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Comments on PUC Pipeline Safety Proposal Urge Stricter Oversight

A number of comments on the state Public Utility Commission’s proposal to increase safety standards on gas liquids pipeline projects have been sharply critical of its oversight, especially in regard to Sunoco’s troubled Mariner East pipelines.

The pipelines, including the under-construction Mariner East 2, carry natural gas liquids such as propane, ethane and butane, from the Marcellus and Utica shale fields across Pennsylvania to end markets like the ethane cracker plant under construction in Beaver County and to other refineries and processing plants.

Residents and officials of Chester County have been particularly concerned about Mariner East 2, which has been the subject of drilling spills, millions in penalties, shutdowns and worries about leaks and explosions. Most recently, the state Department of Environmental Protection issued penalties of $319,000 against Sunoco this month for violations.

Pennsylvania is one of the states certified by a federal agency to accept enforcement responsibilities for pipelines that transport hazardous liquids, and the PUC has adopted the minimum federal pipeline safety standards. However, it has the option of imposing more stringent requirements on construction, operation, and upkeep. The PUC on June 13 announced it is considering two separate rule-making proposals involving safety of pipelines carrying petroleum products and other hazardous materials.

The PUC asked for comment on a variety of issues including rules on design and construction, location and operation of shut-off valves, conversion of pipelines to carry different gases or hazardous liquids, frequency of inspection, leak detection, corrosion prevention requirements, and other safety issues that have arisen in recent years.

By the deadline Wednesday, 93 comments were received from residents, legislators, municipalities and school districts, nonprofits, labor organizations, environmental groups, and industry groups.

Most of the comments were in favor of more stringent regulations on the industry, but some, such as those from industry groups, labor and the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, urged PUC not to strengthen them. The chamber’s letter noted the economic benefits that have been reaped from the Marcellus boom. “Rather than creating unnecessary hurdles between Pennsylvania families and a better future, we should focus on streamlining the permitting process and reducing unnecessary legal barriers in our state – not increase the regulations that disincentivizes investment,” it states.

Many of the comments focused on considering public safety, particularly in densely populated areas; increasing public education and mandating that operators hold public meetings; making emergency response plans in the event of a leak or explosion more widely available; and increasing regulation of where pipelines can be placed in highly populated areas.

State Sen. Tom Killion, who represents Chester and Delaware counties, has introduced 13 bills aimed at improving pipeline safety and made numerous recommendations to the PUC. The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania also weighed in, providing 12 recommendations. “Since shale gas drilling began rapidly increasing a decade ago, counties have raised concerns about the proliferation of gathering pipelines, particularly given the lack of knowledge on their location and ambiguity regarding safety oversight,” the letter states. “Although counties have significant resources to offer when it comes to planning for these pipelines, and can serve an important liaison role with the public, too often they are among the last to know what is going on.”

The PUC will now review all the comments to determine how it will proceed in strengthening safety and oversight.

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