Falcon Pipeline Online, Begins Operations Following Violations of Clean Streams Law
The Falcon Pipeline is online, one month after a civil penalty revealed its construction through Pennsylvania impacted 23 creeks and wetlands, or one waterway for every two miles of pipeline.
Earlier this week Shell Polymers (a subsidiary of Shell PLC), announced that its ethane cracker, Shell Polymers Monaca, in Beaver County, Pennsylvania was officially online. With that comes the operation of the Falcon Ethane Pipeline System, which transports fracked gas through Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania to the ethane cracker, where the gas is transformed into plastic.
FracTracker has previously reported on the permitting and troubled construction of the Falcon Pipeline as part of our Public Environmental Impact Assessment. Most notably, in February 2019, then-Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection wrote in a letter to federal regulators: “[The PA DEP] has received what appears to be credible information that sections of Shell’s Falcon Pipeline project in western PA, developed for the transportation of ethane liquid, may have been constructed with defective corrosion coating protection,” and that “corroded pipes pose a possible threat of product release, landslide, or even explosions.”
We’ve worked with partners in the region to demand transparency from regulators and accountability from Shell about these concerning allegations, which you can read more about here. Yet the pipeline’s coating wasn’t the only issue under investigation. Shell Pipeline also repeatedly violated its permits while constructing the Falcon through spills of drilling fluids, as revealed by FracTracker’s public records requests in 2020. These spills, which can harm drinking water wells and aquatic life, fall under the jurisdiction of state agencies, and just last month, the PA DEP announced that it had reached a settlement with Shell Pipeline Company for these violations and is fining the company $670,000.
Figure 1. Falcon Pipeline construction in Pennsylvania. Photo by Erica Jackson.
This penalty, issued three years after the violations occurred, covers a lot we already knew about the Falcon Pipeline: Shell Pipeline failed to follow permits, did not abide by its incident response plan, and neglected to notify regulators of its many construction issues. Unfortunately, the penalty also reveals a few new details about which Pennsylvania waterways, including Service Creek, Ambridge Reservoir, and the Ohio River, were impacted by these violations.
These are drinking water sources and protected waterways that hundreds of residents organized around to protect.
Clean Streams Law Violations
The penalty cites several violations of the Clean Streams Law that resulted in pollution impacts to waterways. Five of the violations involved discharge of drilling fluids into creeks and wetlands, and eight of them involved sediment discharging into creeks and wetlands. The locations of these violations are mapped in Figure 1, below.
The DEP lists 23 waterways with protected use designations that were impacted as a result of these violations. The protected use designations include warm water fishes, high-quality waters cold water fishes, and trout-stocking. The portion of the Falcon that is in Pennsylvania is approximately 45.5 miles long, so that’s about one waterway impacted for every two miles of pipeline. We mapped those waterways in Figure 1. Several (17) of the waterways on the PA DEP’s list are referred to as “unnamed tributary to [waterway].” In those cases, we only mapped the named waterway. Many of the waterways were impacted indirectly as a result of being downstream of the discharge points.
Figure 2. Map of the Falcon Ethane Pipeline System in Pennsylvania. The locations of violations on this map are approximate, and many of the waterways pictured were impacted indirectly as a result of being downstream of the discharge points. A full list of violations is available on page six of the Consent Of Civil Penalty from the PA DEP.
The Ohio River and the Ambridge Reservoir were a top concern for residents protesting this pipeline project. While the penalty lists them as impacted waterways, it does not state that sediment or drilling fluid discharge went directly in them. The PA DEP has said that in the case of all these violations, “no visual aquatic impacts were observed.” FracTracker contacted the Ambridge Water Authority to ask about this issue, and they said that they have not had any contact with the PA DEP about the penalty, but that they believe the reservoir is listed as a result of being impacted indirectly through tributaries connected to it. They have not seen any impacts appear in their testing.
