They seem kind of benign, right?
They're pipes. They just sit there. What harm could they do?
But the kind of pipes that carry natural gas are hardly benign, as gas that flows through them has to be repeatedly compressed and repressurized in order to keep it flowing over hundreds of miles.
And it's that process, along with the facilities located along the pipelines where it takes place, that has health professionals and government leaders in Schoharie County worried about the impact on the surrounding air and on the people who breathe it.
And it's that concern that has officials calling on the state to lend the same scrutiny it employed in deciding to prohibit hydrofracking to the issue of gas discharges from natural gas pipelines.
Given the potential health issues, it would be irresponsible of the state not to take action.
Schoharie County is the proposed home of two major pipelines that will carry natural gas from Pennsylvania and the Dakotas where it is produced to markets throughout the Northeast. Attached to the pipelines are so-called "compressor stations."
The natural gas that enters the pipeline system on the production end loses pressure as it wends through pipes along the countryside. Therefore, every so often, about 40-70 miles or so, the gas has to be repressurized in order to keep it flowing. Without these compression stations, the gas wouldn't get to its final destination.
The problem is that these compression stations discharge toxic chemicals into the air, chemicals like benzene, formaldehyde, methane and hydrogen sulfide — a poisonous, explosive, corrosive gas. Depending on when the chemicals are discharged, in what amounts, and in what proximity to people, they can cause serious health issues, including cancer, respiratory problems and other ailments.
A recent study on hydrofracking in five states found numerous instances in which the amount of these chemicals in the air exceeded federal standards. A separate study dated Feb. 25 of this year, conducted by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project on the health impacts of compression stations, found that discharges often vary in duration and amount. Sometimes, scientists found, the compression stations discharged relatively little toxic gas into the air. At other times, they discharged quite a lot.
For instance, two compression stations in Pennsylvania discharged 19 different chemicals. A study of two Texas stations found that discharges of 14 chemicals in air samples exceeded that state's environmental standards. Those are just two examples from the 23-page study.
The discharges occur during regular operations, as well as through leaks and accidents. So-called "fugitive emissions" through valves, connectors and other parts tend to increase as equipment ages and breaks down, the report stated. During scheduled or accidental "blowdowns," gases can be discharged 100 to 200 feet into the air as part of a process that can last as long as three hours.
Those living near the stations have experienced such health problems as respiratory and throat irritation, weakness, fatigue, body aches and sleeplessness.
While there's still a lot more research to be done on the potential health impacts, it's clear that the experiences so far warrant further investigation.
This isn't a phony problem contrived by pipeline opponents as a last-ditch attempt to kill the projects. Their concerns, as evidenced by the experiences on existing pipelines and compression stations, are legitimate and should be taken as seriously as the state took health concerns about the fracking process itself.
The state departments of Health and Environmental Conservation need to heed the evidence and conduct comprehensive health assessments of these pipeline projects before granting any new permits.
The pipelines will be there for a long time. And so will the adverse health impacts they create.