“Go off like a bomb”
Doug Bentrem did not look happy. The cattle farmer from Burgettstown in Washington County picked up a rock twice the size of his fist from the earth that covers the Rover natural gas pipeline where it cuts through the rolling hills on his property. He angrily threw it to the ground.
“I had an agreement with the company that builds this pipeline that they would keep the topsoil apart,” Bentrem said, “and then put it back on top after they put the pipes in the ground.”
According to Bentrem, Rover Pipeline LLC has not held up their end of the agreement. He feels they have left too much deep soil and rocks on the surface of his meadow, which will negatively affect the quality of the grass Bentrem feeds to his cows.
The Rover pipeline, owned by Energy Transfer Partners, will transport natural gas from Western Pennsylvania to Ohio and Michigan. It’s just one of several pipelines currently under construction in Pennsylvania to transport the growing volume of natural gas and natural gas liquids from the Marcellus and Utica Shale Formations.
Does Bentrem also worry about the dangers the pipeline brings to his property and his cows? “Of course,” he said on June 13, “this is a 36-inch pipeline that can go off like a bomb. Look at what happened in West Virginia last week.”
Bentrem was speaking about the June 7 explosion of a TransCanada natural gas pipeline near Moundsville, West Virginia. Although the ensuing fire was visible for miles, there were no injuries or reports of property damage. Columbia Gas Transmissions, a subsidiary of TransCanada, told federal regulators that a landslide appears to have caused this rupture and explosion.
At the January 2018 opening of the pipeline, TransCanada CEO Russ Girling said, “This is truly a best-in-class pipeline and we look forward to many years of safe, reliable and efficient operation on behalf of our customers.”
Environmental groups like FracTracker Alliance and the Sierra Club have expressed concerns about environmental damage from these pipelines’ construction, such as destruction of water wells and spillage of drilling fluids. Once the pipelines are in operation, there are risks of ruptures and explosions. But how serious are these risks––and what effects might they have on those who live near the pipelines?
Michael Dominick, general manager at the Ambridge Water Authority, is worried about the construction of Shell’s planned Falcon pipeline. The pipeline would cross the the Ambridge Reservoir’s watershed as well as the raw water pipe that runs from the reservoir to the authority’s treatment plant.
The Falcon is a 97-mile-long network of pipelines that would transport liquid ethane—officially classified as a hazardous liquid—under high pressure from facilities in Houston, Pennsylvania and Cadiz, Ohio to a $6 billion cracker that Shell Appalachia is building on the Ohio River in Potter Township.
On its website, Shell states unequivocally that safety is the top priority in the construction of this pipeline. It will be buried at a minimum depth of 4 feet, and it is rated for nearly twice the expected operating pressure. Measures to maintain the integrity of the pipe will include 24/7 electronic monitoring, routine right-of-way inspection and cathodic protection, a technique to prevent corrosion.
But at a hearing on April 3 in Center Township to discuss the Falcon, Dominick asked the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] to deny Shell any permits as long as the pipeline’s route runs through the Ambridge Reservoir’s watershed and crosses the raw water line. The Ambridge Water Authority doesn’t own these lands. However, the DEP could block construction by denying Shell the permits it needs to cross bodies of water.
Shell spokesperson Virginia Sanchez has previously said the Falcon pipeline will be built at least 35 feet under the Ambridge Water Authority’s raw water line and will not cross the actual reservoir.
“The Ambridge Reservoir provides water to nearly 30,000 customers,” Dominick said. “Losing the reservoir as a water source would have a devastating effect on numerous communities in the Beaver and Allegheny Counties.” To explain his fear of losing the reservoir, he pointed to recent problems with another pipeline, the Mariner East 2.
58 violation notices in two years
The Mariner East 2 is 350-mile-long pipeline currently under construction by Sunoco. It will transport natural gas liquids like ethane and butane from Western Pennsylvania and Ohio to Marcus Hook near Philadelphia. From there, the liquids will be shipped to the Gulf Coast and refineries in Europe.
