On July 12, 2018, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos 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 post compares the changes made to the proposed project by the Finger Lakes LPG project with an industrial wind complex, the Ball Hill Wind Energy Project between the initial environmental impact statement and the final environmental impact statement. It is not clear to me how any wind energy project can pass the bar set by this community character decision.
I discussed the NYSDEC decision in an earlier post where I concluded that it values qualitative value judgements over any quantitative assessment and will establish “not in my backyard” arguments as an acceptable rationale for denying just about any project. I determined that based on the conclusion of the opening section of the decision by Basil Seggos that states:
Notwithstanding that certain issues can be identified as adjudicable, the record is more than sufficient at this stage for me to make a final determination based on the requirements of the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). The record demonstrates that the impacts of this project on the character of the local and regional community, including but not limited to the environmental setting and sensitivity of the Finger Lakes area and the local and regional economic engines (e.g., wine, agricultural and tourism industries), are significant and adverse and the project does not avoid or minimize those impacts to the maximum extent practicable. Furthermore, the significant adverse impacts on community character are not outweighed or balanced by social, economic or other considerations, and cannot be avoided or minimized to the maximum extent practicable by the proposed mitigation measures.
My decision, together with the draft supplemental environmental impact statement (DSEIS) and the comprehensive record, hereby serves to finalize the DSEIS for this action. Based upon my review, I am not able to issue a findings statement in support of this project and, accordingly, the permit applications for this proposed project are to be denied.
Frankly, I was not familiar with community character impacts so I relied on the description in the decision. Community character is described in the decision 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.
One community character rationale is particularly apt for this comparison. The decision noted that “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 Finger Lakes LPG Storage 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.
During the application process modifications were proposed to reduce the scale and environmental impacts of the project in response to local stakeholder concerns. 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”.
Ball Hill Windpark as Described on the Project Website
Noble Ball Hill Windpark, LLC originally proposed to construct and operate an approximately 94.5 megawatt (MW) wind energy facility in Chautauqua County, New York in 2008 and submitted an Environmental Assessment Form. According to Appendix F – 2008 Environmental Assessment Form and 2015 Board Resolution the project consisted of the following:
- 60 wind turbines;
- 16 miles of access roads;
- An electrical collection system along the same right-of-way corridor as the access roads with 23.8 miles buried and 6 miles of overhead.
- A new substation with a footprint of approximately 200 by 300 feet;
- A new switchyard with a footprint of approximately 300 by 500 feet; and
- An operations and maintenance building site of 5 acres
In November 2016, Ball Hill Wind Energy, LLC submitted a Final Environmental Impact Statement with changes to the project:
- 29 instead of 60 wind turbines;
- 13 instead of 16 miles of access roads;
- An electrical collection system along the same right-of-way corridor as the access roads with 19.8 miles instead of 23.8 miles buried and 5.7 miles instead of 6 miles of overhead.
- A new substation with a footprint of approximately 175 by 190 instead of 200 by 300 feet;
- A new switchyard with a footprint of approximately 225 by 611 instead of 300 by 500 feet; and
- An operations and maintenance building site of 2.8 acres
I was unable to find a description of the turbines originally proposed but in 2008 the local township wind law limited the maximum height to 420’. In 2011 the developer submitted an amended application using a new turbine design. In September 2016 the developer requested that be changed to 495’ to allow for the use of “newer, more efficient turbine technology. The 2016 Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement states that there will be 34 3.45MW Vestas wind turbines with a hub height of 72.5m and a 51.2 blades. I understand that the current developer recently requested another change to the maximum height restriction to 600’ but do not know if that is for these Vestas turbines or another, and presumably, higher design.
Noise Comparison of Projects
I am guessing at the noise impacts of the final Finger Lakes LPG Storage proposal. It proposed to use two electric 75 horse power pumps to pump product from the tanks into the pipeline to the electronically driven injection pumps where those pumps will then be used to inject the product into the caverns. I expect that insulated walls and advanced fan technology would have been used to dampen sound. Moreover, because the proposed plant area is adjacent to a NYSE&G building complex and NYS Route 14 there was a certain amount of ambient noise in the area anyways.
