Kinder Morgan plans major expansion
But some neighbors in Dolores County say noise and odors are problems
When Earl Wenger and Cindy Tout bought their rural home in Cahone, Colo., in 1990, there was nothing across the road behind their home but an alfalfa field.
“We used to sit out back and have bonfires and picnics,” recalled Tout recently. “Now we hardly use the back porch.”
The field was then owned by Shell Western E&P, a carbon-dioxide production company that was subsequently bought out by Kinder Morgan. In 2006 Kinder Morgan announced plans to build a compressor station on that tract.
Just three people showed up for a county public hearing about the proposal, according to Wenger. Kinder Morgan officials said there would be no odor from the plant and noise would be well below 40 decibels at the couple’s home, less than 300 yards away.
The station came online in January 2008. “We have had a problem with noise and odor ever since,” said Tout.
The couple are the closest neighbors to the facility. There are about 22 homes within a mile radius, she said.
The noise is a rumbling that continues around the clock, she said, produced by the 5,000-horsepower compressor and the giant fans used to cool it. The fans are variables peed, so the pitch of the rumbling varies, but it is continuous.
The odors likewise vary and have included a sulfur stench and a bleach odor.
“There’s no peace of mind when you go out to have a cup of coffee in the morning,” said Wenger. “The noise is 24/7. They shut that plant down maybe three times a year.”
They complained about the sound soon after the compressor station started operating. A year later, Kinder Morgan built a sound wall. “Then our house started vibrating,” Tout said.
The vibration is slight, but can be noticed in water glasses sitting on tables in their home. Tout and Wenger have been remodeling over the years, but some of their new drywall is cracking. They poured a concrete floor in their basement; it is now cracked. An engineer they hired found, after a preliminary investigation, that their problems with noise, vibration, and air contaminants “appear to be directly related to operations of the KM plant.”
In the past four years they have been experiencing headaches, nose bleeds and sore throats that they believe are related to emissions from the plant.
“We can’t keep our windows open in the summer,” Tout said.
Now, Kinder Morgan plans to expand the compressor station, known as the Doe Canyon facility, to increase capacity from the current 100 million cubic feet of CO2 per day to 170 million cf/day.
The $255 million expansion would bring an additional $900,000 to $1.6 million in property-tax revenues to Dolores County annually, company officials estimate.
At a 3 ½-hour public hearing April 16 before the county commissioners, Kinder Morgan was called both a good neighbor and a bad one that didn’t care about residents’ concerns until it sought approval for the expansion.
Company officials bristled at those accusations, and one in turn accused neighbors of being greedy, interested mainly in compensation for their alleged problems.
In the end, the Dolores County commissioners gave their unanimous approval to the expansion, which will include:
• Expanding the existing building to house a new 5,000-hp compressor.
• Adding a new building to house two centrifugal compressors to help pull additional gas from wells, plus cooling fans and other equipment.
• Construction of a cluster building for well control. Two tanks outside would hold produced water created by CO2 production and a chemical that is injected into the flow line.
• Twenty-eight additional fans, bringing the total to 44.
The prospect has Wenger and Tout, and some other neighbors in the area, dismayed. But officials with Kinder Morgan say the expansion will include improvements that should greatly reduce impacts to neighbors, such as:
• A vapor-recovery system that will collect all emissions and bring them into the product stream so there would be no emissions.
• The latest technology to reduce noise, including a better sound-retention wall.
• Downcast lighting on all outdoor lights.
As part of its effort to boost production to meet increasing demand, Kinder Morgan is also drilling three new CO2 wells and reentering an old well, and estimates drilling some two more wells per year in Dolores County up to a total of 16.
Nothing wrong with profit
At the hearing, several citizens urged the commissioners to delay approval in order to learn the results of planned emissions testing at the plant and get a better handle on the issues involved.
“We’re not here trying to get the plant shut down, nor are we trying to shut off the flow of dollars to Dolores County,” said Linda McCart, who lives some 3 miles from the facility. She said this is “by far the largest individual development that has ever been undertaken in the history of Dolores County” and urged the board to move cautiously. She said Kinder Morgan has had over four years to solve problems at the existing facility but had not done so.
“If they can’t solve problems with the existing plant in that amount of time why should we assume they will be able to solve them now?”
She said the plant should never have been approved at its location because the two nearest homes, including Wenger and Tout’s, were built long before it was.
“I would love nothing more than to walk up to a Kinder Morgan picnic three years from now and say you’ve been good neighbors. Unfortunately I can’t say it right now,” McCart said.
