Senate Budget Hearings: PA’s Experience With New Pipeline Construction Shows State Laws Not Strong Enough To Prevent Environmental Damage, Protect Public Safety
Comments made at two Senate budget hearings last week again put the spotlight on how Pennsylvania’s environmental and pipeline safety laws are not strong enough to prevent environmental damage and protect public safety in new pipeline construction.
The penalties now in state law and the authority now with DEP and the Public Utility Commission to provide for pipeline safety and having some control over pipeline routes were not enough to deal with the issues raised during the years it took to construct the Mariner East Pipelines carrying natural gas liquids from the Western Pennsylvania border to Marcus Hook in Bucks County.
Hundreds of violations were issued to Mariner East Pipeline and penalties were assessed to the limits of state law, but still construction resulted in the contamination of private water wells, major spills in two recreation facilities-- Raystown Lake and Marsh Creek State Park-- and dozens of other spills to local streams, sinkhole damage as well as criminal charges related to environmental violations [Read more here].
Frustration in the ability of state law to prevent damage caused by pipeline construction related to the Mariner East Pipeline can be illustrated by a 2018 quote from Republican Sen. Don White (Indiana County) at a Senate Committee meeting-- “We should be able to deal with that company and put them out of business.” Read more here.
And there have been repeated calls by Sen. Carolyn Comitta (D-Chester) and other legislators to shut down Mariner East pipeline construction in light of the environmental damage being caused. Read more here.
The record $55 million in penalties assessed by DEP and the PUC against multiple pipelines since major pipeline construction began in the state has not been enough to deter more violations. It has become a cost of doing business. Read more here.
Yet no action was taken on any major piece of pipeline safety or environmental legislation and sent to the Governor’s desk.
State law was not strong enough to prevent the explosion of the Revolution natural gas pipeline in Beaver County in 2018 caused by poor choices on a pipeline route and inadequate construction precautions to prevent the pipeline from breaking sparking the explosion. Read more here.
Gov. Wolf has urged the General Assembly to fill gaps in state regulation of pipelines-- most recently in 2019-- relating to pipeline siting, school emergency information, coordination of local emergency response, a landowner bills of rights dealing with condemnation and more. Read more here. Read more here.
In 2019, the Senate and House couldn’t even pass a bipartisan resolution forming a special commission to make recommendations on legislation to improve safety oversight and interagency coordination over pipelines in the state. Read more here.
In 2018, both Andrew Place, Vice Chair of the Public Utility Commission, and DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell told the House Republican Policy Committee at a hearing they would support a serious conversation on how Pennsylvania can have a meaningful role in siting pipelines like the Mariner East 2 Pipeline.
In addition, Secretary McDonnell said Pennsylvania needs to adopt private water well construction and location standards so DEP has fundamental information like where wells are located to properly consider impacts during pipeline permitting. Read more here.
In 2017, legislation was passed to update the state’s PA One Call law designed to prevent damage to underground pipelines by requiring them to be mapped and for contractors to notify the PA One Call agency before beginning construction.
However, the legislation only scratched the surface of getting an estimated 100,000 miles of unmapped natural gas pipelines into the PA One Call system. Read more here.
In 2016, a Governor’s Pipeline Task Force made 184 recommendations for changing state law and regulation for dealing with responsible development of natural gas pipelines and many of those recommendations have not been implemented, except some related to the PUC and DEP, but no changes in state law. Read more here.
There is no state law or regulation that requires natural gas and hazardous liquids pipelines to carry something as basic as insurance or show they can pay for the deaths they cause or damages if pipelines explode, leak or kill someone, something every vehicle owner has to do. Read more here.
The Public Utility Commission now has a major initiative underway to update its regulations dealing with petroleum and hazardous liquid pipelines.
It is asking for public comments on issues ranging from accident reporting, construction and operational requirements, horizontal drilling, corrosion control, qualifications of pipeline personnel and more. Read more here.
But these requirements are all within the limits of current state law.
By 2020, the General Assembly had been holding three years of hearings on natural gas and hazardous liquids pipeline safety issues in Pennsylvania, but still no major legislation reached the Governor desk and few even made it out of the House and Senate. Read more here.
[To see the record of inaction and action on pipelines since 2016, Search PA Environment Digest under the subject “Pipelines.”]
