A draft environmental impact review (EIR) on a proposed hydrogen pipeline from Richmond to Martinez, Calif., is currently available for pubic review, according to the Martinez News-Gazette.

Praxair, a multinational company and the largest supplier of industrial gasses in North America, submitted an application to Contra Costa County in early 2007 to build a 21.5-mile pipeline stretching from the Chevron refinery in Richmond to Martinez’s Shell refinery.

If the company successfully navigates the environmental review process and receives the necessary permits from affected cities, construction is slated to begin in early 2010 and be completed by the end of that year.

According to Praxair spokesperson Jacqueline Hunt, the 12-inch pipeline will be buried underground, down to 50 feet in some areas, and will run mainly along roads and railroad tracks. Of the 21.5-mile total, eight miles of pipeline along the proposed route already exists, so workers will incorporate those sections as well as building 13.5 miles of new pipeline. A 100-foot construction corridor is planned for the route, which snakes through unincorporated Contra Costa County and the cities of Martinez, Pinole, Hercules and Richmond.

Hunt said the driving reason for construction of the pipeline is to “provide the hydrogen that’s essential for making today’s cleaner-burning fuels, which are required to meet state and federal clean air standards.” She said hydrogen is a crucial ingredient in gasoline production and Shell’s onsite hydrogen plant is over 40 years old. Praxair’s pipeline is intended to provide a reliable supply of hydrogen to the refinery.

Shell spokesperson Steve Lesher was a little more guarded when asked about the pipeline project.

“We don’t have a public position on it because there are a couple of proposed pipeline projects out there. We think [Praxair’s] project is technically sound; we will see how the project progresses, to see if we would avail ourselves of it,” Lesher said Friday. “I believe it is designed to serve various area refineries, multiple sites and the idea is that it would have a lot of utility throughout industry. Again, we don’t find anything technically wrong with it.”

After receiving Praxair’s application, Contra Costa County, the lead governmental agency on the venture, held two community informational meetings in North Richmond and Martinez in June of 2007. Over the past two years, Praxair integrated public and municipal concerns into their plans, while the county hired a third-party environmental consultant to review the proposal and work with the company on the required EIR per the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

When the draft EIR was released at the end of May, it launched a 45-day public review period, which would have ended of July 13. However, the City of Martinez requested an additional 45 days in order to full examine the EIR, and now the public comment and review period is scheduled to end on August 27.

The EIR is several inches thick and very technical and despite the economy my staff is very busy with new development projects, Measure H and other CIP projects,” Assistant City Manager Karen Majors said Friday. “We simply needed more time review the document.  We are in the process of retaining a third party to review the technical “health and safety” aspects of the CEQA document.  This information will also be used when Praxair makes application for a use permit to allow their pipeline to go thru Martinez.  We anticipate that Praxair will apply for a Use Permit after their EIR is completed and certified by Contra Costa County.  They will use that EIR as the CEQA documentation for the Use Permit application.”

Praxair’s next step in the approval process is to present its proposal to the Contra Costa County Planning Commission by the end of October. If the county certifies the project’s EIR, Praxair will then request a conditional use permits from the cities affected by the pipeline. Martinez stands to gain a great deal of money from the project through franchise and easement agreements, although neither City Staff or Praxair representatives could provide a dollar amount at this stage of the game.

“Praxair must have a franchise agreement in order to operate a pipeline within the City of Martinez and will also [presumably] request an easement along the southerly boundary of the Zocchi property,” Majors explained. “They will have to purchase an this easement from the City and there may also be some “mitigation” that is a result of the CEQA process.”

Part of the pipeline will also go through East Bay Regional Park District land, including the Carquinez Regional Shoreline. An Assistant General Manager at the District said Friday he does not see any obstacles to the pipeline’s completion.

“Praxair has done a very responsible job in adjusting the project to address our concerns,” said Robert Doyle of the EBRP. “For example, they wanted to go through the Nejedly Staging Area and dig a trench up the hillside there, taking out 60 trees. We said, no, you’re not going to be able to do that, so they agreed, at an expensive cost, to instead do tunneling. From our standpoint, it’s a very big project and we are paying a lot of attention to it.”

Hunt said Praxair hired an extensive team of geologists, arborists, engineers and other specialists, mostly from the firm CH2MHill, to help plan a route with the least environmental impact. An initial plan called for the removal of thousands of trees, but with the help of the arborist, the route was revised. Now just 28 trees will be removed along the entire route, according to the company.

“[The] majority of route within East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) property runs along existing roads or in areas where the horizontal directional drilling construction method will be used,” said Hunt.

In horizontal directional drilling, a drill bit is inserted at a 45-degree angle, bores down 50 to 100 feet, flattens out for several miles, and then returns to the surface at a 45-degree angle.

One of the biggest concerns surrounding the proposal is safety. Hydrogen is flammable, although Hunt pointed out that the gas is also the lightest and therefore dissipates quickly; for an explosion to occur, a leak and an ignition source would be necessary simultaneously.

“Our pipeline will be buried a minimum of four feet underground, inspected regularly and be monitored 24/7. In many areas, the pipeline will be buried up to 50 feet deep,” said Hunt. “The pipeline will include special state-of-the-art valve systems, so any problems can be detected almost instantly, isolated and contained quickly. In addition, our pipeline will be clearly marked with signs along its route.”

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