcinogenic, including chemicals with such trade names as Aquagel®, Baracarb® (a family of compounds), Baroid®, N-SealTM, Halliburton Gel, Oriskany Flush Cement, and Frack Sand.

It is time for Spectra Energy to engage in a grown-up conversation with its neighbors.  Not, why don’t you like us; or why do you keep picking on us?

Instead, send in the adults and answer questions:  What chemicals are you using?  Is the pipeline contaminated with PCBs or other toxic compounds?  How many property owners are having water problems you haven’t disclosed?  Fully disclose the risk factors involved in this underground gas storage operation.  How often do you test for hazardous chemicals and what are the results?  Have you fracked, or when are you going to frack (or use alternative stimulation)?

In our next blog, we will continue to pursue the issue of PCBs and related health and safety factors in natural gas operations.

Links & Resources

1,  3 EPA’s Basic Information on PCBs:

2 EPA’s “Health Effects of PCBs”:

4 Federal Court Ruling — 1991; see Section 1, “Facts And Proceedings Below” (emphasis added):

“The facts in this case are undisputed. Texas Eastern operates an interstate natural gas pipeline system that extends over 9,600 miles through 16 states from Texas to New York. The pipeline system passes through Pennsylvania. In 1985 or 1986, the EPA learned that Texas Eastern was allowing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) to escape into the environment at 89 sites in 14 states along the pipeline system. Nineteen of these sites were in Pennsylvania. Accordingly, the EPA commenced an investigation and entered into discussions with Texas Eastern concerning appropriate responses to the contamination.”

Background:  The 1991 federal court action (referenced above) was triggered when Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) apparently appealed in federal court (U.S. Court of Appeals, 5th Circuit) for the right to intervene in EPA action against Texas Eastern (a Division of Spectra Energy).  It appears that the DEP was concerned that the $15 million consent decree with the EPA might preempt state environmental laws.  The federal judge ruled that, “the consent decree itself should have no preemptive effect on state laws and that any preemption of state environmental laws would result from existing federal statutes or regulations that are not affected by the disposition of this action.”

EPA PCB Inspection Manual (August 2004) Page 2 (G-1): “PCBs pipeline liquids were illegally disposed of in unlined earthen pits, vented to the atmosphere and surface soils at various equipment blowdowns, used as herbicides on station fence-lines, and used for dust control on roads.  Examples of past cases/settlements involving the use of PCBs in turbine compressors include the Texas Eastern Gas Pipeline Company [division of Spectra Energy] and Transwestern Pipeline Company.”  (See link below next citation.)

Page 4 (G-3): “The 1981 CMP [EPA's Compliance Monitoring Program for PCBs] did not grant immunity to any of the participating companies from enforcement if violations were discovered.  The 1981 CMP has not prevented EPA from taking judicial or administrative enforcement actions against participating companies such as Texas Eastern Gas Pipeline Company [division of Spectra Energy] ….  Several states have also taken enforcement actions against companies participating in the CMP.”

Views of Steckman Ridge Compressor Complex near Clearville in Bedford County, PA.  (Click on image to enlarge.)

Steckman Ridge nearly 5,000 HP compressor & nearby home, Bedford County, PA

Steckman Ridge nearly 5,000 HP compressor & nearby home, Bedford County, PA

Steckman Ridge underground gas storage complex (part of it) -- lots of pipe and other equipment sitting on top of a 12 billion cubic feet underground gas storage field.

Steckman Ridge underground gas storage complex (part of it) -- lots of pipe and other equipment sitting on top of a 12 billion cubic feet underground gas storage field.

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