On July 12, 2018, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) Commissioner issued a decision for a proposal to construct and operate a new underground liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) storage facility for the storage and distribution of propane in the town of Reading in the Finger Lakes region of New York. The decision denied the permit applications for the proposed project on the grounds the facility would have a significant adverse impact on community character in the local area and the Finger Lakes region.
This blog supports evidence-based environmental decision making. When infrastructure is proposed it always affects someone who lives nearby. Not in My Back Yard (NIMBY) environmental issues are the reaction of those who don’t want to have any impacts on their personal lives. Because there are no quantitative measures for community character this is an emotion-based decision that sets the precedent that if enough people complain about something in their backyards then the NYSDEC will rule in their favor.
The Project as Described in the Decision
Finger Lakes LPG Storage, LLC originally proposed to build a facility that would store propane and butane in existing solution-mined underground caverns in the Syracuse salt formation. As originally proposed, a maximum of 2.10 million barrels (88.20 million gallons) of LPG in the form of liquid propane and butane was to be stored in the caverns seasonally, displacing some of the brine currently filling them. The stored LPG was to be withdrawn by displacement of propane with brine when demand occurred during the heating season, and displacement of butane with brine during the gasoline blending season.
During storage operations, the brine displaced by LPG or butane was proposed to be stored and contained in two double-lined brine ponds. One 2.25 acre pond would have had a capacity of approximately 0.17 million barrels (7.14 million gallons). The second pond was 6.35 acres, and would have a capacity of approximately 0.80 to 0.81 million barrels (33.6 to 33.9 million gallons)
The facility would connect to an existing interstate pipeline for shipment of LPG into and out of the facility. As originally proposed, LPG was also to be shipped out by truck, and by rail. The original project included the construction of a new rail and truck LPG transfer facility, consisting of a six-rail siding capable of allowing loading and unloading of 24 rail cars within 12 hours, and a truck loading station capable of loading four trucks per hour.
In response to local stakeholders, modifications were proposed to reduce the scale and environmental impacts of the project. The modifications eliminated the proposal to store liquid butane at the facility and reduced propane storage capacity from 2.1 million barrels to 1.5 million barrels; eliminated the project’s rail and truck loading facilities so all deliveries of liquefied petroleum gas would be by pipeline; eliminated one of the brine ponds; and, for lack of a better term offered bribes as they proposed to “provide resources ranging from financial resources to technical resources (mining data) to support community initiatives for the preservation and improvement of water quality in the area, including Seneca Lake”.
Community Character Impacts
The decision discusses community character as follows:
Community character is specifically referenced by the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). SEQRA defines “environment” to include “the physical conditions which will be affected by a proposed action, including . . . existing patterns of population concentration, distribution, or growth, and existing community or neighborhood character” (ECL 8-0105; see also 6 NYCRR 617.2[l]). Unique to each case is the “community” to be evaluated – it will relate to the type of action that is being proposed, the factual circumstances and the nature of the impacts. For some projects, the “community” may be only the municipality in which the proposed action would occur. Here, the interests of a range of communities within the vicinity of Seneca Lake, as in part reflected by the submissions of the Seneca Lake Communities in this proceeding, are clearly relevant to the analysis. The evaluation of community character in this specific matter is not solely limited to the communities (Town of Reading and County of Schuyler) in which the proposed facility would be sited but entails an evaluation of communities in and around Seneca Lake and the Finger Lakes region whose economies and environmental interests are directly intertwined.
So how did the project affect “existing patterns of population concentration, distribution, or growth, and existing community or neighborhood character”? There would have been visible infrastructure. In the original proposal a compressor building, two ponds, a rail and truck loading facility, and I assume some sort of office building with process control equipment but in the revised proposal one pond and the rail and truck loading facility were eliminated. In the original proposal 24 rail cars could have been loaded and moved out within 12 hours and four trucks per hour could have entered and left the facility but the impact of that traffic was eliminated by the applicant’s modifications.
The Community Character section of the decision has to be read to be believed. Excerpts include “impacts to noise and aesthetic resources as revealed on the current record are essential components in the evaluation of impacts on community character in the context of this proposed project.” “The proposed facility with its “industrial” image is seen to be in conflict with the local and regional setting.” Summed up by this: contrary to future progress as planned by local, regional and state officials the project would “overlay an indelible industrial impact on the cultural landscape of Seneca Lake”. The section supports its descriptions of these impacts by referencing a couple of analyses and statements in opposition from local municipalities.
The final plan would have a couple of buildings and a pond, no truck or rail loadings, but would have added a few commuters to the cultural landscape. It is amazing to me how the final decision could conclude that “continuing this proceeding by directing adjudication of issues discussed below would not and cannot overcome the project’s significant adverse environmental impacts on community character.”
Ultimately by this criterion, what could have been built in New York State in the past? Surely the Erie Canal had a significant environmental impact on community character so by this reasoning it would not have been built. The same could be said for any factory, railroad or highway. Apparently the future for New York development is primarily dependent upon social considerations of the local communities and the economic infrastructure in the tourism sector. If the local communities don’t want it in their back yards then it is not going to happen.