From Westfall Road, the Wright Compressor Station looks a lot like any other collection of red barns that populate the Schoharie County countryside — except for the high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and the faint sulfur smell surrounding it.
“I went for a walk this morning, and I said to my daughter, ‘You smell the mercaptan?’ ” said Carol Karlewicz, referring to the signature putrid-smelling chemical added to natural gas, odorless on its own, as an identifier.
Karlewicz lives just down the road from the compressor station, which pumps gas along the Iroquois and Tennessee Gas pipelines, and said the smell is only rarely noticeable, “just every now and then when the wind blows a certain way.”
She has lived with the compressor station since 1993, and, after a somewhat turbulent construction period, hasn’t had problems with it. Now, however, plans for upgrades and a new compressor station nearby have her and her neighbors worried.
“Our taxes are going up and we’re worried that we’re not going to be able to get the value out of our property when it does come time to sell,” she said. “We bought the land as an investment for retirement — sell it and we’ll go south or whatever.”
She lets the sentence trail off and shrugs.
If the Constitution Pipeline receives its final permits from the Department of Environmental Conservation, the project will include an upgrade to the Wright Compressor Station to pump gas from Constitution, which will start in Pennsylvania, through existing Iroquois and Tennessee lines to markets in New York and New England.
The upgrade would mean a new 22,000 horsepower compressor on the existing site — essentially another red building among the dozen or so already there, not likely to have much effect on homeowners already used to living near the compressor station.
What really bothers Karlewicz is the proposal by Tennessee Gas, a subsidiary of Kinder Morgan, to build an entirely new compressor station just on the other side of Westfall Road as part of its Northeast Energy Direct pipeline, which would parallel Constitution. The parcel identified in filings with the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee is right next to a 55-acre parcel she and her husband bought about 10 years ago to build a retirement home on.
“We were going to build a house up there, but we’re not doing that now,” she said. The compressor station was not the only reason for the decision, she said, but “the nail in the coffin of that dream.”
Karlewicz and her neighbors may have reason to worry about property values, though she said no one has tried to sell in the 29 years she’s lived there. About 100 miles away, almost a straight shot down I-88, three homeowners near a Millennium Pipeline compressor station in the Delaware County town of Hancock had their assessments lowered by up to 50 percent last year due to the adverse effects of the compressor.
With the financial backing of Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, a group that has opposed the development of natural gas infrastructure, the residents successfully argued that the compressor station was responsible for heavy truck traffic, noxious odors, persistent low-level vibrations and air contamination, as well as, in one case, a cracked foundation during construction that led to increased radon levels, all of which lowered the value of their properties.
Eventually, the town tax assessors agreed to reduce the assessed valuation and real estate taxes by 25 percent on two homes and 50 percent on the home with the damaged foundation.
Karlewicz said she and her neighbors experienced similar effects during construction of the compressor station and Iroquois pipeline in 1992 and 1993, though things have been quiet since.
“We were all afraid of it and scared and didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “And there was some damage with the big equipment on our roads; they totally destroyed our roads. But to their benefit, they did repair them, and better than they were.”
During construction, a neighbor’s foundation was cracked, she said. There was an accident with a truck tipping over and spilling its gravel — a “freak thing,” she said, but enough to scare residents with small kids. Her septic system leached into her well water, which Iroquois paid to fix.
Gary DeCarlo, who lives about half a mile from the Wright Compressor Station, shares her concerns. His assessment actually went up about two years ago, he said, though he doubts it should have. Unlike the homeowners in Hancock, however, he didn’t have a financial backer to help mount a grievance.
“Our taxes should have went down substantially, because our house value, I’m sure, did,” he said. “If I do sell my house, it’s definitely going to lower my value a lot. And the way taxes are going in New York, I’m definitely thinking about it.”
The health effects of compressor stations have become the focus of a handful of Schoharie County officials who are pushing for a moratorium on new natural gas infrastructure and a statewide study of its effects on health and the environment— the same course that led to New York State banning hydrofracking earlier this year.
They’re backed by a resolution from the Medical Society of the State of New York passed in May calling for a health study of natural gas pipelines and compressor stations. The American Medical Association followed suit in June, approving a policy supporting legislation that would require such studies.
A spokesperson for the Iroquois Gas Transmission Co. noted that the compressor station already operates under both FERC and DEC permits, including air permits, and has not been a source of any major complaints in more than two decades. She said she was unfamiliar with the Hancock case and could not comment on “unsubstantiated” claims of reduced property values.
A Tennessee Gas spokesperson said the company is “committed to public safety, protection of the environment and operation of our facilities in compliance with all applicable rules and regulations,” and aims to locate compressor stations where they would have minimal adverse effects.
Karlewicz said she plans to attend a public meeting about the NED pipeline, which is still in the early planning stages, on July 17 in Schoharie to learn more, but she doesn’t plan to put up a fight.
“We feel like we’ve been there, done that,” she said. “And it didn’t do anything. It didn’t prevent it from coming or anything. It’s just like a big … it’s a machine. It comes through, they do what they want to do, and try to pay off the little guy a little bit.”
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