Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission on Thursday launched a major review of its safety regulations for hazardous liquids pipelines in an apparent response to continuing concerns that public safety is being put at risk by the controversial Mariner East pipelines.
Saying “the time is ripe” to enhance its rules on pipeline safety, the PUC asked for public comment on possible changes to its rules governing a wide range of pipeline safety issues including leak detection, corrosion control and construction standards.
The PUC which, with the federal pipeline regulator PHMSA is responsible for pipeline safety in Pennsylvania, said it wants to craft new rules to improve safety of the construction, operation and maintenance of hazardous liquids pipelines.
“The Commission will consider extensively the safety standards applicable to hazardous liquid public utilities,” it said in an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Order. “Significant improvements to hazardous liquid public utility safety standards can be accomplished by building upon the federal pipeline safety laws.”
The regulator didn’t name specific projects in its call for public input. PUC spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen was asked if the move was a response to continuing public concerns over the safety of Mariner East.
“It’s fair to say that the proposed rulemaking is part of the commission’s ongoing effort to evaluate and address safety issues,” he said.
The PUC has been under attack by opponents of the cross-state Mariner East pipelines who say it hasn’t done enough to ensure the safety of a project that is pumping highly volatile natural gas liquids through densely populated areas like the Philadelphia suburbs, where people could be exposed to mass casualties if there was a leak or explosion.
Accusations that the multibillion dollar Sunoco Pipeline project has been constructed with scant regard for public safety have been fueled by several regulator-ordered shutdowns, punctured aquifers, dozens of drilling fluid spills into neighborhoods and wetlands, and a series of sinkholes along the route in Chester County.
On Wednesday, Delaware County Council issued a resolution noting that a release of highly volatile liquids such as those carried by the Mariner East lines could cause “mass casualties and mass destruction of property” and accused Sunoco of a lack of emergency planning and of failing to keep the public fully informed of what to do in a pipeline emergency.
Gov. Tom Wolf, who has criticized Sunoco for its construction practices, welcomed the PUC’s review. “Ensuring pipeline safety is the responsibility of the PUC and the administration supports the commission taking steps to review its regulations to make sure that they are appropriately comprehensive and protective.”
In February, the Governor said Sunoco failed to respect Pennsylvania’s laws and communities, and that its practices would not be “tolerated.”
Sunoco issued a one-line statement in response to the PUC order. It said: “Pipeline safety is our top priority. We will meet or exceed all applicable rules and regulations that are in place for constructing and operating our pipelines.”
DelChesco United for Pipeline Safety, representing community groups in Delaware and Chester counties, said the PUC should be enforcing existing safety regulations before seeking to change the rules.
It said the PUC has the authority and the responsibility to enforce a federal law requiring pipeline operators to tell the public what to do in the event of an emergency, but has failed to require Sunoco to do so, the group said.
It called Sunoco’s current public awareness program – which tells the public to leave the area immediately on foot in the event of a leak — as “implausible and wholly inadequate to protect vulnerable populations.”
State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-Chester), who has been a persistent critic of both Sunoco and the PUC’s regulation of the Mariner East project, welcomed the review and said he hoped it would prevent the PUC allowing the company to do any more damage during the remaining construction.
“While I welcome any action whatsoever from the PUC, so much damage has already been done by their inaction on Mariner East here in Chester County. Hopefully, these rules will prevent it from happening again anywhere else,” Dinniman said in a statement. He said he will submit detailed public comments on the review.
Any changes to the regulations, the commission said, could not conflict with federal or state law, but could cover, for example, current rules on the materials that pipelines are made of, the depth to which they are buried, the locations of valves controlling the flow of liquids, and the conversion of pipelines from one liquid or gas to another.
On leak detection, the commission asked for comments on appropriate technologies to use, and whether minimum standards should be set for all pipelines. On corrosion – which caused a leak of natural gas liquids from the ageing Mariner East 1 pipeline in Berks County in 2017 – the commission invited comment on how pipelines should be protected from internal and external corrosion, and on how, and how often, they should be inspected.
Other areas that may warrant additional regulation include:
- How pipeline operators such as Sunoco should be required to inform local officials and the public of how to respond to a pipeline leak or explosion. Critics have accused the company of failing to disclose full emergency procedures to local officials.
- Whether construction techniques such as horizontal directional drilling should be regulated;
- Whether there should be more accident and emergency reporting to local officials.
The commission gave the public 60 days to comment from the date of the order’s publication in the Pennsylvania Bulletin.
Comments may be filed online, or mailed to Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, Attn: Secretary Rosemary Chiavetta, 400 North Street, Harrisburg, PA 17120.
This story was published in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration between WESA, Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY, to cover the commonwealth’s energy economy. Read more stories at StateImpact Pennsylvania's website.