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Energy & the Law

Is Your Compressor Station a Nuisance?

Posted in Regulations

If you operate wells, gas plants and similar facilities in populated areas, address your neighbors’ concerns. This could lead to increased costs and inconvenience in operations, but it might be cheaper in the long run. It sometimes isn’t enough to comply with laws and regulations if your activities are objectionable to your neighbors. In this case, a natural gas compressor station was a permanent nuisance.

Natural Gas Pipelinc Company v. Justiss

In Texas, an operation or facility is a “permanent nuisance” if a condition exists that substantially interferes with the use and enjoyment of an owner’s land by causing unreasonable discomfort or annoyance to persons of ordinary sensibilities and the conditions are sufficiently constant or regular that they their future impact can be reasonably evaluated. Foul odor, dust, noise, and bright lights have been held to be nuisances if they are sufficiently extreme.

The plaintiffs, who lived near the compressor station, testified about the smell of rotten eggs or car exhaust and what they referred to as “regular” noise and vibration from the station that sounded like a large diesel truck that became loud at unpredictable times during the night and day.

After hearing testimony from the homeowners about the difficulties in living near the plant, the jury awarded the plaintiffs $1,242,500 damages for diminution of the value of their property and $650,000 in prejudgment interest.

The actions the operator took before the suit are instructive for what they did not accomplish. In 1998 the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality cited the operator for regulatory violations from what the court referred to as “overpowering, highly objectionable” odors and issued a category 5 violation (the most severe level). The TCEQ found the odor level offensive enough to prevent working or playing outside and to make it difficult to eat or sleep in the impacted area. Testimony at trial was that the TCEQ determined at various times after the violation that emission odors were within permitted levels and were not at a nuisance level. The operator had taken measures to control the noise and odors, such as planting banks of trees, using covers and insulators for generators, and raising the height of exhaust stacks on the generators. None of these measures prevented the suit by the neighbors and, ultimately, liability.