Pipelines imperil our future, safety

Letter, Daily Local News, 10/18/16

Despite overwhelming evidence of a warming planet, our federal government has taken little action to address the root cause and places few impediments in the way of new large-scale investments in the very energy economy that would doom us. Not to be outdone, our Pennsylvania State Legislature has worked assiduously to block one of the few climate change initiatives to come out of the federal government: the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. This is not surprising considering that 53 Pennsylvania state legislators “earned” literally a zero percent environmental rating on the 2016 PA Environmental Scorecard compiled by PA Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, PennEnvironment, and Clean Water Action.

Not only are our state legislators blocking the very modest EPA program to reduce emissions, they and our courts are moving us in the opposite direction by vesting for-profit corporations like Sunoco with the power of eminent domain, allowing dangerous pipelines to be foisted on landowners. It must be particularly upsetting to owners of seized land to learn that Sunoco plans to export most of the natural gas from the Mariner East 2 pipeline to Europe. Still more upsetting: pipeline corporations pay no property taxes on the land they seize and on average pay no more than 2.9% in total income taxes.

Exporting gas will mean more fracking and a need for even more pipelines.

It will also mean more climate-changing emissions from leaking gas infrastructure which vents somewhere between two and eight percent of its volume to the atmosphere. While energy corporations have never shown much concern for the biosphere, this is not the only reason why rational people should oppose Sunoco’s infrastructure build out. It turns out that Sunoco has one of the worst pipeline safety records in the country. Giving them eminent domain rights to let them run pipelines near schools and across landowners private property shows a wanton disregard for our safety.

Among the 1,955 pipeline operators in the U.S., Sunoco has the highest number of spills and accidents in the last ten years, yet it’s one of the smaller operators. So while 1,866 pipeline corporations reported ten or fewer incidents over that span, Sunoco reported 258 hazardous liquids incidents, an average of about two per month, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). These “incidents” caused 733,362 gallons of hazardous liquids to spill into the environment and were responsible for about $47 million in property damage. By contrast, the second worst offender was Enterprise Products which reported 239 incidents, yet Enterprise operates 28,699 miles of pipeline compared to Sunoco’s 5,371.

No one has died yet from a Sunoco pipeline explosion, but 360 people have been killed nationwide and another 1,398 injured in other pipeline accidents over the last 20 years. Given Sunoco’s accident record, is it just a matter of time before they contribute to this list? Two of their local spills could have turned out much worse, one of which occurred in 2000 when 192,000 gallons of crude oil spilled out into the environmentally fragile John Heinz Wildlife Refuge. Amazingly, it wasn’t Sunoco’s “leak detection system” which discovered the leak but rather a refuge visitor. A defective pipeline joint, inadequate pipeline maintenance, and poor leak detection measures were to blame according to Sunoco’s report. Marvin E. Moriarty from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said “This spill damaged one of our country’s most valued resources—land dedicated to conserving wildlife and wildlife habitat as a national wildlife refuge.”

On April 15, 2015, a Sunoco pipeline in Edgmont Township, Delaware County spilled gasoline onto private properties causing nearly a half million in property damage to date. As with Heinz, a passerby discovered the spill, not Sunoco’s “safety system.” But we’ve been assured by Sunoco representatives that their leak detection system will protect the children at Glenwood Elementary School in Media, safeguard homeowners asleep in their beds, or prevent the spoiling of taxpayer financed open space at Linvill, Sleighton Park, and other places.

Where are federal or state agencies in all this? How can an operator like Sunoco have so many accidents without severe sanction or having their corporate charter revoked by the PA Attorney General? That’s a big part of the problem. Because federal and state agencies tasked with overseeing the industry have been starved of funding (thus starved of inspectors), pipeline corporations are allowed to “self report.” Most of what we know about these incidents comes from the pipeline operators themselves. PHMSA oversees about 2.7 million miles of pipelines in this country. With only 528 federal and state inspectors on the job, each inspector’s share of the total is about 5,100 miles of pipeline each year, or the distance from New York City to Hawaii. Another issue lies with who’s guarding the chicken coop. PHMSA’s administrator from 2009 to 2014, Cynthia Quarterman, was former outside counsel for an oil pipeline operator. As if underfunding and a coziness with the industry weren’t enough, PHMSA lets them write many of the regulations.

Contributing to this lax regulatory structure are PHMSA’s egregious safety goals: “to reduce the number of pipeline incidents involving death or major injury to between 26-37 per year, and to lower the number of hazardous liquid pipeline spills with environmental consequences to between 65-81 per year.” Would anyone get on an airplane if the FAA had a stated goal of 26 fatalities per year? Fortunately, the FAA’s goal is zero airline deaths per year. That the agency in charge of keeping the public safe from pipeline disasters would have such low standards is an indicator of how much our government is controlled by polluters.

So we have this witches’ brew of weak regulations, scarce inspectors, a court system and legislature that regard the environment as expendable, PHMSA’s cozy relationship with pipeline operators and its absurd safety standards, and Sunoco’s frightening record of mishaps. Seems like the perfect confluence of factors for a catastrophe. The clock is ticking.

Ken Hemphill

Chester County Sierra Club


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