Governor’s Support For PA’s Pipeline-Safety Bills Boosts Bipartisan Advocates

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STATEIMPACT PENNSYLVANIA – A raft of bills on pipeline safety may have a better chance of becoming law in Pennsylvania after Gov. Tom Wolf formally backed some of them in a statement that strongly criticized Sunoco’s construction of the Mariner East pipelines.

Most of the bills failed to move through the Legislature during the previous session, but were reintroduced in early January amid rising public concern about the safety of lines carrying highly explosive materials such as natural gas liquids through densely populated areas.

Although the bills’ future remains unclear, the prospects for at least some of them brightened on Feb. 8 when Gov. Wolf called on the Legislature to fill what he called “gaps” in the law that have restricted the ability of his administration to protect public safety and the environment during pipeline construction and operation.

The Democratic governor urged the “speedy passage” of bills that would give the Public Utility Commission authority over where pipelines can be built; would require operators to disclose details of any pipelines that are within 1,000 feet of a school; would require carriers of natural gas or its liquids to coordinate with local emergency officials; and would require installation of shutoff valves in so-called high-consequence areas.

Wolf’s statement, which accused Energy Transfer and its Sunoco unit of failing to respect Pennsylvania laws and communities, was an unexpected boost for the sponsors of safety bills, four of which were cited by Wolf in his statement.

“It doesn’t hurt to have the Governor on board,” said Sen. Tom Killion, (R- Chester and Delaware), co-sponsor of 12 pipeline safety bills along with Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-Chester). “That could help to bring some of the folks from the other side of the aisle on the issue. It’s obviously a hopeful sign. I appreciate him coming out and taking a look at pipeline safety.”

Killion described support for the bills as “better than it was.” He said that was due in part to tighter regulation of construction by the Department of Environmental Protection, which – on the same day as Wolf’s statement — suspended its review of water permits at 27 places along the Mariner East 2 pipeline route because of Sunoco’s failure to fix erosion on another pipeline route in western Pennsylvania.

“That means there’s more scrutiny now on how they’re operating,” he said. “We just want it done safely, and Sunoco has had a lot of hiccups along the way especially in Chester and Delaware counties.”

Since construction on Mariner East 2 began in February 2017, the pipeline has been shut down by regulators or the courts three times because of safety concerns or environmental violations, and has incurred some 80 penalties from the DEP for drilling mud spills. In January this year, a new sinkhole opened up on the same Chester County pipeline construction site where several sinkholes appeared in early 2018.

Critics say the biggest threat to public safety along the 350-mile Mariner East route is in densely populated areas like Philadelphia’s western suburbs where the pipelines run within yards of homes, schools and public buildings, and where residents could face a catastrophic explosion if there’s a leak of natural gas liquids.

Sunoco says it complies with all state and federal safety regulations, has discussed emergency procedures with more than 2,000 first responders, and held preparedness meetings with schools in 17 counties. The company did not respond to a request for comment on the pipeline-safety bills or Wolf’s support for them.

Wolf’s spokesman, J.J. Abbott, said the governor supports some of the safety proposals because of concerns expressed by residents along the pipeline route in southeastern Pennsylvania.

“The support comes off meetings with local legislators from the southeast regarding the pipelines and proposed changes to state law to improve the process,” Abbott wrote in an email. “We plan to work with those legislators to build further support going forward.”

In the Republican-controlled House, GOP leaders have not yet asked committee chairs to schedule hearings on pipeline-safety bills, said Mike Straub, a spokesman for the caucus.

But he said some GOP lawmakers have concerns about problems with Mariner East that continue to challenge the PUC and DEP.

That’s likely to spur action such as a bipartisan resolution, introduced in the last session by Rep. Chris Quinn (R-Delaware), that called on the DEP and PUC to do a risk assessment of the Mariner East project.

“I expect similar actions and additional measures to be introduced this session,” Straub said.

Rep. Carolyn Comitta (D-Chester) said Wolf’s statement increases the chances that the measures will at least get a reading in committee.

“Having the Governor’s strong backing is going to help get some hearings and perhaps move a bill or two forward,” she said.

The top priority, she said, was to give the state legal authority over pipeline siting – an issue addressed by one of the Killion/Dinniman bills that would require pipeline companies to submit a detailed application to the PUC before construction, and to get approval from the DEP.

Among the other bills, one would hand safety-inspection responsibilities to the state’s Department of Transportation, while another would require public utility companies that carry natural gas or its liquids to provide emergency response information to county emergency services officials.

Supporters of the pipeline safety bills are likely to include Democratic freshmen, who can also be relied on to vote for other forms of environmental protection, said Rep. Greg Vitali (D- Delaware and Montgomery), the Democratic chairman of the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

Vitali said new members such as Danielle Friel Otten (D-Chester) and Elizabeth Fiedler (D-Philadelphia), both elected in 2018, are determined to pursue an environmental agenda, and are likely to be followed by Republicans from the southeast amid growing evidence that voters want curbs on pipelines and other environmental threats.

“You have Republican legislators from the southeast who understand that they have to vote on the environment or be swept away in 2020,” Vitali said.

StateImpact Pennsylvania is a collaboration among WITF, WHYY, WESA and the Allegheny Front to report on the the commonwealth’s energy economy.