Fracking has been hailed as a “transition fuel” with significantly less of an impact on global warming than traditional oil. But a growing health crisis in Minisink, New York, illustrates that fracked gas is not exactly Polar Springs.
A pipeline marker near the Minisink Compression Station
Leanne and Robert Baum used to take their children sledding in the field across the road from their house in Minisink, New York. But these days, Leanne, who drives a school bus for a local Christian academy, and Robert, who runs a hardware store, say they're afraid to even let their kids play in the front yard. The couple's small township in Orange County has for decades supplied fresh organic and heirloom produce to the restaurants and farmers' markets in New York City, 60 miles south. Now, it is the site of a growing health crisis. Property values are plummeting and locals are complaining of chronic nosebleeds, rashes, migraines, and dizzy spells. The smell in the air can range from rotten eggs to burning paint.
The Baums, along with many of their neighbors, believe Minisink’s nosedive in quality of life to be the handiwork of the Millennium Pipeline Company, who run two 6,000-horse power natural gas compressors in town limits—both located in the field right across from the Baum’s home.
Business has been good for Millennium and other fossil fuel transporters, thanks to fracking—a process of retrieving gas or oil by fissuring shale rock beneath the Earth's surface. Studies show that fracking can potentially poison the water, soil, and air, contaminate the food supply, and even cause earthquakes—basically everything short of awakening a giant, prehistoric lizard. With these negative effects in mind, fracking is under a moratorium in New York State. Yet even though New York has so far prohibited fracking, Leanne and Robert Baum are still suffering its consequences—and it is threatening to stomp out their country way of life. Just 15 miles across the border from Minisink, where New York's fracking restrictions are not in place, the state of Pennsylvania's been cashing in on a frack-zilla invasion.
In 2013, Pennsylvania exported 3.3 trillion cubic feet of gas from nearly 5,000 wells. Penn State's Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research estimates that by 2015, 4.5 trillion cubic feet worth of gas will be fracked out of the state's shale formations. Much of that fuel will go through Minisink, which has emerged as a nexus point for the expanding spider web of natural gas transmission lines that started spreading up and down the Eastern Seaboard when federal restrictions on fracking were lifted in 2005.
The compressing site across from the Baum’s home pressurizes the natural gas to increase the amount Millennium can carry and optimize the speed with which it is transported. However, compressors and the pipelines that feed them tend to blow up. Last year, fires broke out at compressors in Williams, New Jersey, Bradford County, Pennsylvania, and Tyler County, West Virginia. All the more disconcerting for locals: Minisink does not have a professional fire department, but relies on an all volunteer force instead.
When they are not exploding, compressors also emit volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, and poly-aromatic hydrocarbons that can stick around in the surrounding environment and cause respiratory illnesses, cancer, and chronic skin disease.
“They told us the only emissions at the station would be from ‘water vapors,’” Leanne said to me, the eyes narrowing knife-thin on the 38-year-old mother's face as she recalled the day Millennium first proposed the compressor station back in August 2011. The company held what they called an “open house” for the proposed project, handing out free bottles of water and donuts while glad-handing locals at Town Hall. Leanne had just delivered her fourth child. That day, with her new born in her arms, she cornered one of Millennium's executives. “I asked if he would let his family live beside a compressor station,” Leanne remembered. “He admitted that no, he wouldn't.”
Two and half years later on Christmas morning, 2013, Robert Baum was chopping wood for the family's stove when he caught a strong whiff of natural gas in the air. “He came inside and tells me, ‘You've got to smell this,’” Leanne recounted. “I went out there and it just reeked.” Two days of what Leanne describes as “debilitating headaches” followed for the couple.
The Baums aren’t the only ones impacted by the gas in the air. Doug Burd, age 41, lives about two miles from the compressor station but he commutes past it five days a week on his way to the body shop in New Jersey where he works. He gets sick sometimes, too. “I come home late at night and drive up in the area and I can smell it,” he said. “I've got no choice. Within a couple of hours, my nose is bleeding. My eyes are watering. It never happened before and I've lived up here going on 11 years.”
The heaviest emissions from Millennium's Minisink Compressor occur when the company performs “blow down” operations, which vent natural gas in order to reduce pressure in the pipeline system. These usually occur at night, although the toxic emissions linger in the air well into the next day.
Until recently, the blow downs were accompanied by a loud combustive racket from the site. This year, however, Millennium installed silencers at the station. On the one hand, the silencers have reduced noise. On the other, Asha Canalos told me, she now has no clue when she is going to get sick. Asha lives about a mile from the compressor. The former Brooklyn-based artist and art dealer, whose short cropped pigtails are reminiscent of a young Bjork, had recently moved into her dream home in Minisink—a cabin with high ceilings and plenty of acreage surrounding it for her to take up farming full-time—when Millennium announced plans to build. Since then, Asha's dream of escaping the bustle of the city and devoting herself to the land has turned into a nightmare. Since the compressor has been installed, she’s suffered a dizzy spell that caused her to walk into a wall after a stint in the field behind her house. A rash later broke out over her body. This year she has opted out of farming completely.
Instead, Asha has concentrated her efforts on an ongoing lawsuit she and her neighbors have launched against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) over its approval of the Minisink compressor. By her estimation, she and her neighbors filed thousands of written public comments on the compressor station and have traveled to Washington 20 times since Millennium first sought a permit for the compressors in 2011.
