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Pennsylvania Takes Steps to Strengthen Gas Liquids Pipeline Safety Rules

As gas liquids pipeline construction has increased dramatically across Pennsylvania, the state Public Utility Commission (PUC) is now considering tightening safety standards on those projects.

Pipelines are being constructed across the state to transport liquid gas products, such as ethane and butane, to end users, like the ethane cracker plant under construction in Beaver County and to other refineries and processing plants.

The pipelines that carrying petroleum products and other hazardous liquids are considered public utilities and are monitored by the PUC. While the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) provides federal oversight of pipelines, states do the bulk of the monitoring. Pennsylvania is one of the states certified by PHMSA to accept enforcement responsibilities for pipelines that transport hazardous liquids, and 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 first is seeking public comment on an advance notice of rulemaking order to be considered in making potential changes to comprehensive safety regulations. The areas that may be addressed include a number of subjects that were problems with the Mariner East II pipeline, which was built across the state, but also resulted in spills, water damage, several shutdowns, and fines.

The state Department of Environmental Protection suspended the permits for the project in January 2018 and imposed a $12.6 million penalty on pipeline builder Sunoco for spills and other violations a month later. Pipeline construction was allowed to resume. In May 2018, the DEP levied a $355,000 penalty against Mariner East’s owner for spills of drilling materials into streams in nine counties, including Allegheny, Cambria, Indiana, and Washington. In March, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced he was looking into potential criminal conduct in the pipeline’s construction.

The PUC has asked for comment from pipeline operators and the public 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. The PUC is particularly interested in whether shut-off valves should be located at specific distances in highly volatile liquid pipelines in order to minimize damage or pollution from releases. It is also interested in where, and how many, “emergency flow restricting devices” that can be operated remotely, should be required to protect people and “high consequence areas.” Currently, the regulations chiefly leave that determination to the operator.

The PUC is seeking comment on different or additional measures or best practices that may be needed to protect pipelines from corrosion and to detect and correct problems. The current federal regulations have standards for corrosion control and inspection and allow operators to leave corroded pipes in service by reducing maximum operating pressures.

The second proposal would require that pipeline public utilities would be required to file annual reports of a pipeline’s service life, capital investment plans and other financial reports.

The PUC will receive comments for 60 days on the proposal involving possible changes in safety standards after the notice is advertised in the Pennsylvania Bulletin, and for 30 days on the financial proposal. Municipalities and residents affected by pipeline construction may want to take the opportunity to provide their comments to the PUC on the changes they would like to suggest.

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