MINISINK, N.Y. – After four months helping in ground zero recovery post-Sept. 11, New York City Police Officer Nick Russo sought respite by moving with his family to the rolling hills of Orange County, on the northern fringe of the metropolitan area.
The county has gotten a reputation as a haven for generations of retired or commuting police and firefighters from the city; the hamlet of Westtown wears the nickname "Guns & Hoses."
"I had restricted lung breathing, stomach problems" related to breathing toxic dust at ground zero, Russo said. "I just wanted to get away from all the pollution in the city."
Now, Russo and others in the town of Minisink are battling what they say is another health threat. He has banded with other residents to fight the $43 million Minisink Compressor Project on the Millennium Pipeline, designed to help ease the power crunch in New York City, an hour's drive to the south.
"So I move up here, next to the beautiful cows and farms," Russo said. "And now here I am fighting a compressor station on farmland right down the road."
Compressor station opponents in the town of about 4,400 residents wants the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to reconsider a proposal by the residents to put the industrial facility on a more remote company-owned site that's farther from homes and farms. Their last-ditch lawsuit pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals seeks to halt construction and revoke the commission's permit. A decision is expected by the end of February.
Opposition to natural gas development using high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to tap gas-rich shale deposits has been the primary focus of environmental groups in New York for years. While the state doesn't allow shale gas development yet, there are many battles against the growing number of pipelines and compressor stations needed to bring gas from around the country to meet New York City's insatiable demand for it.
Compressor stations are needed at intervals along a pipeline to pressurize the gas and keep it moving. Opponents in Minisink worry about air emissions of acidic gases and small particles that would fall on nearby farmland. The station would also cause ground vibrations and noise from the compressors, which the company says are "whisper quiet."
Some people living near compressor stations in other parts of the country have reported chronic sore throats, headaches, nosebleeds and other ailments. There haven't been any scientific studies linking illness specifically to compressor stations, but a major study in Fort Worth, Texas, found that large compressor stations might exceed some pollution standards.
Millennium, based in Pearl River, N.Y., received final approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in September for the plant, which resembles a large green barn with two silos.
The "silos" are actually smokestacks for the two 6,130-horsepower natural gas-powered compressors that will take gas from a 30-inch pipeline and send it at a higher velocity into a 24-inch one. The pipeline, which spans 182 miles across southern New York, carries gas from fracking in neighboring Pennsylvania as well as gas from Louisiana, Texas, and Canada. It went online in 2008.
"This project has undergone a rigorous review and passed," Steve Sullivan, a spokesman for Millennium Pipeline Co., said of the Minisink station. "One of the main points of the review was the impact to air quality."
Sullivan said it's important to note that overall air quality in the Northeast is improving as natural gas replaces coal in power plants. Health experts say coal-burning power plants produce far more pollution linked to respiratory health problems than natural gas-fired plants produce.
President Barack Obama has strongly endorsed natural gas as a clean energy source, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said more natural gas is critical for the city to improve air quality and public health.
A report released this month by the RAND Corp. estimated the cost to health and the environment from shale gas development emissions in neighboring Pennsylvania at $7.2 million to $32 million in 2011, with up to 75 percent of it related to compressor stations. To put that in perspective, the report said the single largest coal-fired power plant alone produced $75 million in damage in 2008.
Opponents feel they have little say in the federal energy commission approval process when a gas company wants to build pipeline infrastructure.
In a rare split decision, the commission voted 3-2 in December to give final approval to the project. Chairman Jon Wellinghoff and one commissioner dissented, saying that "even after mitigation, the Minisink project will have significant adverse environmental consequences." They endorsed the alternate site favored by the community, saying it would have considerably less environmental impact.
The alternate site is nearly a mile from the nearest home, while the company's chosen site has about 190 homes within a half-mile of the proposed site and one within 600 feet.
"Of course, nobody wants a compressor station next door," said Deborah Lain, who raises grass-fed cattle on a hilltop farm built by her forebears in 1785. "We're not saying we don't want it. We're saying we've come up with a very viable alternative site without so many people nearby."
That alternate site is in neighboring Deerpark, which passed a resolution opposing the compressor station last year and told the commission the Minisink site would cause less environmental impact. The federal commission doesn't have to abide by such resolutions, though. The agency approved a compressor station for Dominion Resources in Myersville, Md., despite the town council's unanimous vote against it. Dominion is suing the town and the state over decisions blocking the project.
Leanne Baum said she and her husband moved here from New Jersey six years ago to raise their four children where they could run around outside and get fresh air and sunshine.
They planted a big vegetable garden behind their new clapboard home high on a hill overlooking open farmland. "We put down our roots, literally and figuratively," Leanne Baum said, bouncing her curly-haired daughter on her hip before a roaring fire in her family room. "We loved it here. Up to a year and a half ago."
That's when the compressor project was proposed.
"It's a disgrace that the government allows this to happen in all these little communities," said the now-retired Russo, who plans to move if the compressor station goes online. "We fought the terrorists after 9/11 and now I'm fighting my own government to save my home."