Senate Budget Hearing
At the Senate hearing on DEP’s budget March 2, Sen. Timothy Kearney (D-Chester) asked DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell what steps his agency was taking to address the environmental impacts of pipeline construction and holding individuals accountable for their actions.
“There's a few things we've done, but I think, you know, one of the things inherent in the statement is-- and we've been pretty clear on this-- there are things specifically related to safety concerns and things like that I know are of a great concern to residents that we frankly don't have any real authority or oversight over,” said Secretary McDonnell.
“We regulate and permit the pipeline itself as a construction activity, but not what's in the pipeline or how it operates,” said McDonnell. “There's things I know the PUC and the [Wolf] administration has been interested in, in terms of, buttoning up some of those safety concerns.”
Sen. Kearney said, “I'm from Delaware and Chester counties, the pipeline issues there were almost all about construction and all the processes and there were honestly some really historic fines [against Mariner East Pipeline], but those fines really just seemed to be like the cost of doing business.”
“Those fines [are] some of the largest fines we've done and it's also what we could do under the law,” said McDonnell. “We're using everything we can under the law to deal with the issue.”
Asked by Sen Kearney what other help would be needed to enable DEP to do a better job regulating pipelines, Secretary McDonnell said--
“A lot of people out in the field. It's definitely been a strain in that way.
“The other, I think, is the safety concerns. I remember talking to someone early on in the process who said, ‘My issues aren't your issues [DEP] but you're the only permit. You're the only requirement, so I have to bring them to you.’”
At the March 1 Senate budget hearing with Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Sen. Kearney also asked about the adequacy of existing laws to deal with issues raised in the Mariner East Pipeline and other pipeline construction and the criminal charges he filed against Mariner East.
“We filed 46 criminal charges on that portion of the pipeline-- against Energy Transfer. We're obviously in the process of going through that case now,” said Shapiro.
“We feel that the good people of Delaware County and Chester County, and the other counties impacted by this, deserve better than what they got, and we believe that crimes were committed, and ultimately there needs to be a price paid for those crimes committed.
“We obviously can only work within the laws that exist. We brought the charges that were warranted by the evidence, but we certainly wish, and I made this point when I stood in front of Marsh Creek to announce the charges, that there need to be greater teeth when it comes to our environmental laws in this Commonwealth.
“Look, I can file criminal charges, but the penalties are limited based upon what this body determines to be best, and my view is that the penalties that exist under our criminal laws are incredibly weak.
“I've been very outspoken in my view that the Department of Environmental Protection has not done a good enough job to protect people's air and water and the public health in this Commonwealth.
“There needs to be more emphasis, from a regulatory perspective, on keeping people safe and healthy,” said Shapiro. “I'm not here to, obviously, ask for dollars for the DEP, but it sure seems like that would be a good area to make investments in if we wanna try to keep people safe and, uh, protect our environment.
“We are not the regulatory agency, obviously we're a law enforcement agency, but that's another area that I think needs some real improvement.”
Click Here to watch videos of the Senate hearings.
(Photo: Site of 2018 Revolution natural gas pipeline explosion in Beaver County.)
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Related Articles - Pipelines:
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-- How Long Must The Public Wait For Action On Bipartisan Pipeline Safety Bills?
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Resource Links - DEP
-- DEP Budget Testimony: Significant Investments In Environmental Cleanup, Improving Permit Review Times, Holding Polluters Responsible, Relief To Those Harmed By Pollution
-- DEP Budget Hearing: Unconventional Natural Gas Industry Didn’t Drill 40% Of The Wells It Had DEP Permits For
-- Senate Budget Hearings: PA’s Experience With New Pipeline Construction Shows State Laws Not Strong Enough To Prevent Environmental Damage, Protect Public Safety
-- 12 Unconventional Shale Gas Drillers Issued DEP Notices Of Violation For Abandoning Wells Without Plugging Them At 35 Well Pads In 17 Counties
-- DEP Posts Budget Hearing Materials
Resource Links - DCNR:
-- DCNR Budget Hearing: We Have A Unique Opportunity To Invest In Our Recreation, Clean Water & Land Conservation Infrastructure With Growing Greener III
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Related Articles - Budget Briefing:
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[Posted: March 3, 2022]
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