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By Sister Claire McGowan, OP
Some local citizens have heard about a proposed Bluegrass Pipeline to run through Nelson and 17 other Kentucky counties on its way from Pennsylvania and New York to the Gulf area. Some haven’t. Many are seeking more information. It might be helpful to lay out some of the issues from the perspective of community sustainability.
First of all, what will the pipeline carry? Kentucky has lots of pipelines that carry oil and natural gas, but this would be the first to carry Natural Gas Liquids (NGLs). NGL’s are the substances that are left over once natural gas is harvested from the yield of the new energy venture in the northeastern U.S. called “fracking.” We’ll come back to that word in a moment, but NGL’s are made up of ethane, butane, propane, methane, and various solid chemicals. Unless maintained under high pressure, these substances are highly flammable and extremely explosive. They are also extremely toxic to living beings in case of contact.
“Fracking” (hydraulic fracturing in technical language) is a process whereby a well is drilled deep down into the earth’s crust so that a highly-pressurized mixture of water, sand, and some 500 undisclosed chemicals can be injected down and then spewed horizontally over distances to break up (“fracture’) the bedrock, forcing the release of encapsulated natural gases and liquids. It takes one million gallons of water to supply each well; tens of thousands of “fracking” wells are already at work and more are being opened every week in Pennsylvania, New York state, and Ohio. The natural gas industry is enthralled to have discovered this new fossil fuel energy source, running daily TV ads to remind viewers how fortunate they are to have access to such a fine new source of "cheap" abundant energy.
Personally, I am less than enthusiastic about “fracking” as a source of energy. For one thing, the wisdom of busting up the underpinnings of the earth’s crust that holds up everything on which life depends seems questionable. Then there is water, growing scarcer every year on our planet. Ruining a million gallons of precious water per well with toxic chemicals doesn’t seem like a great idea. Pushing a million gallons of poisoned water through the underground and back up to the surface doesn’t seem wise either. But once that water has accomplished its fracking task, what can be done with it thereafter? Energy companies are running out of “ponds” to store such huge volumes of toxic water. It is being reported that companies are trying to buy spent coal mines in eastern Kentucky to store fracking water. How wise an idea is that, either for the local residents or for the entire state, given that so many of our key waterways start in eastern Kentucky?
But “fracking” aside, how about this pipeline? It is projected to carry 400,000 barrels per day of highly flammable and explosive liquids. It will be buried four feet deep in the soil and has to be passed under the Ohio River and all the intervening waterways. Central Kentucky’s land underpinnings are known to be largely karst, limestone rock that tends to dissolve into underground caves and occasional sinkholes. Questions exist about the stability of karst for supporting a heavy pressurized pipeline and about the safety of groundwater should the pipes experience leaks. Questions also exist about central Kentucky's proximity to the New Madrid Seismic Zone, projected to have a 90 percent probability of severe earthquakes over the next 50 years, and the potential of earthquakes to fracture the pipeline.
Since the pipeline liquids must be maintained at very high pressure, pumping stations are planned for every 10 to 30 miles along the route. Pumps must run constantly on either diesel or gas fuels, creating air and noise pollution for nearby residents.
Perhaps today's engineers and technologies are so well developed that these risks might be minimized by a highly responsible and careful pipeline company. The natural gas safety website www.naturalgaswatch.com casts doubt that the Oklahoma company planning to build the Bluegrass Pipeline is such a company. Its pipeline safety violations include a massive pipeline explosion in Alabama, failure to inspect compressor stations in Texas and Louisiana, failure to control external corrosion in pipelines in New York City, leaking of thousands of gallons of natural gas liquids into groundwater in Denver, and ruptures of natural gas pipelines in New Jersey and West Virginia. Local reports indicate that company representatives are rapidly knocking on doors and flagging lines along the route while at this writing, company officials have yet to present at a public hearing in any of the counties involved.
In sum, it seems that the Bluegrass Pipeline would risk much of what makes central Kentucky dear to us: the beauty of our landscape, the abundance of good water, the health of our air, the peaceful quietness of our rural areas, and the general sense of security from unexpected disasters. The benefits are a few temporary construction jobs and some one-time payments to a relatively few landowners. Central Kentuckians need to ask whether we are willing to accept this risk-benefit ratio for the sake of profits for big corporations earned by converting NGL’s into petrochemicals for export to China and India.
We would welcome hearing the views of others on this important community sustainability issue.
Editor’s note: Sister Claire, a Bardstown resident, is a member of the Dominican Sisters of Peace community at St. Catharine.