The penalty also cites:
- 17 cases of Shell Pipeline and Minnesota Limited (Shell’s contractor) failing to comply with its Erosion and Sediment Control General Permit and Joint Permits
- 25 cases of Shell Pipeline and Minnesota Limited failing to implement and/or maintain effective Erosion and Sedimentation best management practices at the site
- 11 cases of Shell Pipeline and Minnesota Limited failing to temporarily stabilize and/or permanently stabilize areas of the site upon cessation of earth disturbance activity
- Violations related to inadvertent returns (spills of drilling fluid used when a pipeline is installed horizontally beneath sensitive areas like streams and roads):
- Two cases of Shell Pipeline and Minnesota Limited failing to notify the DEP of an inadvertent return. In both cases, the spill occurred at a spot near Southview in Washington County, where the Falcon crosses near homes.
- Failing to notify the PA DEP of 48,000 gallons of drilling fluid losses at a site in Hickory, Pennsylvania, failing to cease operations in accordance with the Inadvertent Return Plan, and using unauthorized containment structures. At this site the Falcon Pipeline crosses beneath the Montour Trail, a popular recreation spot.
These violations in the Civil Penalty are reminiscent of whistleblower complaints from 2019. Frank Chamberlain and Susan D’Layne Carite were employees of Global Edge Consultants who served as inspectors on the Falcon Pipeline. They claim they were fired for reporting possible safety violations, as reported by E&E News.
Amongst the claims, the inspectors (referred to as “Complainants”) explained that their supervisor “told Complainants and their fellow inspectors to significantly underestimate the volume of IRs. They also instructed Complainants and other members of their team to alter reports to match each other’s findings, rather than allowing the inspectors to exercise appropriately independent judgment.” This seems to align with the PA DEP’s findings that Shell Pipeline and Minnesota Limited failed to notify the DEP of inadvertent returns and drilling fluid losses.
The inspectors’ filed a complaint with OSHA in 2019, which was dismissed in 2021 and is being appealed by the whistleblowers.
Pipelines & Your Rights
If you live near the Falcon Pipeline, you’re entitled to information about the risks of the project and how to keep yourself safe. Shell Pipeline must 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.
The program should also be conducted in English and other languages commonly understood by a significant number of people in the area. If you have questions about this, or feel like Shell has not followed through on this obligation, reach out!
Demanding Accountability in Ohio and West Virginia
The Falcon Pipeline also passes through Ohio and West Virginia. To our knowledge, regulators in those states have not released similar investigations or penalties to the PA DEP’s. This may be partially attributable to direction from above, specifically from the federal agency in charge of pipeline safety, PHMSA (The Pipeline Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration).
In a letter to FracTracker from November 10, 2021, PHMSA’s Director of Field Operations, William Rush explained: “In August 2019, PHMSA proactively reached out to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to share information we received regarding inadvertent returns in Pennsylvania. PHMSA is not aware of inadvertent returns related to the Falcon Ethane Pipeline System in the states of Ohio and West Virginia.”
Our public records requests and conversations with residents, however, reveal that the same problems happening in Pennsylvania are also occurring in Ohio. Shell Pipeline and its contractors have spilled drilling fluids into waterways in at least two pipeline crossing sites in Ohio. The pipeline has also spilled drilling fluids underground, which can impact groundwater and interfere with abandoned coal mines in the area, as reported by DeSmog Blog. In one such case, an underground spill prompted Shell Pipeline to contact two households and the water treatment plants for Steubenville, Cadiz, and Toronto, Ohio to monitor for drinking water impacts. There was one reported drilling fluid spill in West Virginia, although the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WV DEP) stated it did not impact any waterways.
Noting the lack of attention to the pipeline in these states, FracTracker Alliance and partners asked Ohio and West Virginia state agencies to fully investigate Shell Pipeline’s incidents and their impacts on water resources along the full length of the pipeline route.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency stated that construction was largely complete and that the Ohio EPA has taken the necessary regulatory steps to address issues and ensure compliance with Ohio laws. The West Virginia DEP also noted that the project was nearly complete, and that there were no immediate water quality concerns but there were violations “related to maintenance of controls” which you can see here.
You can read the full responses from the three agencies below
The failure of Shell Pipeline to comply with its permits in violation of the Clean Streams Law validates why so many residents organized against this pipeline as far back as 2016. Too often, the oil and gas industry justifies constructing polluting infrastructure near communities by professing the effectiveness of permitting and regulatory systems, and then proceeds to violate its permits, which may or may not be met with a fine from regulators. With the Falcon Pipeline online, we’ll continue to share information as we find it.
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