Ky. Voices: Ky. pipeline carrying leftovers of fracking poses too much risk

Sister Claire McGowan
Sister Claire McGowan

Some Kentuckians have heard about a proposed Bluegrass Pipeline to run through 18 Kentucky counties on its way from Pennsylvania and New York to the Gulf area. Some haven't. Many are seeking information. It might be helpful to lay out some of the issues from the perspective of community sustainability.

Kentucky has lots of pipelines that carry oil and natural gas, but this would be the first to carry natural gas liquids, substances left over once natural gas is harvested via "fracking." More about that in a moment.

Natural gas liquids are made up of ethane, butane, propane, methane and various solid chemicals. Unless maintained under high pressure, these substances are highly flammable and explosive. Contact with them is toxic to living beings.

Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) is a process whereby a well is drilled deep into the Earth's crust so that a highly pressurized mixture of water, sand and some 500 undisclosed chemicals can be injected and spewed horizontally over distances to fracture the bedrock, releasing encapsulated natural gases and liquids.

It takes a million gallons of water to supply each well; tens of thousands of fracking wells are already at work and more are being opened in Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio. The natural gas industry runs TV ads about how fortunate we are to have such a fine new source of "cheap" abundant energy.

I am less than enthusiastic. The wisdom of busting up the underpinnings of the Earth that hold up everything on which life depends seems questionable. Also, fresh water is 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. Nor does pushing a million gallons of poisoned water through the underground and back up to the surface.

Once that water has accomplished its task, what can be done with it? 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, for local residents or the state, since so many of our key waterways start in Eastern Kentucky?

Fracking aside, how about this pipeline?

It is projected to carry 400,000 barrels a day of highly flammable and explosive liquids. It will be buried four feet and has to pass under the Ohio River and all the intervening waterways. Central Kentucky's land underpinnings are known to be largely karst, limestone rock that dissolves into underground caves and sinkholes. Questions exist about karst's stability for supporting a heavily pressurized pipeline and about the safety of groundwater should the pipes leak.

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 every 10 to 30 miles. Pumps must run constantly on diesel or gas fuels, creating air and noise pollution.

Perhaps today's technologies are so well developed that these risks might be minimized by a highly responsible and careful 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.

Listed are violations that include a massive explosion in Alabama, failure to inspect compressor stations in Texas and Louisiana, failure to control external corrosion in pipelines in New York City, the 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 knocking on doors and flagging survey lines along the route while, at this writing, company officials have yet to present at a public hearing in any of the counties involved.

The Bluegrass Pipeline would risk much of what makes Central Kentucky dear to us: beautiful landscape, abundant 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.

Kentuckians must ask whether we are willing to accept this risk-benefit ratio for the sake of profits for big corporations earned by converting NGLs into petrochemicals for export to China and India.