According to the Ball Hill Windpark 2018 Proposed Modifications Summary of Environmental Impacts:
The new proposed turbine is quieter or the same at 750 out of 769 receptor points studied. At the remaining 19 points, the sound level would increase imperceptibly by 1-2 dBA. The Project remains fully compliant with Town and NYSDEC noise standards.
In summary, I conclude that the noise impacts from the two projects are essentially the same. Without more research I am not sure why the opponents of Finger Lakes LPG Storage were so upset about noise because the revised plan eliminated truck and rail transport which would have affected noise levels.
Aesthetic considerations Compared
The primary aesthetic issue is visibility and Ball Hill Windpark will have 29 highly visible wind turbines. The project will use a VI26 class turbine which is a three-bladed horizontal-axis wind turbine with a rotor diameter of approximately 413 feet. The turbine rotor and the nacelle are mounted on top of a tubular tower giving a rotor hub height of approximately 285 feet. The maximum height for the turbine is below 500 feet when a rotor blade is at the top of its rotation. Once installed, the wind turbine would occupy a round base approximately 60 feet in diameter.
According to the 2018 Proposed Modifications Summary of Environmental Impacts wind turbines will be visible in 33.9% of the area within the 5-mile viewshed. According to the 2008 Environmental Assessment Form the smaller turbines originally proposed would be visible from greater than 5 miles from a parcel of land which is “dedicated to and available to the public for the use, enjoyment and appreciation of natural or man-made scenic qualities” and “an overlook or parcel of land dedicated to public observation, enjoyment and appreciation of natural or man-made scenic qualities”, and a “site or structure listed on the National or State Registers of Historic Places” and between ½ and 3 miles to a State Wildlife Management Area.
In addition, there are the access roads, overhead electric lines, switchyard, substation and operations and maintenance building site that all have an aesthetic effect.
The final proposal for the Finger Lake LPG Storage facility was a brine pond, a compressor station, and a support building. The more visible (and eventually eliminated) brine pond was proposed to be a maximum height of 50 feet above its down slope toe on a site with variable slopes in the 8 to 12 percent range. The slope tends to steepen downhill in the area under the proposed impoundment structure. When full, the pond surface will be approximately 400 feet above Seneca Lake elevation, at a horizontal distance from the lake of approximately 2400 feet.
The Draft Environmental Impact Statement noted:
The brine pond embankment and portions of site clearing will be visible or partially visible from NYS Route 414 and Seneca Lake. Once the brine pond is constructed and the side slopes of the embankment are vegetated, the view from Seneca Lake and NYS Route 414 is anticipated to be similar to the current view. The proposed brine pond site will be visible from NYS Route 14 and NYS Route 14A. The truck transfer facility will also be visible from NYS Route 14A. Potential visual impacts along NYS Route 14 and NYS Route 14A will be mitigated during site development activities through strategic native plantings and seeding at both the brine pond site and the truck transfer facility site. It is not anticipated that the proposed project will result in any significant adverse visual impacts.
Because this describes the more visible brine pond and even this pond’s visibility could be mitigated by planting native trees I conclude that the pond has a negligible impact on visibility.
In summary, the Ball Hill Windpark will be visible from 1/3 of the area within 5 miles whereas the most visible component for Finger Lake LPG Storage can be screened such that there is no longer visible. The compressor station and support building aesthetics impacts cannot be considered to have a greater effect than the access roads, overhead electric lines, switchyard, substation and operations and maintenance building site for Ball Hill Windpark. Nonetheless Commissioner Seggos claims that the gas storage facility has significant adverse impacts on community character.
But it is worse. According to the Ball Hill Windpark 2018 Proposed Modifications Summary of Environmental Impacts:
The new turbine increases by 3 the number of homes that would experience 10-20 hours per year of shadow flicker, and by 23 the number of homes that would experience 40+ hours per year. Of these homes, 11 are project participants. The remaining 215 homes would experience the same or fewer hours of shadow flicker annually as in the 2016 Permit.
There is no equivalent impact for Finger Lakes LPG Storage.
I can only conclude that if the Finger Lakes LPG Storage project has sufficient adverse impacts on community character associated with noise and aesthetics then every wind development project must have a similar adverse impact. The precedent set by this case would seem to preclude wind energy.