The public is prohibited from speaking when the federal energy commissioners meet publically and the gatherings are typically jargon-infused snooze affairs during which FERC bureaucrats discuss how the nation's electrical grid is holding up. Individual permit applications, like Millennium's Minisink compressors, are rarely discussed. Those decisions are made behind closed doors. Minisink residents attended the meetings regularly nonetheless, chatting with federal regulators before and after they took the podium.
“We thought that if the commissioners could meet us, meet people's kids, that if we could put a face to this thing, they would rule in our favor,” Asha said.
As Minisink residents sought to put a human face on the project for FERC, Millennium Pipeline was also in touch with the commission, monitoring the activities of the “Stop the Minisink Compressor Station” Facebook group and alerting the government body of the group's activities.
“It looks like several landowners plan to attend the Commission's Open Meeting this Thursday,” Ryan Collins, an attorney for Millennium wrote on February 13, 2012—one of two “FYI” messages left for FERC employees that extensively quoted Asha and her neighbors' Facebook posts. Asha later obtained the email communications through a Freedom of Information Act request to FERC.
Steve Sullivan, with the public relations firm Power Communications, responded to my inquiries on behalf of both Millennium and Ryan Collins in writing. “Like all companies, Millennium monitors media, both traditional and social, about the company and the industry in general,” he wrote.
In July 2012, the commissioners approved Millennium's permit, albeit in a rare, split three-two decision. Residents appealed the ruling and, when that failed, filed their suit. While this extended legal process was underway, Millennium simply went ahead and built their compressors.
In “approving the project, FERC considered all factors bearing on the public interest, including those raised by the Petitioners before the Court of Appeals,” Steve told me. FERC declined to comment on the matter for itself, since it is still before judges.
The ruling came as no surprise to Carolyn Elefant, an attorney representing Minisink citizens before the Court of Appeals. She estimates that the commission “rubber stamps” approximately 98 percent of the projects that come before it, raising the stakes for the legal confrontation she is engaged in.
“If the community does not win here,” she said, “when they've got a compressor station across the street from their homes, I don't think anybody will be able to defeat any type of gas infrastructure in this country.”
Not everybody in Minisink is against the compressor station, however. The plaintiffs in the suit told me they've had “Stop the Minisink Compressor Station” signs ripped from their lawns by neighbors worried that if too much of a stink is made it will harm the reputation of the agricultural industry the town's economy depends on and depreciate the value of their homes. But home values are already going down—“because we've got an industrial facility in our backyard,” Asha told me.
As an alternative, the plaintiffs want the court to consider a proposal that would force Millennium to dismantle the compressors and build one the next town over. Yet, the citizenry of Deer Park are not too jazzed at the prospect of Minisink pawning their fracking problems off on them and the town's board passed a resolution rejecting the proposal. Another possibility, one that is not on the table at all, is that New York could scrap natural gas altogether.
The stuff has been hailed as a “transition fuel” with significantly less of an impact on global warming than traditional oil. But the growing health crisis in Minisink illustrates that fracked gas is not exactly Polar Springs. Some research suggests that it is worse than coal for our climate, due to the frequency with which frack wells leak methane. At the same time, a widely cited study from Stanford's Mark Z. Jacobson argues that, with investment and political will, New York State could derive the bulk of its electricity from wind farms and photovoltaic cells.
While new technology exists that could render fracked gas obsolete, Minisink is a town firmly rooted in the past. There are no Jamba Juices and box stores dominating the scenery. Peach and apple orchards, barns, and old stone houses lay dispersed across a verdant landscape.
Standing near the Baum's house this May, I could see Millennium was doing its best conceal its machinery. About the size of an aircraft hanger, the compressor station barely rose above the grove of trees surrounding it. It almost blended in, but vague refractions of light—like a horizon seen from a distance in the desert—rippled in the air above the station. That was the only sign that it was running, mutely emitting toxins for the people of Minisink to inhale.
Connecting Millennium's compressor to the strange symptoms striking Minisink residents could prove difficult, particularly in the short term. But locals are conducting their own health impact surveys which they hope will lay out the evidence scientifically rather than anecdotally.
In a 2012 study investigating the connection between fracking, dead livestock, and sick humans, veterinarians Dr. Michelle Bamberger and Dr. Robert Oswald argued for a precautionary approach toward fracking. The drilling industry has approached recriminations against fracking “in a manner similar to the tobacco industry that for many years rejected the link between smoking and cancer,” they wrote. “That is, if one cannot prove beyond a shadow of doubt that an environmental impact is due to drilling, then a link is rejected. This approach by the tobacco companies had a devastating and long-lasting effect on public health from which we have still not recovered, and we believe that a similar approach to the impacts of gas drilling may have equally negative consequences.”
“It is hard to tell which of the symptoms are directly from the compressor station and what is caused by the stress of living near the compressors,” Asha told me. Fighting the federal government and the pipeline company takes “an insane amount of work.” Then there's the risk of the compressors blowing up and the fear of “knowing that you are exposed to toxins all the time.” Fracking itself is like a sickness, she said. “It moves into your town and infects everyone around you.”