DEP releases findings on Smith compressor hearing

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The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection released the findings of a public hearing on the expansion of a natural gas compression station in Smith Township. Although the document gives MarkWest authorization to begin the project, DEP officials altered the final plan approval to reflect some concerns residents brought up at the meeting.


“Anybody who thinks we don’t listen and don’t take seriously every question they ask, we do,” DEP spokesman John Poister said.


The May 1 hearing was an opportunity for residents to express concerns over the air-quality effects of an expansion of the station near Route 22 in Smith Township. The site is adding between six and eight additional Waukesha rich-burn engines. Findings from the hearing were released this week. The 19-page document highlighted some of the issues brought up by citizens and offered responses from the DEP.


Finalization of the plan approval means MarkWest has 18 months to get the additional engines up and running. Poister said once they’re operational, the facility must make it through a “shakedown” period in which DEP inspectors would ensure the plant is running to specifications.


“They have to show that the new rich-burn system works as advertised,” Poister said. “This is a definite upgrade and is designed to improve the operation of that facility.”


Compressor stations like the one in Smith Township take natural gases from well pads in surrounding areas and send them to a processing plant in Houston through steel pipelines. MarkWest doesn’t drill for gas directly, but collects unrefined natural gas through pipelines and separates it into methane, propylene, butane and other products.


After the station is back online, it would be eligible for 180-day extensions until it is able to run to approved specifications. If able to meet regulations, the site would be able to apply for a five-year air-quality permit. Some updates were made to the plan approval to reflect the findings of the study, including conditions that were added requiring MarkWest to slightly alter procedures at the station.


Most notably, an additional mandate orders the operator to recover “blowdown” gas generated by emergency and maintenance shutdowns and return it to the flow of gas. Blowdown gas relates to natural gas that is usually returned to the atmosphere, increasing pollution. The DEP also added a provision to the plan approval requiring the station to be equipped with an additional leak-detection system.


Although resulting in a number of changes, many of the inquiries were deemed outside of the jurisdiction of the public hearing. For example, many of the groups presented comments about the way the DEP aggregated their data from natural gas wells, stations and other emitters of pollutants.


“The cumulative air pollution from many so-called minor sources of air pollution can be many times higher than one major power plant,” said Matt Walker of the Clean Air Council, one of the presenters at the hearing. “The DEP is obligated to analyze what this impact will be.”


Walker said MarkWest has at least 15 compressor stations and a processing plant in Washington County that all emit air pollution.


Poister would not comment on any specific findings, but the final document said the DEP had performed analysis for the Smith site and other facilities that were consistent with state law. A representative from MarkWest could not be reached for comment.


Although there were critics of the proposed expansion, the majority of people at the May 1 meeting were there in support of the industry. The DEP record showed seven people with expressed concerns, while 24 people gave varying levels of support for MarkWest.


Poister said hearings were important because they offered a chance for the public and interested parties to double-check the approval process.


“When you understand that process, you realize the technical aspects are important to the company and to the DEP,” Poister said. “I know for a fact one of the speakers challenged numbers, and we went back and checked his numbers and we found out there were some errors. So, we changed the numbers.


“I think that’s important. Believe me, we take this very seriously.”


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