New Letter from Federal Regulators Regarding how the Falcon has Been Investigated
On August 4th, 2021, FracTracker sent a letter on behalf of the People Over Petro Coalition to the federal agency overseeing Shell’s Falcon Pipeline—the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)—with a list of questions. Coalition members who were concerned about the recent safety investigations into the Falcon Pipeline compiled this list.
It’s been a few months, but we finally received the agency’s response!
We asked questions like, “What are you doing to hold Shell accountable?,” and “What role does PHMSA play in ensuring that vulnerable residents are protected from possible pipeline incidents?”
We also requested independent integrity testing of the pipeline by a third-party, since PHMSA has stated that employees working on this pipeline have inaccurately reported information.
The response letter from PHMSA’s Director of Field Operations William Rush, (which includes our list of questions), is available for download here, and is below.
Unfortunately, PHMSA did not agree to our request to require independent testing of the pipeline’s integrity. It appears PHMSA’s investigation into the Falcon construction resulted in two main actions:
- A Notice of Amendment, issued on July 16th, 2020, for Shell having inadequate written standards for construction and welding procedures, and
- A Warning Letter, issued July 16, 2021 (when the pipeline would have been nearly or entirely constructed), for failure “to construct [the] pipeline system in accordance with written specification or standards regarding support of coated pipe during handling.”
Throughout the process of looking into this pipeline, it’s been hard to grasp what the issues are and how concerned we should be.
In February of 2019, Pennsylvania DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell wrote that his agency “has received what appears to be credible information that sections of Shell’s Falcon Pipeline project in western PA … may have been constructed with defective corrosion coating protection … Corroded pipes pose a possible threat of product release, landslide, or even explosion.”
These issues have been further reported on by several outlets, including E&E News and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Our responses from PHMSA so far indicate the agency has not found major issues with the pipeline’s coating, beyond the issues mentioned in the cases above, and nothing that requires repair.
However, Secretary McDonnell also wrote in February 2019 that the “PA DEP believes PHMSA’s initial inquiry was incomplete.”
We asked PHMSA how they responded to this accusation (see question 2 in the letter), and their response was that the agency has continued to inspect the Falcon—focusing on pipeline coating—and because of those inspections, PHMSA issued the warning letter referenced above.
PHMSA did not follow up with the pipeline’s coating manufacturer after a pipeline whistleblower stated the manufacturer called it “unacceptable.”
The agency has given us little evidence of how the inspection process changed or what PHMSA has done differently since being called out by the PA DEP.
Shell’s Falcon Ethane Pipeline System, which crosses through Ohio, under the Ohio River into West Virginia and Pennsylvania to connect to Shell’s ethane cracker in Beaver County, PA.
There are also concerns with the pipeline that fall outside of PHMSA’s jurisdiction.
Pipeline whistleblowers have reported being “harassed, abused, ridiculed and humiliated,” and fired for reporting concerns. The OSHA complaint they filed was dismissed and is being appealed.
Additionally, while Pennsylvania regulators took action to hold Shell accountable for incorrectly reporting spills of industrial waste while constructing the pipeline, it doesn’t appear the same actions were taken in Ohio. In this latest letter, Rush wrote PHMSA was not aware of these types of spills occurring in Ohio or West Virginia, but FracTracker’s research—based on public records requests—has shown that they are actually quite widespread.
Public Safety Program
Another major takeaway from this letter was more insight into the public safety programs surrounding pipelines.
According to Rush, pipeline operators are not required to make emergency response plans publicly available, but PHMSA reviews them. The emergency response plan must establish a continuing training program to instruct emergency response personnel.
The program must:
- Include where pipelines are located in communities and the products transported in them;
- Cover the characteristics and hazards of the hazardous liquids or carbon dioxide transported, including, in case of flammable highly volatile liquids, the flammability of mixtures with air, odorless vapors, and water reactions;
- Instruct emergency response personnel on how to contact and coordinate with an operator in the event of an emergency; and,
- Include the steps necessary to control any accidental release of hazardous liquid or carbon dioxide and to minimize the potential for fire, explosion, toxicity, or environmental damage.
In addition to corresponding with local EMS, Shell Pipeline also needs to implement a written continuing public education program for the public, government organizations, and persons engaged in excavation activities.
This program must include:
- Messaging on the possible hazards associated with an unintended release;
- Physical indications that such a release may have occurred;
- Steps that should be taken for public safety in the event of a hazardous liquid or carbon dioxide pipeline release; and,
- Procedures to report such an event.
FracTracker is continuing work to make more details about this pipeline’s investigation public, and will update you as we get new information.
References & Where to Learn More
- Learn more in this ongoing FracTracker feature series on the Falcon Pipeline
- Whistleblowers say ‘bad seeds’ undermine pipeline safety, E&E News, July 2021.
- Response letter from PHMSA’s Director of Field Operations William Rush, November 2021.
- Falcon Pipeline whistleblowers ‘fired for reporting hazards,’ complaint says, The Times, July 2021.
- Falcon Pipeline Construction Releases Over 250,000 Gallons of Drilling Fluid in Pennsylvania and Ohio, FracTracker Alliance, June 2020.
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