Saturday, March 8, 2014

Medical Community Calls for Attention to Health Impacts from Proposed Gas Storage

Protesting Inergy at Seneca Lake, 2013

Nineteen doctors, nurses, physician’s assistants and EMTs from Schuyler County NY are concerned that the proposed gas storage facility on Seneca Lake will harm the health of local residents. They are so concerned that they wrote a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, DEC commissioner Joe Martens, and other public officials declaring that the potential risks from air and water pollution are “a public health issue.”

Paula Fitzsimmons, a Physician Assistant and signatory to the letter, says the Schuyler County medical community needs to have more public conversation about the potential health impacts of a storage facility. There’s been public discussion about environmental and economic issues, she says, but health issues have been overlooked in the permit review process.

So on Tuesday, March 11, Fitzsimmons will join geologists and public officials for a public forum to address the proposed expansion of gas storage in the salt caverns. The forum, “Seneca in the Balance”, begins at 7 pm (doors open at 6) in the Watkins Glen High School Auditorium, 301 12th Street. Fitzsimmons hopes this forum will spark dialog between health professionals – but one agency that seems to be missing from this very important conversation is the Schuyler County Public Health Department.  
( Note: there will be live stream of the Tuesday forum at:

In a conversation a couple weeks ago, Fitzsimmons listed three major concerns. First there’s the watershed. While storing gas isn’t the same thing as fracking a well, an accident could have the same health impacts. An accident releasing chemicals into the lake would contaminate the water supply of 100,000 residents.

Second is air quality. The goal of Inergy (now Crestwood Midstream) is to store gas from other areas, so the facility will become an industrialized hub of storage and transportation activity. The result will be more emissions and particulates generated by increased traffic, compressors and flare stacks. Fitzsimmons is concerned about rising asthma rates and increased risks to fetal health.

“We can expect the quality of life to go down for anyone with lung disease,” she says, noting that the environmental impact studies failed to take into account cumulative air impacts from vehicles and equipment. There are other health issues as well, including noise pollution, light pollution, stress related to becoming an industrialized area, and an increased accident rate due to more traffic on the rural roads.

Third is whether the county is able to respond to a large scale catastrophic incident. “This project would allow dangerous and volatile products to be stored under pressure in a cavern with known integrity problems,” says Fitzsimmons. If there were such an incident, it’s the local volunteer agencies that would respond – and they are undertrained and unprepared to respond to such an emergency, she adds.

There’s cause for concern. In 2001 a gas leak from a salt cavern storage facility in Kansas migrated seven miles before exploding in the town of Hutchinson. Two people died, many lost their homes, and firemen battled the flame for days. More recently, the collapse of a wall in a salt cavern just 75 miles north of New Orleans, Louisiana, has caused a massive 26-acre sinkhole. Hundreds of people have evacuated and now there is a threat of gas migrating into the ground beneath their homes.

Given the proximity of Watkins Glen to the proposed gas storage site on Seneca Lake, Fitzsimmons and her colleagues have reason for concern.

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