West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 23 | November. 07 -,13 2007

Drilling for thermal wells heats up seminary clash with neighbors

By Albert Amateau

General Theological Seminary is drilling the first seven of a series of 20 geothermal wells, each about 1,500 feet deep, on the sidewalks around its 19th-century Chelsea Square campus to heat and cool both its restored historic buildings and a planned new building on Ninth Ave.

But the project, intended to save the 180-year-old Episcopal seminary thousands of dollars in energy costs per year, has provoked a group of residential neighbors, led by Steven Shore, a real estate lawyer who lives across from the seminary, to demand safeguards that the seminary claims have delayed the geothermal project.

As heating and cooling costs soar, the relatively new strategy of using geothermal wells to tap deep groundwater that averages about 55 degrees Fahrenheit year-round and run it through a heat-exchange system to heat or cool buildings is becoming a viable alternative to fossil fuel, at least for large buildings.

And competing interests associated with geothermal wells in a crowded urban environment are increasingly likely to emerge.

The conflict between General Theological Seminary and the group of residential neighbors began more than two years ago when the seminary made public its plans to restore and partially rebuild the campus between 20th and 21st Sts. from Ninth to 10th Aves.

Shore was a leader in the successful efforts to force the seminary to reduce a proposed new, mixed-use, 17-story residential building on Ninth Ave. to seven-and-a-half stories in compliance with existing zoning. And when the geothermal project was announced and planned 14 months ago, Shore organized Concerned Environmentalists of Chelsea Square, a group of more than 30 property owners, to assert their interests.

Nevertheless, the seminary geothermal project began in August after city and state review, with four wells on the sidewalk on 10th Ave., two wells on W. 21th St. and one on W. 20th St. near 10th Ave.

The city was concerned about the Third Water Tunnel, which runs about 510 feet below the surface of The Close in a north-south diagonal near 10th Ave. Invariably, deep wells “drift” from the perpendicular and the city required the seminary’s well contractors to monitor the drift. If the drift exceeded more than 3 percent in the direction of the tunnel, the contractors were to either cap the well and begin again or pull back to where the drift began and drill again.

“I filed a FOIL [Freedom of Information Law] application with the state Department of Environmental Conservation for drilling data that the seminary had to file,” Shore said last week. Homeowners on 20th and 21st Sts., he said, were entitled to the same protection as the city’s water tunnel.

But last week, D.E.C. replied that the drilling logs would be kept confidential for six months.

“Suffice it to say we’re disappointed,” said Shore. “All we want to do is to make sure that property owners’ drilling rights and water rights have not been adversely impacted,” he said. Shore has filed an appeal to the D.E.C. ruling on confidentiality. He attributed the D.E.C confidentiality ruling to a seminary request to D.E.C. to withhold the drilling information.

“Not true,” said Maureen Burnley, seminary vice president. “We have no standing with any agency about what data they make public.”

A D.E.C. spokesperson, Lori O’Connell, said this week that New York State environmental law calls for drilling data to be confidential and for the use of D.E.C. and other state agencies until six months after the commencement of drilling operations. Drilling began in August, so data on many of the wells would not be public until about February.

One well on 21st St. near Ninth Ave. was completed last week and has a strong flow of ground water, said Burnley. But it is not yet functioning because it is designed to work in tandem with the other 21st St. well, which is expected to be completed after the middle of the month.

Burnley said the drilling is taking a long time because of the frequent checks on the drift as required by the city and “on the constraints on the project by the neighbors.” She said the completed well has not drifted across the street toward the neighboring properties. However, she emphasized that the seminary would not share data with “people who have threatened to sue us every time we’ve spoken to them.”

Indeed, Shore said in a public meeting two years ago that he would sue the seminary if their new Ninth Ave. building exceeded the 75-foot height limit of Chelsea Historic District zoning.

But he said in a recent interview that the 30-odd members of the group who live on 20th and 21st Sts. and on Ninth Ave. want to protect their own rights to drill thermal wells in the future and are not bent on litigation.

Each standing-column well being drilled for the seminary draw is designed to draw water for heat exchange and to return used water to the source, where it stabilizes to the constant temperature for the depth. Wells draw water from a radius of 50 to 75 feet and should therefore be from 50 to 75 feet apart. The seminary is planning its full complement of wells — seven in the first construction phase, seven in a second phase and six in a third phase — to be 55 feet apart.

Shore said that plan puts the wells marginally close to the properties across the street and impacts their ability to drill similar wells. Because of that potential impact, Shore suggested the seminary negotiate with neighbors about sharing the geothermal heating and cooling from the wells.

The seminary rejected the suggestion out of hand.

“We are not going into the public utility business,” Burnley said. She noted that while geothermal heating and cooling is nearly cost-free, each well costs $100,000 or more to drill and install. “It’s a strategy that’s appropriate for large buildings or institutions. It’s not likely for small residential buildings,” she said.

In an Aug. 22 letter to seminary students and professors, Ward Ewing, dean of the seminary, said that Shore “indicated he would drop his opposition if the seminary would drill geothermal wells for his home. Obviously, we will not enter the utility business.”

Shore called Ewing’s accusation “grossly distorted.”

Shore, however, has said there are several aspects of geothermal drilling that can impact neighboring properties and rights and are appropriate subjects for negotiation.

If a well reaches the 1,500-foot depth and does not have a strong water flow, the granite bedrock has to be fractured to allow water into the area — a process called hydro-fracturing which can also impact neighbors’ ability to drill wells, Shore said.

In addition, drilling occasionally encounters sheer zones within a granite strata — areas of sand or other porous material that allow water into the drill hole and can force the well to be capped and be drilled in a new place. That, too, could impact neighboring property, Shore said.

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