Since the start of the project in February 2017, the DEP has issued 58 violation notices and more than $13 million in penalties to Sunoco, a unit of Energy Transfer Partners, for polluting wetlands and waterways and destroying about a dozen private water wells. Most of the violations are related to bentonite spilling into the soil and bodies of water.
Bentonite is a fluid used when contractors bore horizontal holes for the pipeline. When the drilling goes as planned, the contractor recovers all the bentonite from the borehole. However, the bentonite often escapes through cracks in the soil during drilling.
Lisa Dillinger, spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners, wrote in an email that these inadvertent returns of bentonite are not unexpected. Her company is following a DEP-approved contingency plan designed to prevent spills and minimize their adverse impacts.
Bill Godsey, a consultant with 20 years of experience advising pipeline companies and serving as a pipeline inspector for the Texas Railroad Commission, believes the severity of these spills is overstated.
He is skeptical because bentonite is a non-hazardous material. “We’re talking about bentonite clays,” Godsey said. “Bentonite is a natural substance in the ground that is used for a variety of purposes. It’s even in cosmetics that are applied to the skin.”
The consultant, who says he is not working for any pipeline companies that currently have projects in Pennsylvania, admits it is harmful when bentonite is released into trout creeks because it can clog fishes’ gills.
According to Godsey, the Ambridge Water Authority should not worry about bentonite spills when Shell drills the Falcon pipeline through its reservoir’s watershed. He believes the volume of bentonite used in the drilling process at any given location is too small to affect the reservoir. “A storm will put way more sediment in the reservoir than a drilling operation possibly could,” he said.
Kirk Jalbert, a scientist with FracTracker, strongly disagrees. “The whole reason that many of Pennsylvania’s drinking water lakes and reservoirs have source water protection plans is to prevent cumulative development that over time make[s] these high-value coldwater fisheries no longer [a] viable habitat.”
Jalbert, who is currently employed by Arizona State University, points to a loophole in the current pipeline approval procedure. Because the Falcon and the Mariner East 2 do not transport natural gas but rather natural gas liquids, they do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Because of this, they do not have to go through a full environmental impact analysis. Instead, the pipeline companies only have to provide environmental impact analysis to the state DEP for the areas where they need water crossing permits and sediment permits.
“The Mariner East 2 is the largest pipeline in [Pennsylvania] history,” Jalbert said. “It never had to go through a full environmental impact analysis because it is an ethane pipeline, and Falcon falls in the same loophole.” The pipeline companies only have to provide environmental impact analysis to the DEP for areas where they need water crossing permits and sediment permits.
When pipelines go boom
Apart from concerns about the construction process’s harm to the environment and natural resources, many who live near those lines worry about the possibility of ruptures, fires and explosions once they are in operation.
In Middletown, a suburb of Philadelphia, resistance against the Mariner East 2 has been galvanized by the fact that the pipeline’s right-of-way passes only 650 feet from Glenwood Elementary School.
Eric Friedman, spokesperson for the Middletown Coalition for Community Safety, minced no words about the risk of the Mariner East 2: “How many elementary schools are you willing to lose in any given period of time? Because the result of a leak in this line near an elementary school could mean the destruction of the school.”
Friedman, who lives with his family near the Mariner East 2, claims there are dozens of schools in Pennsylvania where children are at risk because they are located close to pipelines.
There’s no doubt that a pipeline carrying liquid ethane can explode.
On January 26, 2015, an explosion in the Appalachia-to-Texas ethane pipeline near Follansbee, West Virginia—about 4 miles from the Pennsylvania border—scorched 5 acres of terrain, melted the vinyl siding of a house and forced people and horses to run for cover. Subsidence, the sinking of the ground under the pipe, was the cause of this incident.
The Middletown Coalition for Community Safety retained Quest Consultants Inc. to perform hazard calculations associated with the accidental release of ethane from the Mariner East 2 at a point near Glenwood Elementary School.
