From the window of her apartment on Bethune Street, Ynestra King can look out across the West Side Highway to the playground where she plays with children in her family, to the Hudson River, and beyond it, New Jersey. She can also see the place where a massive new pipeline carrying highly pressurized natural gas rises out of the river, carrying its explosive payload into the heart of the meatpacking district.
“It makes me very uneasy,” King says. “I can’t feel safe and comfortable in my home again. There’s an established blast zone for when something goes wrong with this kind of technology, and I live inside it.”
The pipeline, built by subsidiaries of Spectra Energy, runs about 16 miles from Staten Island, through New Jersey, and under the Hudson before surfacing in the West Village. Pipeline advocates say it will create construction jobs and help supply New York with natural gas, which burns cleaner than some heating oils.
Not everyone is convinced of the need for these pipelines. Demand for natural gas is at a low. Opponents of hydro-fracking worry that running this new pipeline, straight from the fracking wells of the Marcellus shale, helps to create a market for a dangerous product.
But leaving aside those environmental arguments, there’s an even more immediate concern: Pipelines like this have a disturbing tendency to explode.
In December, a pipeline exploded in Sissonville, West Virginia, leveling four homes, badly damaging several others, and melting a nearby section of Interstate 77. A week before that, a pipe explosion in Goldsmith, Texas, sent a fireball 250 feet into the air, hurling bowling-ball-size rocks through the air. Two weeks before that, a leaky gas line detonated in Springfield, Massachusetts, flattening a strip club and blowing out windows in buildings for blocks around. The list continues.
In 2011, the last year for which there are complete statistics, there were 82 “significant incidents” involving natural gas transmission lines, according to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Those “incidents” alone resulted in $95 million in property damage.
Perhaps the most famous gas-line explosion in recent history took place in 2010, when a high-pressure transmission line, comparable in size and pressure to the Spectra project, exploded in a suburban subdivision in San Bruno, California, leveling 35 houses and damaging many more. The explosion registered with the U.S. Geological Survey as a 1.1 magnitude earthquake, and it carved out a crater 167 feet long and four stories deep. Amazingly, only eight people died.
But as long and disturbing as the list of natural-gas-pipeline disasters is, none of those catastrophes are particularly relevant to the Spectra pipeline, because none of them happened in a place nearly as densely populated as Manhattan or Jersey City. Until recently, no one was trying to run pipelines like this into urban neighborhoods.
To be clear, we’re not talking about the distribution lines that bring natural gas to your home, typically two-inch pipes with pressure around 10 pounds per square inch. If you mess with one of those while digging in your front yard, you’ll have a small but perfectly respectable explosion.
This isn’t like that at all. It’s a transmission line, 30 inches in diameter, running at pressures well in excess of that of a fire hose. When these things blow, they blow the fuck up.
“We talked to an expert, an engineer with substantial experience, who told us that at the top end, we could be looking at a crater and other damage that’s close to a third of a mile in diameter,” says Derek Fanciullo, the assistant corporation counsel for the Jersey City Department of Law. “We have 15,000 to 17,000 people living in a square mile. The human damage and the real property damage if this thing were to explode would be almost incalculable. It’s not just the crater: the heat radiates out along the surface of the ground, and these explosions are so hot that if you try to bring emergency vehicles out to the area, those vehicles would melt.”
Running this pipeline under the city, the consultant told officials, would be like putting a small-grade neutron bomb beneath the streets.
From Jersey City, the pipeline runs east under the Hudson, resurfacing at the Gansevoort Peninsula in Hudson River Park, currently the home of Sanitation Department trucks and the FDNY’s Fire Boat headquarters. Running the pipeline where an explosion would likely take out the fireboat needed to bring it under control might seem like bad planning, especially compounded with the fact that a serious blast could also take out the water main that feeds nearby hydrants, as happened in the San Bruno blast.
It doesn’t stop there. A few hundred feet south of where the pipeline makes landfall—I am not making this up—is the Pier 51 playground, frequented by the sometimes adorable and always flammable children of the neighborhood.