McCart’s husband, Dave, said he is not concerned just about smells but their possible health effects. Sometimes he and his wife wake at 2 or 3 a.m. with swollen throats and can hardly talk, he said. When there is an east breeze and a slight inversion there is a smell throughout the valley, he said. “Hopefully this vapor-recovery does stop that. I’m not trying to stop the plant, I just want it to be healthy.”
“I feel it is our duty to be constantly vigilant in asking questions of corporations when they come to develop resources in our area,” said Michele Martz, another local resident. “As a corporation there is only one thing that really matters in the end and that is the bottom line – how much value does their stock hold.”
But company officials rejected such accusations and said they have worked consistently to make things better for the plant’s neighbors.
Kinder Morgan’s Jeff Layne, manager of engineering based in Houston, said he “hopes it’s very obvious that Kinder Morgan goes out of our way to be a good neighbor here.”
He said some of the neighbors seem to be motivated by “greed” and mainly interested in compensation or having the company buy their homes. As a licensed attorney and a former trial lawyer, he said, “I know it when I see it, and quite frankly I think sometimes we have been a little too quiet and don’t point things out when we get attacked.”
He added, “There’s nothing wrong with making a profit in the United States of America.”
Allen Fore, a Chicago- based company spokesman, said the accusations hurt. He reminded the audience that Kinder Morgan has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Dolores County.
“I assure you most of the residents of Dolores County support this facility, as was shown with the [March 6] planning-commission meeting. We could have had a hundred letters about how this was good for this county. We’re a good company that’s doing good work here and across the state of Colorado.”
Local Kinder Morgan spokesman Bob Clayton said the facility has always been within noise and odor thresholds set by the state. “We are well within all regulatory requirements,” he said, adding that the presence of a slight odor doesn’t mean there is a health issue involved.
He said officials with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment had made an unannounced visit the week prior because of an odor complaint and found only a slight, inoffensive odor that “smelled like fertilizer.”
“The state did not issue any kind of odor violation,” he said.
Clayton also said a 120-day sound inspection set up by the commissioners has so far found that the plant is below the state standard of 55 decibels during the day and 50 at night.
Clayton said the company has been accused of conspiring with the state to get advance notice of visits and biased testing, but that was “a ridiculous statement.”
Mike Leonard, a field inspection supervisor with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, testified that there was a noise complaint in 2010 but that an inspection found Kinder Morgan to be in compliance. Leonard said he had checked sound levels the night before the public hearing and found them at 48 decibels at 350 feet, falling within limits.
He said vibration – another complaint of neighbors – is not regulated by the COGCC.
Don Smith, a senior engineer at Engineering Dynamics, Inc., in San Antonio, Texas, said the Doe Canyon plant is built on “hard stiff clay” and that vibrations can travel into the closest homes, one roughly 200 yards away and one 400 yards away. He said that those vibrations are nevertheless “microscopic,” adding, “These kind of levels are so low, quite frankly they’re really hard to get rid of.”
The new unit at the Doe Canyon site will have a thicker base and additional concrete columns [piles] under the compressor to tie it down better to the concrete floor, Smith said. Not much can be done about the first unit, however, he said.
‘Nothing but good’
A number of local residents spoke up to praise Kinder Morgan for its generosity in the community.
“The money that’s flowed to the county because of Kinder Morgan has been phenomenal,” said Jerry Carhart.
At the March 6 planning-commission hearing, which drew a greater crowd, a parade of locals praised the company for its contributions, which include $200,000 and an acre of land for a satellite fire station in Cahone, $25,000 for scoreboards at a new ballfield and several thousand dollars to the Dove Creek and Rico public libraries.
“I can say nothing but good about Kinder Morgan,” Steve Daves of the county road and bridge department said.
Mike Mulligan, president of the Dolores County Fire Protection District, said, “This county’s been poor for a long time. When I first came onto the board we had one firehouse and worn-out outdated equipment. . . . Since Kinder Morgan has come in and the assessed value of our county has gone up … we now have three firehouses fully staffed and fully equipped.”
But the county commissioners said citizens’ concerns were legitimate.
“When we first went into that, we thought there would be no odors from that plant, but we know there have to be because we have gobs of complaints,” said Commissioner Ernie Williams.
Williams also said the plant is very close to exceeding sound thresholds. “Fifty decibels is the high-end, drop-dead level at night time. The plant runs 24 hours a day, so you are on the limits of night-time operation at this point, at least with that one sound test.”
Commissioner Julie Kibel said the board wants to be sure citizens’ concerns were addressed but also appreciates the financial boost the company gives the county.
