An accident waiting to happen

By on April 9, 2014
Don LeVasseur

Don LeVasseur

Laurie Ulrich Fuller

Laurie Ulrich Fuller

“The force of the rupture created a large crater and propelled a 47-foot, 3-inch piece of buried pipe more than 200 feet away. The releasing gas also ignited and continued to burn for several hours, causing damage to one of the adjoining pipelines and scorching approximately eight acres of surrounding property.”

That’s a quote from a Federal Corrective Action Order, resulting from Williams Partners, L.P.’s failure to adhere to safety regulations along its Transco pipeline in Marengo County, Alabama in 2011. The Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) order went on to say that it had “not determined whether the conditions that caused the failure exist on other portions of Transco,” but they did decide that Williams Partners’ continued operation of the Transco pipeline, “would result in likely serious harm to life, property, and the environment.”

That’s pretty clear, wouldn’t you say? The explosion, resulting from the company’s failure to adhere to safety regulations, would result in serious harm elsewhere along the same pipeline, if safety regulations continued to be ignored, as the PHMSA believed they would be. You would think, however, after such an admonition &tstr; and one accompanied by clear instructions on how to adhere to the regulations &tstr; Williams Partners would be inspired to take steps to run their gas pipelines more safely, and to feel some responsibility for making sure their pipelines and other gas-transport facilities didn’t cause any further harm. Explosions of that magnitude, involving natural gas, can kill people &tstr;potentially, lots of people. The possibility of that happening would make a decent company evaluate their procedures and safety standards, and at the very least, rise to meet the minimum requirements. Or so hoped the PHMSA in issuing the order.

But Williams Partners, L.P. didn’t change their procedures. They continued to ignore the safety regulations, and the following year, in Susquehanna County Pennsylvania, a gas compressor station &tstr; which feeds that same Transco pipeline &tstr; exploded. The explosion was again due to a failure to follow rules for safety, but this is what the Williams Partners, L.P. press release said about the explosion:

“Based on available information, management of Williams Partners and Williams expect the financial impact of the fire to be immaterial to their financial condition, liquidity and, respectively, the distributions and dividends they pay to unit holders and shareholders.”

OK, but what about the reasons for the explosion? What about property damage? Any reassurances to those reading the release that no people were harmed? Nope. All they said was that the fire would be “immaterial to their financial condition” and shareholders would still be paid.

Well, that’s a relief. And for those of us living in LancasterCounty, where Williams Partners is seeking approval to build a 35-mile pipeline to take natural gas from the Marcellus Shale to locations further south, it should be quite comforting. That is if you’re a shareholder. If you’re not, you’ll probably be rather frightened &tstr; and justifiably so &tstr; when you hear that the proposed 35-mile stretch would be part of a 177-mile pipeline that’s part of the… wait for it… Transco pipeline, run by Williams Partners, L.P.

Of course, people who care about the environment, along with the owners of properties along the pipeline’s intended route, are less than excited about this. They have discovered, as have many other people who fear that this request will be fast-tracked with no regard for public safety, like all the other natural gas projects in PA, that Williams Partners, L.P. didn’t just have those two accidents on their record. They’ve also been fined for failure to perform inspections and for failure to follow their own stated safety procedures on pipelines running through Staten Island, New York City. That’s right. Staten Island, home to more than 470,000 people. One wonders how many of Williams Partners’ shareholders live on Staten Island. Probably not many.

The good news is that as soon as news of this request to run a natural gas pipeline through Lancaster County was released, a group &tstr;Lancaster Against Pipeline &tstr; was formed, growing in one day from just 49 members as of the first report in the Lancaster Newspapers to over 1,000 members at the time of this writing. Other groups, such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Pennsylvania Voters Against Fracking, and the Lancaster Conservancy are mobilizing their members to protest as well. The Lancaster Conservancy is requesting that people submit comments to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), at ferc.gov/docs-filing/ecomment.asp. You can also call the FERC’s Chairman, Cheryl LeFleur, at 202-502-8961. We hope her staff is kept busy in the coming days as the people of Lancaster County make their voices heard.

But now for the bad news. Pennsylvania has a really horrendous track record when it comes to protecting its citizens and the environment from the oil and gas companies &tstr; or from any other polluting business interest, for that matter. Our own Governor Corbett has seen to it that PA has the distinction of being the only state not to charge the oil and gas companies an extraction tax for the natural gas they suck out of our land. A tax that these companies factored into their business plans, that they expected to pay, and are paying in every other state where natural gas is being brought to the surface through the dangerous process of hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking.” That’s right. Our governor doesn’t believe that turning our state into toxic Swiss cheese, complete with flaming water, fouled soil, and polluted air, is worth a small fee from the companies profiting from the process. Companies who bring in their own out-of-state employees, resulting in few, if any, jobs for Pennsylvania’s workforce.

Not surprisingly, this means there is literally no upside for Pennsylvania &tstr; either through being the location of some of the largest and most lucrative natural gas deposits in the country or for the privilege of being the state to be blown to bits by poorly-managed pipelines. But that doesn’t matter to a Governor and much of our legislature who took donations from oil and gas companies (visit marcellusmoney.org/donations-top-environmental-violators to find out who took what) and who’ll be able to accept even bigger checks in the 2014 and 2016 elections, thanks to the Supreme Court decision this past week which removed any cap on corporate political donations.

So the sky’s the limit. Sadly, you may not be able to see it through the smoke.

Don LeVasseur and Laurie Ulrich Fuller host The Making Sense Show, a live radio show produced in Lititz. The recorded podcast and blog can be found at themakingsenseshow.com. They welcome your comments at comments@themakingsenseshow.com.

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