Natural Gas Myths: Don’t worry about leaks

In a comment thread in a recent article (Opponents take issue with PennEast pipeline environmental report), a little mini-discussion occurred in the comment threads that I’d like to highlight.  A poster was listing issues they had with natural gas pipelines, and one of them was:

any spill or overdevelopment will destroy the purity of water for millions of new jersey residents

A person named “Commentator73” took issue with this, and replied:

A “spill” of natural gas? Natural gas is not gasoline, it is a gas which is not toxic and is lighter than air. If there ever is a leak, the gas will simply rise and dissipate in the atmosphere leaving absolutely zero residue. No cleanup needed and the water complelely unaffected.

We’ll leave aside Commentator73’s long history of cheerleading for PennEast for another time.  But I do want to address this myth they’re propagating here.  Yes, it’s true that natural gas is not the same as other pipelines carrying “liquids”.  But that doesn’t make them risk free.  Let’s set the record straight by answering Commentator73 directly.

@Commentator73 You’re right, natural gas is not gasoline (or oil or other liquids).

Otherwise your explanation glosses over some particulars that are a bit important.  If there’s a leak, that leak could ignite.  You then have a 1480 pound per square inch fueled blow torch igniting several thousand square feet around the breach.  This is not theoretical – the recent natural gas pipeline explosion near Pittsburgh involved a house burning down and a man being burned over half his body.  Other incidents in San Bernadino, CA, Arlington Virginia, and elsewhere have been even worse.

You gloss over how pipelines change mobilization of chemicals in the soil due to the electric charge maintained on the pipeline, and the materials used to construct it.  Some very nasty things like arsenic can mobilize along the pipeline due to this.  And yes Virginia, arsenic in your drinking water is a very, very bad thing.

You gloss over geological and top cover changes created by the pipeline.  In most of Hunterdon County there’s bedrock right at the surface, and a whole lot of tress as top cover.  These serve to protect us against significant erosion, limit sedimentation in streams, keep water clean and charging into our parched aquifers, and prevent flash flooding and similar problems.

When the pipeline is built, they’re be blasting the bedrock away down to a depth of 7′-9′.  All trees and significant shrubs will be clear cut on a 100′-125′ right of way, and a 50′ right of way will be maintained after that.  So bedrock will be replaced with simple earth, the trees and their vital roots will be gone, and a great deal of this will be done on very steep slopes – slopes that feed down into the valleys that contain our C1 streams.  Expect significant erosion, sedimentation of our streams, increased problems with flash flooding, plus all of the environmental issues from creating open breaks in tree cover.

You forget about contaminants in natural gas pipelines. It is far from “pure”. Liquid condensates build up in the pipeline.  Radon is a constant issue, particular in our region.  Other contaminants come along for the ride as well.  You may have heard of “pigs” used to clean the pipelines.  This is why they’re there – the gas is far from pure and the pipeline needs very regular cleaning.

You neglect the impacts due to construction in the area.  Yes this construction will be “temporary”.  We’ll only have to put up with it for an entire year.  But the impacts to the region will be real, and severe.  Take a look at what happened and continues to happen with the Transco Leidy Line South east Expansion that’s been happening in the Montgomery and Princeton areas and further North.  Residents were horrified to see what real construction of a large pipeline entails.
PennEast will be far, far worse.
You neglect the compressor stations that drive the gas pipelines.  We have one in Lambertville and residents know exactly what it’s like.  You regularly can small mercaptan in that region.  We know there are leaks.  There are also deliberate blow downs. Blow downs are when the pipeline company deliberately clears the pipeline by venting the gas into the atmosphere.  These blow downs are scheduled regularly and can happen many times a year.  And sometimes they do emergency ones that are even worse.
People living near compressor stations have reported a host of illnesses that are connected to proximity to them.  Methane perhaps is “only” a green house gas.  But as I mention above, pipelines are not perfectly pure, and the contaminants along the line can and do affect human health (the emissions from the compressor jet turbines make this even worse).
So to put it simply, @Commentator73, natural gas pipelines have their own unique problems that pose a serious threat to the communities and regions they run through.  These are not harmless pipes buried in the ground.  They’re ticking time bombs in our midst.

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Mike Spille

I'm a thinker, an analyzer, a synthesizer. Maybe not in that order. I live in West Amwell NJ with my wife Kristina, our two kids Day and Z, our two dogs Fern and Cinna, and two cats Ponce de Leon and Xavier.

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