PUC’s review of pipeline safety regulation prompts attacks by residents, groups and lawmakers

Some argued for no added regulations, but most urged tighter curbs on the pipeline industry

  • Jon Hurdle/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Update, 4:59 p.m. Aug. 28: The PUC said it has extended the comment deadline to Sept. 11, partly in response to Chester County’s request for a deadline extension.

Reported previously: Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission is being accused by elected officials, citizens’ groups and individuals of not doing enough to protect the public from any failure in Sunoco’s controversial Mariner East pipelines.

In written responses for the PUC’s current review of pipeline safety regulations, they urge the regulator to impose many new requirements on Sunoco and any other operator of highly volatile liquids pipelines so that the public is given more protection against any leak or explosion.

Two days before the PUC’s Aug. 28 deadline for receipt of comments on the review, 36 comments had been posted on the PUC’s docket from people including state lawmakers from both parties, township supervisors, a labor union, and private individuals.

Some commenters, including a chamber of commerce and a labor union local, urged the PUC not to add regulations. But most submissions called for tighter curbs on the pipeline industry.

Many called on the PUC, the state’s main pipeline safety regulator, to sharply step up enforcement. Their demands included:

  • That PUC should require pipeline operators to hold regular public outreach meetings;
  • That PUC should require operators of pipelines with 1,000 feet of schools to provide ‘non-sensitive’ information to school officials to allow them to plan for a leak;
  • That PUC should require operators to disclose emergency response plans to the PUC, which would then share it with county emergency-planning officials;
  • That aging pipelines like the 1930s-era Mariner East 1 should be required to undergo an “end of life” study to determine whether they can safely carry highly volatile liquids.

The PUC announced the review in June. It didn’t name a specific project, but said “the time is ripe” for such a review. The agency had been the focus of months of criticism by pipeline opponents who said it hasn’t done enough to prevent the spills,, sinkholes and punctured aquifers that have plagued the cross-state Mariner East project since it began construction in February 2017.

When it launched the review, the PUC did not specify any pipeline operator but said it would look at whether there’s a need for more regulation in areas including:

  • How pipeline operators should be required to inform local officials and the public of how to respond to a pipeline leak or explosion;
  • Whether construction techniques such as horizontal directional drilling should be regulated;
  • Whether there should be more accident and emergency reporting to local officials.

Critics of the project continue to say it represents a grave danger to public safety, especially in densely populated areas like the Philadelphia suburbs, because of the highly explosive nature of the liquefied propane, ethane and butane that are being carried, and because of public confusion over what to do in case of a pipeline emergency.

But their calls for a halt to construction and operation of the line – which began operation in December last year — until its safety can be guaranteed were shot down last week by Gov. Tom Wolf, who told activists for the first time that he would not shut it down.

Del Chesco United for Pipeline Safety, a community group that is an outspoken critic of both Mariner East and the PUC’s regulation of it, said in its submission that the PUC should assess the risk of any pipeline project as part of the construction permitting process.

“The process should be fully transparent so that the public has a clear understanding of a) who is in a probable fatality zone, and b) the exact number of fatalities that the Commonwealth is willing to tolerate for each proposed new pipeline,” the group wrote in a 14-page submission.

Despite critics’ attacks on the PUC, a recently published letter from the regulator in February 2018 showed it ordering Sunoco to disclose calculations on the size of the “blast zone” from any failure in the Mariner East pipelines, and to state how many people would need to be evacuated if there was a leak. Neither the PUC nor Sunoco has said whether it supplied the requested information.

Public fears of a pipeline incident were fueled on Aug. 5 when there was an explosion at a flare stack at a Mariner East valve station in West Goshen Township, Chester County. Sunoco called the incident a “backfire” and said there was no escape of natural gas liquids.

Commenters on the regulatory review included Sen. Tom Killion (R-Chester and Delaware counties) who urged the PUC to require the installation of automatic shutoff valves in “high consequence areas” like neighborhoods and schools; use early-warning systems to advise the public of any leak; and cooperate with county emergency-planning officials, among other regulations.

Killion and other commenters also said the PUC should have to approve the siting of any future pipeline project. The PUC says state law doesn’t allow it to oversee siting, and it would need action by the legislature to do so.

State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-Chester), a frequent critic of Mariner East, issued a separate statement saying he feared the PUC would not address the “substantial damage” that he said the pipelines have caused in his district. He said only “dumb luck” has prevented a major incident so far.

But in Washington County, one of the state’s most intensive gas-producing areas, the Chamber of Commerce praised public-outreach efforts by Sunoco’s parent, Energy Transfer, and urged the PUC to avoid new regulations that might deter investment.

“We should focus on streamlining the permitting process and reducing unnecessary legal barriers in our state,” the chamber said.

Among trade unions, Operating Engineers Local 542 also called on the PUC not to add pipeline regulations, saying that Sunoco already complies with rigorous state and federal requirements.

At the municipal level, the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors told the PUC that its members want better communication between pipeline companies and local government officials, and called for policies that follow the recommendations of a pipeline infrastructure task force set up by Gov. Wolf in 2015.

Individual responders included Kathleen Griffith of Exton in Chester County, who accused the Wolf administration of ignoring the concerns of people who live near the pipeline.

“It is pitiful that the State of Pennsylvania and its heartless Governor have ignored the safety and the will of the people of the Commonwealth and turned a blind eye to our legitimate concerns, all to provide volatile, toxic chemicals to Europe with absolutely no benefit to PA or to this country,” she wrote.

PUC spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen declined to respond to the comments. He said the PUC invited public input “to begin the process of crafting new rules aimed at improving the safety of construction, operation, maintenance, and other functions of hazardous liquid public utilities.

“When the comment period ends, the Commission will carefully review all the comments received to help determine how to best proceed toward the ultimate goal,” he said.

The PUC invited comments on areas including but not limited to: pipeline material and specification; cover over buried pipelines; underground clearances, valves and pipeline conversion. The public can submit comments electronically via the PUC’s efile system by 5 p.m. today.

Sunoco did not respond to a request for comment.

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