Something In the Air 

A major element of Idaho's burgeoning natural gas exploration industry is the little-discussed processing of the raw gas before it is sent to a pipeline.

If the DEQ approves, Alta Mesa will soon move forward with its natural gas processing plant.

George Prentice

If the DEQ approves, Alta Mesa will soon move forward with its natural gas processing plant.

How much is too much formaldehyde? Or Benzene? Or Toluene?

A major element of Idaho's burgeoning natural gas exploration industry is the little-discussed processing of the raw gas before it can be delivered to transmission pipelines. The processing--at a refrigeration plant--would regularly emit chemicals that the Environmental Protection Agency considers to be Hazardous Air Pollutants or HAPs. And none of it happens without permission from Idaho's Department of Environmental Quality.

Just before Christmas, Texas-based Alta Mesa Services--which snapped up a number of leases and wells from the financially troubled Bridge Resources (BW, Feature, "Bridge Under Troubled Waters, Oct. 5, 2011)--filed an air quality permit application with the DEQ to build such a refrigeration plant near U.S. Highway 30, south of New Plymouth.

But unless anyone spent their holidays combing through DEQ permit applications, the 212-page packet submitted by Alta Mesa could have easily been overlooked. In fact, the public only has until the end of business Thursday, Jan. 2, to comment on the application, by sending remarks to tessa.stevens@deq.idaho.gov.

A close examination of the application reveals that the facility has the potential of discharging several hazardous pollutants into the environment, including Formaldehyde (1,700 pounds per year); Benzene (133 lbs/year) and Toluene (47 lbs/year). All in all, the proposed plant has the potential of emitting more than 1 ton of HAPs per year.

But none of the proposed emissions come close to the DEQ's so-called "screening emission levels." For example, the expected emissions of Formaldehyde are only about 20 percent of the DEQ's tolerance threshold.

The refrigeration plant, which would dry, pressurize, refrigerate and store the gas before delivering it to the nearby Williams Northwest natural gas pipeline, would take approximately 144 days to build and sit on 5.7 acres of private land on U.S. 30, adjacent to property owned by the L-3 Cattle Company of Fruitland.

In October, the Ontario Argus Observer reported that a number of nearby landowners balked at the idea of the facility, with one farmer telling Payette County Planning and Zoning commissioners that they "would be selling the heart and soul of Payette County," if they gave their approval.

But Payette P&Z commissioners voted 5-3 to green light the plant, pushing the permit process to the DEQ, which will be deciding the fate of the facility sooner than later. Alta Mesa has indicated that it wants to have the plant up and running by spring.

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