Bevy of Gas-Processing Plants Skirts Law

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
6 January 2012
By Timothy Puko

Six gas processing plants proposed for a four-mile radius in Butler County would each produce air pollution just below the state limits that trigger the level of regulation large polluters get, according to Pennsylvania and industry officials.

Each of the plants that Keystone Midstream Services LLC has proposed will emit an estimated maximum of 95 tons of carbon monoxide per year, which is 5 percent below the state's threshold for major pollution sources, like a steel mill or a food processing plant. That has allowed the Colorado company to get permits as minor polluters for two plants, with four others pending review, in Forward, Lancaster and Jackson townships.

Critics say that's skirting environmental rules, but the company and the state Department of Environmental Protection say it's legal.

"I'm not saying (the plants) are spread out specifically to avoid the designation, but clearly the major-source threshold exists for a reason," said George Jugovic, a former regional director at the DEP, now a senior attorney in Pittsburgh for Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future. "Federal regulators have determined that at that level, potential pollutants can have a significant impact on the health of people and the environment, and they deserve closer scrutiny. By avoiding that process, you thereby avoid the scrutiny."

The idea that there should be only one plant in this case is "grossly oversimplified" and not based on facts, said Michael Brinkmeyer, Keystone's Wexford-based general manager.

"We are regulated the same," Brinkmeyer said. "They all fall under the guidelines of the DEP and the (Environmental Protection Agency). These are regulated, and they're permitted, and they meet those guidelines."

Keystone considered building one large plant but instead chose separate projects because of a shortage of large pieces of land, the pipelines required and the need to save money, among other things, Brinkmeyer said, not to avoid regulation.

This path cuts as much as a year out of the permit process, according to the DEP. It saves Keystone from having to pay to compensate for some of its air pollution, such as nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. It does not have to prove the plants will stay within their projected pollution rate. And it prevents the state from requiring stronger pollution controls that could be applied because of the state's long-standing ozone problems.

"My concern is not that individual sources are just under the major source threshold, it's that so many of these near-major sources are being permitted all at once," said Joe Osborne, legal director at the Garfield-based Group Against Smog and Pollution, which objected to the most recently approved permit, in Jackson. He said the DEP "isn't seeing the bigger picture.

They're not accounting for the impact on air quality that results from having, say, a dozen new, near-major sources constructed in a single county in just one or two years."

The state has checks to ensure pollution control, even at small-source sites, and it's using them at Keystone's Sarsen Gas Processing Plant and its sister plant, Bluestone, which is under construction in Jackson, said Kevin Sunday, DEP spokesman.

"There's this perception that if they're not (permitted as one group), they're not getting the proper controls on them," Sunday said. "That's not the case."

Federal and state rules, and court precedent all set over 30 years have established that they should be permitted separately, said Pat Creighton, spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition industry group.

At his Butler County hunting spot, Dale Sarver can hear the hum of the Sarsen plant drifting from across the street and through the woods. Even at his Forward home more than a mile away, he can hear the engines from his porch, he said.

"That's why I moved out here -- to sit on my porch and not hear ... a big diesel engine running all the time," said Sarver, 62. "I don't want to stand in the way of progress ... but why can't they just have one big plant and do the processing there?"

For concerned neighbors, air pollution is only one problem. There's the smell, noise and traffic, especially with the possibility of 10 tankers filled with propane and butane leaving the plant every day, said Taylor Jennings, 43. He hopes to move his family of five this spring and said he would advise other residents in Jackson, Forward and Lancaster to push their officials to block the plants if they can.

"Fight. Fight harder than we did. Fight with everything they've got," Jennings said. "And buy a lot of earplugs."

The DEP's Southwest Region authorized 128 natural gas compressor stations and processing plants in the past four years. And 34 permits are pending in the district, which stretches from Cambria to Greene County and does not include Butler, regional spokesman John Poister said.

Timothy Puko can be reached at or 412-320-7991.