Construction on the final sections of the Rockaway natural gas pipeline began last month, which has sparked protests in the area. Demonstrators briefly halted work on the pipeline this weekend.

Local groups opposed to the pipeline’s construction question its safety as sea levels rise, and argue that natural gas is not an environmentally sustainable fuel source for New York City in the long-term.

According to the pipeline’s builder, Oklahoma-based Williams Companies, most of the gas coming from the Rockaway pipeline does not represent a net increase in gas entering the city. Rather, the pipeline is mainly re-routing gas from delivery points on Long Island. The pipeline will be fully operational by the end of 2014, said Chris Stockton, a spokesman for Williams.

Stockton told NYER that he had spoken with Williams’ field staff yesterday, and that the company had not encountered any issues to date as it drills the ocean floor section of the pipeline off the Rockaway coast.

“Third party” environmental inspectors are on-site 24-hours a day, both on the drilling vessel, and on-shore, according to Stockton. While these inspectors work for an outside firm, they are paid by Williams. Representatives from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will also be inspecting the drilling site periodically.

A Complex Project

While the Rockaway pipeline project consists of several, inter-dependent parts, half of the project –managed by National Grid- was approved by the city without public input. The other half –managed by Williams Companies- underwent a lengthy federal review process and construction is now underway.

Dredging for pipeline under the Marine Parkway. Photo Credit: No Rockaway Pipeline
Dredging for pipeline under the Marine Parkway. Photo credit: No Rockaway Pipeline

Williams operates the 10,000-mile Transco natural gas pipeline, which runs parallel to the Rockaway coast. The company is building a 2.79 mile feeder line from its Transco pipeline along the ocean floor toward Jacob Riis Park, and then underneath it, delivering gas to two new mains below Jamaica Bay.

National Grid will connect those new cross-Bay lines to customers in Brooklyn and Queens via a gas meter and regulating station to be housed within a historic hangar at Floyd Bennett Field. Gas entering the metering station will eventually link to an existing gas main on Flatbush Avenue.

The 60,000 square foot m & r station at Floyd Bennett Field is also being constructed by Williams. The m & r station attracted attention from some local groups who argued that the public should have been consulted before the National Park Service agreed to the introduction of an industrial facility into Gateway National Recreation Area.

Impact of Drilling on the Ocean Floor

One mile of the off-shore pipeline will be installed using horizontal directional drilling, a practice which Williams describes as more environmentally sensitive. The remaining two miles of the 26″ pipeline will be laid “conventionally” by digging a trench.

Leatherback turtles are just one of the species that can be found in the vicinity of the pipeline project. Photo credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife
Leatherback turtles are just one of the species that can be found in the vicinity of the pipeline project. Photo credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife

As we have reported previously, there is extensive marine wildlife in the vicinity of the pipeline project, ranging from large mammals to various types of plankton that feed other marine species. Finfish like the Atlantic sturgeon; shellfish; “benthic organisms” like clams, crabs, starfish, and coral; and marine turtles like the leatherback can all be found in the area.

The coastal area adjacent to Jacob Riis Park, where the pipeline is being constructed, is an Essential Fish Habitat.

In its review of the project, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission found that pipeline construction –especially noise and plumes of sedimentation- could impact marine wildlife, including “special status species” like the right whale, and other marine mammals like seals and dolphins. FERC noted that Williams “would monitor the area for impacts on marine mammals”.

In its responses to FERC, Williams has disputed the extent to which marine life could be impacted by pipeline construction, saying that it has found ways to reduce “the footprint” of drilling activity.

According to FERC, construction of the pipeline would directly disturb about thirty-eight acres of ocean floor. As much as 400 acres of ocean floor could be impacted by a layer of sedimentation from construction, the agency found.

Williams has said that new calculations show the area directly impacted by drilling to be somewhat smaller, twenty-nine acres, in fact. The company also maintained that the much wider layer of sediment on the ocean floor would be minimal in depth.

Williams will also excavate approximately 6.1 acres of seabed for an off-shore “exit pit” which would be used to contain drilling fluids and cuttings released during construction. In comments filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, one local resident, Karen Orlando, questioned whether the contents of the exit pit could be dislodged into the ocean by rough currents.

But Williams, which said that the pit will lie twenty feet below the ocean floor, dismissed the concern, saying in a written response to the Army Corps that the contents “will remain stable…up until the time that active backfill occurs”. And Williams said the pit may not ultimately require backfilling, rather, that it could be filled by naturally moving sand.

FERC’s reviewers required a series of mitigation steps –and sign-off from other agencies, such as the Fish and Wildlife Service – in order for construction to proceed. And the federal Environmental Protection Agency concurred with FERC that the impact of the pipeline project falls within an acceptable range.

More Follow-up On Drilling Fluid Used

FERC also ordered Williams to identify “the specific additives that would be used in the HDD [horizontal directional drilling] drilling fluid for the Rockaway Project…an evaluation of the toxicity of each additive, and an evaluation of the potential for bioaccumulation of each additive in the food chain.”

Offshore construction sites, as seen from Jacob Riis beach. Photo credit:  No Rockaway Pipeline
Offshore construction sites, as seen from Jacob Riis beach. Photo credit: No Rockaway Pipeline

Williams has offered examples of additives and evaluations of their toxicity but noted that, “the exact, real time interaction of the site’s geologic conditions with the HDD equipment and fluids will dictate the types and final concentration of additives.” The company stated that, “there is no significant potential for bioaccumulation” because drilling fluid and cuttings would remain isolated from species that feed along the ocean floor.

NYER has requested a final list of the compounds contained in the drilling fluid. This list was supplied to FERC and the state Department of Environmental Conservation. We will post this list when we receive it.