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Lausell declines negotiations


SCHUYLER COUNTY (6/29/16)--A state official made an unsolicited phone call to Schuyler County Legislator Michael L. Lausell earlier this month to tell him Crestwood Equity Partners was inviting him to privately negotiate key elements of its plan to store liquid petroleum gas, or LPG, in abandoned caverns at its U.S. Salt property in Reading.
Lausell said he was told the Houston-based company might be willing to drop its plans to deliver LPG to the caverns by rail.
Such a concession would address many of Lausell's vocal concerns about the dangers of running trains packed with explosive liquids across the 80-year-old train trestle 175 feet above the gorge at the Watkins Glen State Park.
The unexpected call came from a lawyer with the Department of Environmental Conservation, Lausell said. He would not identify him or her. Lausell said he has declined the invitation to negotiate with the company.
Crestwood did not respond to a call seeking comment, and its chief media spokesperson did not acknowledge emailed questions.
The DEC press office did not respond to efforts to confirm that an agency attorney had acted as an intermediary by making the call Lausell described.
The DEC is in the sixth year of evaluating a Crestwood application to store 2.1 million barrels of highly-pressurized propane and butane in two salt caverns next to Seneca Lake. The plan calls for the construction of a six-track rail siding in Reading with the capacity to load 24 LPG tank cars every 12 hours.
In addition to cutting out the rail component, Lausell said he was told, Crestwood might be willing to entirely eliminate butane storage. The application calls for 600,000 barrels of butane to be stored in one cavern and 1.5 million barrels of propane in another.
Even if all rail deliveries were cancelled, propane could still be delivered to and from the cavern site by pipeline or truck.
Lausell said he asked the DEC lawyer about Crestwood's plans for a truck loading station, but he said no concessions were offered on that point.
"I'm gratified that they want to mediate, that they're willing to give up so much," Lausell said. "I think we've identified a real issue, which makes all the (effort) worthwhile."
The potential dangers of LPG-laden trains passing over the gorge trestle motivated Lausell and fellow Schuyler Legislator Van A. Harp last year to seek formal party status in a legal proceeding concerning the Crestwood application.
An administrative law judge at the DEC, who held a hearing on the case in February 2015, continues to weigh evidence for and against the project.
Lausell and Harp filed a petition with the judge, James T. McClymonds, that focused on transportation issues. Lausell noted he also has concerns about the stability of the caverns and the project's potential impact on Seneca Lake water quality, but he confined the petition to transportation matters -- especially train traffic.
"Were an accident to occur due to derailment, bridge failure or terrorism, the gorge would create a deadly situation for visitors to the park, county employees and for residents of Schuyler County," Lausell and Harp wrote McClymonds.
The two represent a minority of the Schuyler County Legislature, which narrowly passed a resolution in June 2014 urging the DEC to issue all necessary permits. The dissenters argued the majority jumped the gun by endorsing the project before completing emergency planning.
Joseph Campbell, co-founder of Gas Free Seneca, a coalition of citizens, businesses and elected officials that seeks to block the LPG project, applauded Lausell for choosing not to accept the offer to negotiate privately with Crestwood.
"We won't accept anything less than a total rejection of this project," Campbell said. "The coalition will not be divided by private negotiations between the DEC and parties that the agency hand-picks."
In December, the Finger Lakes Regional Parks Commission unanimously passed a resolution noting the possibility of a "catastrophic" LPG accident at the Watkins Glen gorge and urging "all necessary precautions" be taken.

PETER MANTIUS is a reporter based in Schuyler County. He covered business, law and politics at The Atlanta Constitution from 1983-2000. He has also served as the editor of business weeklies in Hartford, Connecticut and Long Island.

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