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Thursday, August 28, 2014


Last week, the Buffalo News ran a front page story about the increasingly-famous “Eternal Flame” at Chestnut Ridge Park in Erie County which is created by gas seeping from shale at the park. In the ensuing report, the News made mention of some notable gas seepages across Western New York.

The article failed to mention the most notable of them all – the gas that accounts for the name of an entire community: Gasport.

That’s a significant oversight given our seepages’ natural and historical importance.

The young hamlet at the time of the construction of the Erie Canal was known as Jamesport. It was an unauthorized name, having no legal merit or consideration by the town of Royalton’s founding fathers.

In 1826, students from the Rensselaerian School (now Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) were making an excursion up the Erie Canal for the purpose of geological study when they discovered gas bubbling in springs near the Canal. They suggested to one of the locals that the community be named Gasport instead, recognizing the oddity. The students were delighted on their return trip just days later to see that the name was painted on buildings and docks.

Over time, those gas springs have been mostly eliminated, covered up by progress – houses, farms, and businesses – and most people would not know how we got our name. But, there are still places where the gas can visibly be found if you do some exploring.

The near-surface pocket of gas is located in an area that begins roughly one block west of the Main Street bridge and is within a half-mile of each side of the canal from that point westward to the roughly the border with the Town of Lockport.

Most of the shale structures that allow the gas to reach the surface are buried under the soil, so you would have to search out the small streams that go under the canal, as through the centuries they have cut through the dirt, sediment and shale and allowed the gas to escape.

As you come upon one of the larger gas leaks, the smell is unmistakable. The area around it will smell like rotten eggs. While methane itself has no smell, in the presence of biological agents and sulfur it can create stinky methanethiol which accounts for the stench.

In some streams, the bubbles will be periodic, a series of them coming up for one to two seconds at a time and reoccurring every five to 10 seconds. In other springs which have cut deeper into the shale, the bubbles will be continuous and the water actually appears to boil, and the roiling noise can be quite load.

This photo shows a gas seepage that is located above the water level. 
(PHOTO CONTRIBUTED BY BOB CONFER)
As some of these streams dry up in the summer, you can still encounter the gas. Exposed formations of shale will continue to bubble with even the slightest bit of moisture and the ground itself will make hissing and bubbling sounds. These above-ground seepages will leave a white-grey froth.

In areas adjacent to these larger seepages, the gas will impregnate into the soil around the creek. If you dig into the nearby soil (which, around these gas wells will be either sand or extremely-dark, almost black dirt) you will find that even in the heat of summer, the soil is cool to the touch, an outcome of lots of gas penetrating the ground.

You can even replicate the Eternal Flame here in Gasport (although the outcome will be a little different). As the video below shows, placing a match over bubbling rocks will create a brief flame as long as the match is held over it.


If the gas is captured and allowed to concentrate in a defined area rather than immediately escaping to the air, the results are even more impressive. To do so, just place a pipe into the shale around one of the leaks and loosely place a rock over the end of the pipe to allow a small release of the gas. Once you light it, it will stay light, just as the Eternal Flame does. The video below shows one such experiment that we conducted on our farm:

     

Although the total area in which gas seepages may or may not be found in Gasport is really not that large (four square miles, maybe), it has attracted the attention of some gas companies in recent years. On the heels of the fracking boom in Pennsylvania and the hopes that a similar industry is allowed in New York’s Southern Tier, one company sent letters to us and other local landowners about an exploration lease.

Everyone to a man said “no”.

Let’s hope it stays that way.

Gasport’s gas seepages are unique, perhaps fragile, and offer an interesting link to our geological and historical past.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport. As you see in the videos above, when he says he lights his gas…he means it. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at bobconfer@juno.com 



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