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Plan For Williams Compressor Station Sparks Fierce Local Opposition in Franklin

Township Councils in Franklin and South Brunswick Pass Resolutions Opposing Plan, Final Decision Lies With Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
Franklin Meeting
Franklin Township's Council unanimously voted to oppose Williams' plan for a natural gas compressor station on August 10. Facebook

FRANKLIN, NJ—The Williams energy company's proposal for building a new 32,000 horsepower, gas-powered compressor station in Franklin, about five miles west of New Brunswick, drew hundreds of opponents to public meetings in recent weeks.

The new compressor station, if built, would be the company's sixth natural gas compressor station in New Jersey, and would send gas to New York City.

According to the Franklin Reporter & Advocate, compressor stations raise the gas pressure in pipelines so the gas can make it to its final destination.

Williams already has $1.4 billion of assets in New Jersey and pays $12.4 million dollars in property taxes in the state.

About 100 people are employed at their New Jersey stations, which transport 60% of the natural gas used in the Garden State.

Nationally, Williams has recently suffered from low oil prices resulting in the company announcing layoffs of 10% of its workforce, and from disagreement over the company remaining independent that resulted in almost half Williams' board resigning after a failed acquisition of the company.

Williams' stock price increased over 30% in the month of August after it had reached a five-year low half-a-year prior in February.

Both South Brunswick Township and Franklin Township held public meetings on the proposed compressor station this summer.

Following the large turnout at their public meetings, the Councils in both South Brunswick Township and Franklin Township passed resolutions opposing the station.

The next and final scheduled session in New Jersey will take place on Thursday, September 15 from 5:00 pm to 9:00 pm at the Franklin Township Community Center, located at 505 Demott Lane in Somerset.

However, the federal government has final authority on the process, according to Township Manager Robert Vornlocker's comments during Franklin's special meeting on the compressor station:

Our township attorney has emphasized to both Mayor and Council the legal reality that the regulation of natural gas falls within the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government and these facilities are not subject to local ordinances, building codes or land use controls. Federal preemption prevents any local government from regulating any part of the process or the facilities

Company representatives stressed the current, early stage of the project called "pre-filing." The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) holds a comment period, which is currently ongoing, during this stage.

Williams hopes to start construction on the pipeline during the summer of 2018.

Resident concerns about the project range from noise and vibrations emitted by the station that could harm quality of life to worries about the safety of the station and the surrounding pipelines and concerns for the chemicals released by the station.

In response, the company says it must comply with federal laws that prevent any more than negligible noise and chemicals emanating from the station, as well as that it plans multiple security measures for the station.

At the August 10 Franklin Township Council meeting, residents raised a number of concerns.  While no residents at the meeting voiced support for the station, the company's representatives offered responses to the concerns.

Here's a breakdown of the concerns and the company's responses to them:

NOISE

Resident Concerns: Compressor stations sometimes cause loud sounds or vibrations, especially when the company must blowdown the facility for maintenance. They have been described as sometimes reaching the level of noise and vibrations of a jet engine.

Company Response: Federal regulations require the facility to be very quiet, no louder than a refrigerator at its fencing. Blowdowns occur infrequently. Unit blowdowns occur when a single piece of equipment needs repairs, about 5 to 7 times a year for 3 to 5 minutes. Full station blowdowns occur only in an emergency. Williams' Senior Operations Manger Russ Markowski said, “In the past 15 years, I have not had a station blowdown in all three of my locations.” The station’s rotating equipment, when operating normally, does not cause vibrations. If it started vibrating, it would shut down to prevent damage to itself and before it damaged any neighboring properties.

NEGATIVE HEALTH EFFECTS

Resident Concerns: The South Brunswick resolution opposing the pipeline says that, “a resident living near a compressor station in Chesterfield that is experiencing constant ear ringing and suffering health consequences from low vibrations of the ground. Another individual’s son, near the Lawrenceville compressor station, experiences nosebleeds from the noxious fumes.” Both these compressor stations use electricity for power. Powering the Franklin Township compressor with natural gas, as proposed by Williams, could exacerbate these concerns.

Company’s Response: The Branchburg compressor, in the opinion of a company representative who lives near it, does not harm the health of its surrounding community. As a gas-fired compressor, it would appear most analogous to the proposed Franklin Township one. The local electric company conducted a feasibility study, concluding it would be “very difficult if not impossible” to use electric power. The company also clarified that some of the more serious health problems occur at natural gas processing facilities in Pennsylvania. Those facilities remove liquids from the natural gas. The proposed station-having those liquids already removed from its gas-would not have the same problems.

NEED FOR A NEW STATION

Resident Concerns: This compressor station will not provide natural gas to the residents where it will be built. Franklin Township seems to have been just fine without it.

Company Response: Brooklyn and Queens are switching from heating oils to natural gas. This compressor station will provide them with natural gas. Hydraulic modeling gave a ten mile range for where they can build the station. The proposed location was the most open part of that range. Both west and east, the pipeline enters areas increasingly residential or commercial. When the compressor station in Princeton-which normally provides natural gas to Franklin and South Brunswick-is taken down for maintenance, the new compressor could then provide natural gas to the area.

SAFETY OF THE PIPELINE

Resident Concerns: Some residents worry about a repeat of the Edison Natural Gas explosion. In 1994, a gas pipeline break resulted in the evacuation of about one thousand and five hundred people and one death. Some pipelines in the area are still from the 1950s. It does not seem safe to run more natural gas through them.

Company Response: Pipelines valves now automatically shut when pressure drops. That technology did not exist during the Edison accident and, if it existed then, it would have prevented much of the gas from being released there. The older pipelines still conform to federal safety regulations. The company regularly checks the integrity of older pipelines. When they find defective pipeline, they dig it up and replace it.

SAFETY OF THE COMPRESSOR STATION

Resident Concerns: Can the compressor station withstand hurricanes or other extreme storms? Can it withstand earthquakes from the blasting in the nearby quarry? What if a hurricane hits the control station in Houston?

The compressor station will also only have humans present during business hours. There’s no human security during off hours.

Company Response: The buildings can withstand 120 to 130 mile per hour winds. There exist backup systems as well as a fail-safe mode that shuts down the plant in the absence of power. In case a hurricane hits Texas, there’s a duplicate control system in Pennsylvania. The company can operate the entire system from Pennsylvania. The compressor has stronger foundation than a normal home. As part of the federal approval process, Williams must conduct seismic surveys of any location before it can be approved.

The facility has all the industry-standard safety mechanisms: “locked building, steel doors, minimal windows, permanent fencing, cameras in every area, infrared cameras, alarms inside the buildings," according to Williams’ Senior Operations Manager Russ Markowski. There’s no need for human security at all hours. During an emergency, they will staff the station 24/7.