Damn the Public: Suppressing Information of Pipeline Spills in PA

Photo credit: "Prismatic Oil Spill," by ArbyReed. Flickr

The U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center (NRC) website is probably not the first place you’d look to find details of a pipeline incident in Berks County, but that’s the only place accessible to the public where you’ll find any record of what occurred on April 1 on Morgantown Road.

Line 5523 on the NRC’s 2017 report spreadsheet refers to a call coming into its hotline that day from the RP (Responsible Party) at 17:04. According to the description,

THE RP IS REPORTING A RELEASE OF A PROPANE/ETHANE (NATURAL GAS LIQUIDS) DUE TO UNKNOWN CAUSES.  THE RP IS REPORTING THE MATERIAL RELEASED FROM AN 8″ HAZARDOUS LIQUID STEEL PIPELINE.  THE IMPACT IS SUBSURFACE SOIL.

The story unfolds as the reader clicks through the tabs.

LOCAL FD IS ON SITE. THE LINE IS CURRENTLY BEING SHUT DOWN.

Then,

***RP STATED THE DAMAGE/REPAIR COST MAY EXCEED THE $50,000 FEDERAL THRESHOLD, HOWEVER THAT HAS NOT BEEN CONFIRMED AT THIS TIME. **RP WILL NOTIFY PA PSC NEXT.

The RP in this case is Sunoco Logistics, the company quickly gaining notoriety for its bullying tactics in dealing with landowners on its proposed Mariner East II pipeline route. It’s also the company that made headlines when it succeeded in getting Public Utility Corporation status, and thereby, the power of eminent domain, even though it is a privately held company whose projects provide no public benefit. For those of you familiar with the Dakota Access Pipeline, Sunoco Logistics was acquired by Energy Transfer Equity a couple of years ago and is in the process of purchasing its sibling, Energy Transfer Partners, the company that brutalized the peaceful water protectors in North Dakota for months.

We know all we know of what happened on April 1 because one of the groups fighting Sunoco Logistics’ Mariner East II pipeline received a tip. The Middletown Coalition for Community Safety (MCCS) in Delaware County is one of the many community groups that has formed along the proposed route that spans 17 counties. Upon receiving the tip, MCCS’ Eric Friedman found the NRC report. He was also able to confirm that other regulators, including the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) were notified by Sunoco. Without the tip and Friedman’s digging, nobody would know about the leak except a few regulatory agencies that, as he put it, did not “see fit to inform the public beyond publishing the information reported by Sunoco in an obscure location and buried in a very large data set.”

MCCS and Berks Gas Truth notified reporters upon learning about the leak 19 days after the fact. Grassroots organizations did the work the regulators failed to do. Unfortunately, this is not the first time a Berks County pipeline incident has gone without mention by the regulators.

Compressor stations sit every 40 – 100 miles along natural gas pipelines to compress the gas using turbines and keep it flowing steadily. On their best day, compressor stations are lousy neighbors. Compressors regularly vent Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and methane, the main ingredient in natural gas.

During Hurricane Sandy, a valve at the Bernville compressor station, one of two compressors on the Texas Eastern Pipeline, failed to reengage causing a massive release of pollutants. It was the kind of incident that jolted people out of their beds. Neighbors reported hearing something that sounded like a freight train. People closest to the compressor smelled the powerful scent of mercaptan fill the air. Mercaptan is added to odorless natural gas to give it the rotten egg smell that alerts people to leaks.

The company reported that .41 tons of VOCs and 750,000 cubic feet of methane had been released. A couple of weeks after my organization, Berks Gas Truth, asked the DEP to investigate the incident, I got a call from the DEP’s Air Quality office. Turns out, the company had vastly underreported what had happened. The real numbers were shocking – 61 tons of VOCs and 174 million cubic feet of methane had been released in a matter of minutes.

A few weeks after the incident, I was invited to meet with seven representatives of the DEP on a different matter. They’d denied the public a hearing and meeting on the proposed Berks Hollow natural gas power plant after claiming they didn’t have enough identifying information on the 125 people who had submitted requests to know whether or not they were local or even real people. When I produced the identifying information of each (real, local) person who had submitted a request and challenged DEP reps to tell me which ones they couldn’t make out, they admitted they could make out all of them and extended the invitation.

After that meeting, I was chatting with Alisa Harris who was DEP’s Deputy for External Affairs. I asked why DEP didn’t notify anyone about the compressor station blowdown, why they didn’t knock on neighbors’ doors or issue a press release. Ms. Harris’ exasperated response was, “Because we didn’t.” Incidentally, she now works for the PennEast Pipeline Company.

A Mariner East II story that making headlines these days in Delaware County concerns a different issue of transparency — the secrecy surrounding evacuation plans at schools near the pipeline’s proposed route. Kathy Boccella’s excellent piece for Philly.com on MCCS’ battle to get information on evacuation plans for the Rose Tree Media school that sits within 650’ of the proposed pipeline route notes that 40 schools are within the “blast zone” of the route that spans 17 counties.

MCCS’ concerns about the proximity of their children’s school to the pipeline is shared by parents whose kids attend every one of the 40 schools, the countless others whose kids attend schools near other pipelines already in the ground or being proposed, and the parents of the kids at the 476 schools and 467 child care providers within two miles of fracking wells. None of that takes into account the concern about schools near processing plants and power plants.

A few years ago, I was working with a group of parents fighting to keep six wells from being built a half mile from the local school district’s campus in an area about 45 minutes north of Pittsburgh. The day the DEP’s Craig Lobins approved the permits for the wells, I called him to ask why he was telling parents it was safe to put the wells so close. “The applications met all statutory requirements,” he told me. I asked if a well in another area of Western Pennsylvania that had caught fire a week earlier had also met all statutory requirements. It had, he told me. So I asked again why he was telling parents everything would be fine. His response is seared into my memory, “Nobody got hurt last week, did they?” I pointed out that it was probably because they’d evacuated everyone within a two-mile radius and that it wouldn’t be possible to evacuate the campus of 3,400 students of all grade levels from pre-school through grade 12 in enough time if something went wrong with even one of the six wells on the well pad a half mile away. “The applications met all statutory requirements,” he repeated. I said that it will be a great comfort to parents to know that when their kids are killed.

As the number of infrastructure projects increases, so too does the level of public concern. “Because we didn’t” or “Nobody got hurt last week, did they?” were not satisfactory explanations for our regulators’ failure to protect the public then, nor are their continued lack of transparency when thing go wrong and their absolute indifference to genuine, rightful concerns for our safety. DEP is hardly the only regulatory body failing us, but it is the one stuck with the unfortunate abbreviation that many now say stands for Don’t Expect Protection.

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  • Susan

    Great article, Karen! This information needs to be spread to the public as much as possible so maybe someday, somehow, we can turn the priorities of government around so they get back to protecting citizens, not corporations.

    • Karen Feridun

      Thanks so much, Susan!