Once upon a time, in a galaxy not at all far away, “the facilities” were an outhouse 100 feet from the kitchen door. Time and population growth led to septic systems and eventually, to “public” wastewater treatment plants — and under-river pipes carrying products that don’t mix well with drinking water.
Upstream is where the quality of downstream water is determined. Upstream can be the residential lawn near a tributary flowing directly into the bay — or it can be hundreds of miles away, where a pipeline is proposed to cross under the Susquehanna River at Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
Rivers are no respecters of state lines. In their flowing course, they pick up some of whatever they pass and carry it along, sharing it with towns and eddies they pass on their way to the sea.
On the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, a Dominion Energy compressed natural gas facility is undergoing a $3.8 billion conversion from an import to an export terminal. The facility has the requisite federal permission to export, and contracts in hand to sell more than 5 million metric tons of liquefied natural gas a year to Japan and India.
Although Cove Point is expected to be the first export terminal to become operational, other export facilities are in planning or under construction along the mid-Atlantic. Providing gas to all of them is the task of new pipelines planned for construction in neighboring Pennsylvania.
PennEast Pipeline Company is one among many pipeline companies pressuring lawmakers, municipalities and residents to allow them to build pipelines. PennEast wants to build a 110-mile conduit to transport gas from the Pennsylvania interior— currently the main source of gas being produced from Marcellus Shale — to new markets. Other lines carry, or are proposed to carry, Marcellus gas from Ohio and West Virginia.
The 36-inch PennEast pipeline is to carry gas pressurized to 1,500 pounds per square inch. The proposed crossing is near the site of the so-called Knox Mine Disaster, a 1959 cave-in that killed 12 miners when the roof of their under-river mine suddenly collapsed under the weight of the Susquehanna and its floor of water-soaked alluvial soil.
Tons of poisons have accumulated in the abandoned mines, and a break in the pipeline would force polluted water, toxins and sludge downstream, toward the Chesapeake Bay.
Some crossings that have been safe for 12-inch lines may not be safe for the new 36-inch and 42-inch high-pressure lines now proposed, said Robert Hughes, executive director of Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation. Born and raised in the Wilkes-Barre area, he has lived his life near the site of the Knox Mine tragedy.
“There are other places they (gas lines) are crossing the river,” Hughes acknowledged, “but they’re not 36-inches (in diameter).”
The history of natural gas exploration and production has been one of “Damn the hazards. Full speed ahead!”
To be sure, pipeline construction will create a flurry of employment for construction workers. But pipe-laying jobs will disappear when construction is completed, and natural gas prices, the industry admits, will increase for U.S. consumers as export markets gain access to and compete for the supply. And history teaches that any catastrophic break in a line would leave taxpayers holding the tab for cleanup and replacement water supplies.
Natural gas producers are rushing to construct pipelines before the risks become obvious. Those of us concerned with the condition of our rivers and the bay and their contribution to our lives and livelihood would do well to look upstream for coming dangers.
Septic systems allowed indoor “facilities” and outdoor “treatment” until they became too densely established for the ground to absorb the effluent. Now, treatment plants process waste and dump it into the river, to be reused and re-treated numerous times on its way downstream.
One might well wonder how much the watershed’s streams and rivers can absorb before no number of treatment plants can make the water entering the Chesapeake Bay capable of supporting life.