“I understand what it must feel like to live that close [to the plant], but every concern that has come forward, we’ve dealt with,” she said. “We have asked for testing to be done and it has been done. We have asked for Kinder Morgan to pay the price and they have paid the price.”
Kibel said the county had had emissions testing done, but all the known pollutants (which include benzene, toulene, mercaptan, hydrogen sulfide and carbonyl sulfide) fell well below the state limits.
Williams noted that “growth does not come without problems” and added, “Dolores County does not trade money for people, and I want to make that clear.”
The board then approved the application, along with a land-development agreement that requires Kinder Morgan to, upon request of the county, demonstrate at its own cost that it is following state regulations.
The agreement also stipulates that both the old and new plant must put in the vapor recovery system, and that Kinder Morgan must pay for mediation if it and the county can’t come to agreement on any issues.
‘A fantastic company’
Clayton later told the Free Press the company has consistently worked to be a good neighbor. He said although neighbors may believe it was their complaints that drove Kinder Morgan to try to improve conditions at the Doe Canyon facility, the company initiated improvements on its own.
“We’ve been accused of not doing anything until the complaints came in, but that’s not true. When we started this plant in 2008 it was two of our people that came to me and said, ‘This gas really stinks,’ so we immediately started in-house testing. We knew we had an odor issue. So from Day One we started addressing these issues, not only out of concern for the public but our own employees.”
The sulfur compounds in the gas produce the smell, Clayton said. “They are very odorous, even at one-tenth of a part per million, which doesn’t really pose a health threat.”
The company has been using sodium hydrochloride to kill any reduced-sulfur compounds, he said, but as the content of the gas stream fluctuates, sometimes there is an overtreatment, which causes a bleach smell, or an undertreatment, which leaves the sulfur odor. The smells should be eliminated with the new vapor-recovery system, he said.
The company invested $200,000 to build a sound wall to reduce impacts on neighbors, he said. “There was no balking. Kinder Morgan is a very responsive company.”
The expansion will make things much better, Clayton said. “We’re going to invest millions and millions more to make it even quieter, to totally do away with the emissions. We really want this to come out perfect. Our whole emphasis is to be a good neighbor and a good part of the community. Kinder Morgan is a fantastic company.”
But he admitted Tout and Wenger are affected by the plant. “Cindy and Earl are definitely within the area where we would like to work something out with them.”
‘The way it was’
Josh Joswick, energy-issues coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a Durango- based environmental group, said the alliance had worked with the neighbors to get the state to do more testing, including an emissions test April 24 called a “stack test.” The full results will not be available until June, he said.
“The disturbing part to me was that initially, when I called CDPHE, I said, ‘People are getting sick out there, in their homes,’ and the guy said, ‘They should leave their home.’ But at least we made the state aware of it, and now they’re doing the test.”
On Feb. 14, staff with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission received a complaint from Tout about a “burning rubber” odor coming from the plant. They notified the Dolores County Sheriff ’s Office, which sent a deputy who reported he could smell “a faint odor.”
COGCC staff responded on the evening of Feb. 15 and “detected a chemical odor” from the plant. On Feb. 23 they also detected a “Clorox like” smell. The COGCC issued a “Notice of Alleged Violation,” which is not as severe as a Notice of Violation, and requires the company to eliminate any nuisance odors.
Joswick said he finds it entirely plausible that neighbors could become sick from emissions. “You bet. It depends on what the emissions are but you bet, they can get sick from it.”
He said he was disturbed by some local residents’ hostility toward critics of Kinder Morgan and their fears that, if the expansion weren’t approved, the company might pull out.
“I’ve heard that for years from other operators. ‘If you make us do this, we’ll leave.’ It’s a very hollow threat. It’s not like they’re making shoes and they can relocate in China.”
Tout said she was very upset by Layne’s reference to greed. “We’re being greedy because we want them to fix it so it’s livable here at our home? So we don’t get headaches, sore throats and nose bleeds? How is that being greedy?”
Wenger said the company won’t pay them replacement value for their home, just appraised value, “but with the economy the way it is and where we are, we will never be able to sell our home for what it was actually worth before Kinder Morgan moved in here. For the appraised value, we won’t even be able to buy another piece of land.”
Tout said even if the company makes a good offer for their home, she is not eager to pull up roots and move after living there 22 years.“We have three acres, a couple hundred trees, an orchard. Where are we going to go and start over and have what we have now?
“It’s not about the money. We just want our home to be the way it was.”