How is this possible? Aren’t there any responsible adults in a position to rule out corporate projects whose risks have been compared to disaster-movie plot devices? The answer to that question, remarkably, is no.
Natural gas pipelines are governed by a complex patchwork of regulatory agencies, but it’s a patchwork with plenty of holes. When a transmission line crosses state borders, it falls under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, whose authority trumps any state or local regulations. But while FERC produces a lengthy Environmental Impact Statement, it’s minimally concerned with human safety. In the thousands of pages of its impact statement for the Spectra project, FERC regulators determined, reassuringly and at length, that the project would have negligible impact on wetlands, fisheries, migratory birds, aquifers, and a small plant known as the small whorled pogonia.
The “Reliability and Safety” section of its conclusions runs less than a page, and can be summarized as “They’re building this up to Department of Transportation standards, so we’ve got no complaints.”
“That’s how FERC usually addresses safety issues,” says Carolyn Elefant, a Washington D.C., lawyer representing opponents of the pipeline. “They say, ‘If you’re doing this up to DOT standards, that’s enough for us.’ So by the time DOT looks at it, it’s already a fait accomplis. Once the pipeline has been approved, its much harder for a safety agency to put its foot down.”
Even if the Department of Transportation did weigh in on the safety of the pipeline, their standards might not be so useful. The DOT bases its safety standards on the population density surrounding the pipe, ranging from Class 1, desolate Alaskan tundra, to Class 4, densely populated. But the classification system is old, making no distinction between the suburbs of Knoxville, Tennessee, and the west side of Manhattan, where 15,000 people pack into a square mile.
“You’re talking about apples and oranges,” says Fanciullo, who urged FERC to hold off on approving the pipeline until he could persuade the DOT to update its standards. But FERC has never met a pipeline it didn’t like. Its funding is literally—and amazingly—based on how many pipelines it can approve. From the beginning of 2010 to last June, the commission signed off on 35 pipelines. In all but one of those cases, it rubber-stamped the plan presented to it by the pipeline company. Five thousand people argued against Spectra’s plan during the FERC’s comment period, compared to only 22 in favor of it, but commissioners weren’t interested in so much as delaying their approval. The plan received the final go-ahead in May. Construction on the Hudson River section began immediately, and though activists tried to slow it down by chaining themselves to construction equipment and dancing around wearing nothing but green paint, the section running into Manhattan was more or less complete by the end of the summer.
From the Gansevoort Peninsula, the pipeline will run under the West Side Highway to a vault near Tenth Avenue, where it will connect with a yet-to-be-constructed pipeline—still wide-gauge, still high-pressure—belonging to Con Edison, which will run 1,500 feet north on Tenth Avenue before splitting into smaller distribution lines. Fun fact: Because the Con Ed section doesn’t cross any state lines, it’s not even subject to FERC regulation. In fact, the only permit Con Ed needs to undertake its project is for digging up the street.
Even as the pipeline races toward inevitability, the fight against it isn’t over. Jersey City, along with the Sierra Club and others, is appealing FERC’s approval decision in the court of appeals for the District of Columbia.
At the same time, a variety of local pipeline opponents are suing the trustees of the Hudson River Park in state court, arguing they broke the law when they approved a non-park use for the Gansevoort Peninsula.
Whether either of these lawsuits will manage to stop the pipeline from becoming operational is far from clear. But if it doesn’t happen in the courts, action by elected officials seems even less likely. Michael Bloomberg wholeheartedly endorses the pipeline. His girlfriend, Diana Taylor, who chairs the Hudson River Park Trust’s board, helped ram approval of the plan through that body. Mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn, whose City Council district includes the pipeline, has managed to dodge the issue entirely.
If politicians aren’t prepared to make an issue out of the pipeline, it’s likely because their constituents don’t even know about it.
“My building is artists’ housing, and it’s right next to the pipeline,” King says. “We’re an unusually aware building. But I’d bet if you went door to door, most people in here still don’t even know it’s happening. They’re sneaking this through before anyone knows what they’ve done.”