Quest Consultants used computer modelling to describe two worst-case scenarios for a rupture. If the gas ignited immediately, it could produce a fireball with a blast radius up to 1,100 feet. In the case of delayed ignition, the combustible vapor could migrate 1,800 feet in three minutes and then create a fire that would trace back to the leak. Quest Consultants did not calculate the odds of such a worst-case scenario happening.
Comfortable with the risk?
Godsey, the consultant from Texas, thinks the risk of any pipeline catching fire or exploding is very small. “I have lived in neighborhoods in Texas where there are many gas pipelines and ethane pipelines, and I felt comfortable with that,” he said.
“The regulations that are in place are more than adequate for the protection of the public if they’re properly followed,” Godsey added. “Most of the companies I’ve been associated with are prudent operators, and for the most part the industry has an excellent track record.”
According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration [PHMSA], part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, in 2016 there were more than 2.5 million miles of pipelines in the United States transporting oil, gas and other liquids. On average, for every 10,000 miles there are 1.2 incidents per year involving injury, death, substantial property damage or spillage.
Both Sunoco, the owner of the Mariner East 2 and a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, and Shell, which plans to construct the Falcon pipeline, claim to have excellent safety records for their pipelines.
Some environmental groups disagree. Friedman, the Middletown community safety advocate, said that Sunoco has had 300 pipeline accidents since 2006. FracTracker, the organization Jalbert works for, claims based on data from PHMSA that Shell is responsible for 194 pipeline accidents in the United States since 2002.
Godsey’s primary concern is not with the pipeline operators, but with outsiders who fail to do necessary research before they dig and then accidentally hit a buried pipeline. Based on this risk, he said, “You need to have good markers, good location data and patrolling to make sure that people don’t dig or build close to [a] pipeline.”
In Pennsylvania, contractors have to call 811 three days prior to any excavation to determine whether it is safe to dig.
However, as Friedman put it, “Stuff happens.” And indeed, on May 21, a contractor installing a water main hit a section of the Mariner East 2 in Middletown.
Sunoco had informed the contractor that the pipeline, not in operation yet, was buried 9 feet deep. However, the contractor’s power equipment hit and scratched the pipeline at 6.2 feet. There was no rupture, but the incident suggested weaknesses in the information available to contractors about the pipeline’s location.
Threats to real estate values
Whether its risks are real or overstated, the Mariner East 2 has already upset the real estate market in Delaware County.
Alec Schwartz, a real estate broker with Coldwell Banker Preferred in Ambler, Pennsylvania, calculated that home prices in the Middletown catchment areas that feed into the Glenwood Elementary are lagging.
“I’ve demonstrated statistically that over the last five years, the median prices for the catchment areas that are directly impacted by the pipeline have lagged by about 7 percent,” he said. “Five years ago, the prices in the catchment area of the Glenwood Elementary were actually stronger, and we’ve seen that reverse.”
Schwartz has dealt with sellers in Middletown who wanted to get away from the pipeline and potential buyers who stated they did not want to send their children to Glenwood Elementary because of its proximity to the Mariner East 2.
The real estate agent does not know how long this trend will last. “I’ve read that realtors have done some studies on it, and those have shown that there are no lasting effects. Once that pipeline is buried and forgotten, then people don’t really seem to care as much.”
A study, published in 2016 and funded by the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, concluded that the presence of underground natural gas pipelines does not affect residential properties’ sales prices or insurability.
A report from the Philadelphia Inquirer presented several cases of people having regrets about buying houses in Delaware County when they learned the previous owners had signed an easement allowing Sunoco to place the Mariner East 2 in their backyards.
Pictures don’t lie
Doug Bentrem walked across his property where the Rover pipeline was buried and meticulously took pictures with his cell phone at every location where he was unhappy about how his field was restored.
Alexis Daniel, spokesperson for Rover’s owner, Energy Transfer Partners, stated in an email that her company is adhering to the provisions of the easement agreement signed by both Bentrem and the company.
“Pictures don’t lie,” Bentrem said as he sent the images directly to Rover Pipeline LLC’s supervisor.
Teake Zuidema is a Dutch photographer and journalist living in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.