Ongoing Safety Concerns over Shell’s Falcon Pipeline
Federal pipeline regulators have issued a new warning letter about Shell’s Falcon Pipeline. What information have they provided to the public about this troubled pipeline project thus far?
As we wait for more details of the Falcon Pipeline’s investigation to be released, a new warning letter has been issued to the Falcon’s operator, Shell Pipeline Company.
PHMSA, the federal agency tasked with ensuring the pipeline’s safety, sent the letter on July 16, 2021, but it focuses on probable violations that occurred a year ago. During an inspection in Potter Township, Pennsylvania on August 19, 2020, PHMSA inspectors observed two instances “where coated pipe was supported on skids that were not padded.” This is a violation of the Pipeline Safety Regulations, Title 49, Code of Federal Regulations.
The letter states: “Under 49 U.S.C. § 60122 and 49 CFR § 190.223, you are subject to a civil penalty not to exceed $225,134 per violation per day the violation persists, up to a maximum of $2,251,334 for a related series of violations.” However, the agency “decided not to conduct additional enforcement action or penalty assessment proceedings at this time.” PHMSA then advises Shell to correct the issue or face additional enforcement action.
This warning letter adds to previous concerns surrounding the pipeline’s coating, which arose from a 2019 letter from the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Secretary McDonnell stated the agency had credible information that the Falcon Pipeline may have been constructed with defective corrosion coating protection.
A recent E&E News article revealed new details about the whistleblowers that raised these concerns. The whistleblowers, who were pipeline inspectors, stated that they were told “not to put anything negative in their reports,” and that they were “harassed, abused, ridiculed, and humiliated then released because [they] would not follow the bad seeds that are giving the industry a very bad reputation.” The whistleblowers filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which was dismissed and is now being appealed.
What has the agency in charge of regulating the pipeline’s safety said about this?
Here’s a look back at PHMSA’s response to the public’s pressure to address safety concerns about the Falcon Pipeline.
On March 17th, 2021, FracTracker Alliance and partners sent a series of letters to environmental regulators asking them to take action in response to the breaking news that the Falcon Pipeline was being investigated for serious safety concerns.
PHMSA’s Acting Administrator, Tristan Brown, responded on May 4th, 2021, revealing more details about the agency’s investigation into the Falcon. Administrator Brown wrote that PHMSA conducted on-site inspections of the Falcon’s construction between July and September, 2019 after receiving a safety complaint regarding pipeline coatings, inadvertent returns, and allegations of falsified records. PHMSA “could not substantiate the allegation that a safety issue or non-compliance existed” with the coating concern.
However, the Pennsylvania DEP wrote to PHMSA’s then-Administrator Elliot in February, 2020, calling the agency’s investigations “incomplete.”
Administrator Brown’s letter goes on to state that Shell performed tests on the pipeline in November, 2020 and April, 2021, to look for indications of coating issues, which PHMSA reviewed and did not find any causes for concern. The agency did substantiate an allegation of falsifying records, in which a pipeline worker falsely recorded using the proper test strip to test the pipeline’s surface.
PHMSA’s letter came a few hours before the People Over Petro Coalition, one of FracTracker’s coalition partners, hosted a community meeting on the Falcon, which is available to watch here. During the meeting, we presented information we know about the pipeline’s investigation; raised our outstanding questions and concerns with agency representatives in the meeting, including representatives from PHMSA; and provided resources for whistleblowers.
The People Over Petro Coalition launched a petition at the meeting calling on PHMSA to hold a public meeting to respond to all of the questions and concerns residents have about this project. The petition collected over 1,000 signatures.
Unfortunately, PHMSA did not meet this demand. PHMSA’s Director of Field Operations, WIlliam Rush, responded stating that, “PHMSA has not hosted town hall meetings on individual pipelines or pipeline systems.”
Recognizing that PHMSA does not have a precedent for hosting town hall meetings for issues like this, the People Over Petro Coalition sent a list of concerns about the project and ask that PHMSA respond publicly.
One of our central questions is: given that employees working on this pipeline system have inaccurately reported information, could PHMSA require independent integrity testing of the pipeline by a third-party? As stated above, Shell was responsible for performing tests on the pipeline that would reveal indications of pipeline coating issues.
As of the date of this article, our request to PHMSA is still pending.
The July 16, 2021 warning letter presents more questions about this pipeline’s investigation. We are hopeful that continued dialogue with regulators will bring more transparency to this issue.
References & Where to Learn More
- FracTracker feature series: The Falcon Public Environmental Impact Assessment. This page contains links to FracTracker’s previous maps, data, and analyses around the Falcon Pipeline.
- FracTracker 3/17/21 article and map: Shell’s Falcon Pipeline under investigation for serious public safety threats
- People Over Petro Coalition’s Falcon Pipeline campaign
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