Massachusetts senators sound alarm over massive discharge of hazardous wastewater by Kinder Morgan subsidiary

Heather Bellow

A discharge of 16,500 gallons of "hazardous wastewater" from pipeline testing in Agawam has prompted intervention by the two U.S. senators that represent Massachusetts.

In a letters to federal regulators, U.S. Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren said Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co.'s release of pressure testing wastewater Nov. 20 poses a threat to public health and the environment in surrounding communities.

"This wastewater reportedly contains heavy metals and carcinogenic chemicals," the senators wrote to Kevin McIntryre, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. "This improper discharge by Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co., a subsidiary of Kinder Morgan, is exactly the kind of environmental and public health risk feared by local communities when the Connecticut Expansion Project in Western Massachusetts was approved."

A letter also was sent to the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A contractor released the wastewater while conducting testing on the Connecticut Expansion Project at the Agawam compressor station. 

In an email, Kinder Morgan spokesman David Conover told The Eagle this discharge from one segment of the 13-mile natural gas spur was a breach of its agreement with its project contractor, Henkels & McCoy Inc.

"Kinder Morgan discovered that Henkels & McCoy ... had disregarded specific instructions from the Company," Conover wrote. "The discharged water is above the authorized limits of Kinder Morgan's [EPA] permit. Kinder Morgan will take appropriate action under its contract with Henkels & McCoy for this breach."

But both Warren and Markey said this was just the sort of thing they were worried might happen as permitting for the construction of this project was, they said, rushed through FERC. The company faced hurdles that delayed construction, including legal proceedings to get an easement on state-protected land in Otis State Forest, where a 3.8-mile segment of the same pipeline project recently was completed.

Both Warren and Markey, along with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, in April had implored FERC to delay tree cutting in the state forest and Sandisfield until a number of unresolved issues were heard by the agency.

At the time, FERC didn't have enough members to reach a quorum in order to hear the appeals, but agency policy allowed it to approve tree cutting and construction, adding yet another layer of controversy to a project with many opponents who said the extra gas was unnecessary for Connecticut customers, among a host of other objections.

Markey and Warren rehashed all this in their letter to FERC's McIntyre. 

"Concerns remain over how this project may threaten public health, in addition to the environmental harm incurred by tree clearing and other activities related to the construction and operation of a natural gas pipeline."

Impact still unclear

Tennessee Gas' own analysis of the wastewater issue was included in a December biweekly report that was filed with FERC on the pipeline project. The report said the water had levels of heavy metals, including lead, that exceed EPA limits for the agency's water discharge permit that Tennessee Gas is bound by. 

Levels of tetrachloroethylene and bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate in the water tested above EPA's limits. The EPA classifies both chemicals as likely carcinogens. 

Conover confirmed that Tennessee Gas had reported the discharge to an EPA scientist and to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection when a company water hauler discovered the holding tank empty on Nov. 27. 

As was the case with testing wastewater from the Sandisfield loop, contaminated testing water was trucked to an approved treatment facility, as the EPA requires.

But in Agawam, something went wrong. 

Henkels & McCoy representatives told the company the water had been released over a 20-hour period within the compressor station yard, in an upland vegetated area. A Henkels & McCoy spokeswoman did not return calls Wednesday about the discharge, and about Kinder Morgan's assertion that it was the contractor's fault.

But because the contractor said the wastewater did not flow into water bodies, Tennessee Gas did not notify the EPA's emergency National Response Center, according to the company's bi-weekly report.

Yet in an email obtained by The Eagle, an EPA scientist said Tennessee Gas told the agency that the water did flow into a "unnamed tributary" after a "miscommunication between the operator and their onsite contractor." 

The company then had the area around the discharge assessed, "and did not observe any environmental damage."

Warren and Markey said that's not good enough.

The senators told the EPA's Scott Pruitt that such an observation, 10 days after the release, is insufficient, and that more testing and oversight is needed to make sure the wastewater, which infiltrated the ground, did not reach a nearby tributary to Worthington Brook, which eventually flows into the Connecticut River.

"No testing of the tributary or downstream water has been reported by the company," the senators wrote, followed by a list of questions and steps they said the agency should take, including providing them with "independent verification." 

"The agency should not simply accept the company's assertion that no dangerous metals or chemicals were released into the water," they added.

Tennessee Gas' report to the EPA on the incident said that a sign and lock on storage tanks that hold testing water until disposal would help prevent such an incident in future. The senators asked McIntyre if FERC believed that measure would be sufficient.

FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen said Wednesday that McIntyre had not yet received the senators' letter, but that he would respond to it soon once it arrives.

With McIntyre, Warren and Markey urged a deeper agency examination of the expansion project's safety and environmental standards and policies, and asked FERC if it planned to stop the company from continuing operations on the project until strict precautions are in place.

"FERC has a responsibility to ensure that the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are kept safe from these types of public health risks associated with the construction and operation of natural gas pipelines," they wrote.