News | November 16, 2017

Nashville-area neighbors band together as natural gas infrastructure encroaches

Heather Hixson remembers feeling overwhelmed as she first learned about, and then tried to wrap her head around, what was happening in her new neighborhood in the Nashville suburbs. She and her husband moved to Cane Ridge in June 2015, drawn by the convenient location and growing community with easy access to green space. Before the end of that year, she was at the first of many meetings about a natural gas compressor station planned nearby.

“There’s the noise pollution, the environmental pollution, it’s so close to a school and a park, just trying to understand what was important in all the information we were being given requires such a broad sweep of knowledge,” said Hixson, who now serves as president of Keep Nashville Healthy, the community group that formed in response to the proposed station.

Hixson and her neighbors are struggling with one of the many issues inherent in increased reliance on natural gas. The recent explosion in fracked natural gas supply has fueled a parallel interest in increasing pipeline capacity to transport the fossil fuel. This demand has meant many communities suddenly find themselves on the front lines of the battle for our energy future and public health, and Nashville is no exception. For more than a year, Cane Ridge and Joelton struggled to have a voice in the process as large corporations look to build massive compressor stations near their homes, schools, and parks.

Compressor stations adjust the gas pressure at intervals along a pipeline, and it takes energy to run these stations. While some rely on the electrical grid and do not generate emissions, the stations proposed for Nashville burn some of the natural gas in the pipeline. That means they could release tons of pollutants each year, including greenhouse gases.

The introduction of these industrial operations into Nashville neighborhoods spurred a new wave of community action as residents around both stations advocated, with SELC support, to protect their air quality and quality of life.

It has not been an easy road. Early on, a group of Joelton residents had success supporting two city ordinances protecting air quality standards. However, the Tennessee Air Pollution Control Board did not approve these ordinances in the state air pollution plan, ignoring the pleas of busloads of neighbors—as well as representatives of local, state, and federal elected officials. A short time later, a new bill popped up in the Tennessee General Assembly to try to block just such local control and was voted into law.

Around the same time, the company seeking the city’s permission to construct and operate the Joelton compressor station sued the city over the ordinances, arguing that federal laws governing natural gas preempt local laws’ ability to affect the siting of compressor stations. As part of the case’s resolution, the city agreed the ordinances could not be enforced.

“Somebody really needs to write a book on this weirdly skewed process, even just the tone it sets—comments are characterized as protests and FERC does little to nothing to address community concerns. Taken all together it means the public gets no real voice,” said Bill Robertson, a physics professor and 22-year resident of Joelton.

Despite the legislative and agency setbacks, SELC and residents were working on many fronts, including a close review of the proposed air permits. Most notably, SELC found that one of the draft Joelton permits proposed insufficiently protective requirements for nitrogen oxides. This gas is one of the pollutants that forms ozone, which triggers health problems, especially in vulnerable populations. Readily available technologies, SELC showed, could reduce such emissions by more than half. So SELC pushed back on the proposal and, in a win for our health, the final air permit for the Joelton compressor site included significantly tighter air pollution limits.

“SELC really helped get technical experts to weigh in and we did get them to drastically reduce some emissions,” said Robertson. “SELC took a measured, reasonable approach and backed it up with expertise.”

Attorneys Anne Davis and Anne Passino led SELC’s work on both cases.

“A long time ago, the federal government gave private natural gas companies the power to take private property for their own profit. Now gas utilities think they can do whatever they want, no questions asked. Over the last couple of years, though, Nashville residents have been chipping away at that assumption. It is truly remarkable that a small group of concerned neighbors forced multinational companies to comply with the law and reduce their impacts on public health.”

In Cane Ridge, residents are still fighting for more public health protections in any final permits to be issued. In the meantime, neighbors continue to discuss the future of the place they call home.

“Our group has a broader mission to work making our community healthier, physically and economically, so part of our goal is to keep the community we’ve built and tackle other projects,” said Hixson.

A similar path is playing out in the Joelton area.

“We’ve gotten pretty connected with the community out here, which makes us like where we live even more,” Robertson said. “And maybe now companies will think twice about where they put the next compressor station.”