More details about Falcon pipeline investigation emerge

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Farm and Dairy file photo

More details were released about the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s investigation into issues with Shell’s Falcon pipeline.

In a May 4 letter sent to FracTracker Alliance, PHMSA said that it looked at photos of the two pieces of pipe, but could not substantiate a whistleblower’s claims that the pipeline had been built with a defective corrosion coating. Falcon pipeline travels travels through Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. 

“One photo showing a pipe with scratch marks on it, which PHMSA determined that the coating had indeed been damaged but did not constitute a safety issue,” said Erica Jackson, manager of community outreach and support with FracTracker Alliance, during a virtual public meeting, held May 4, hosted by The People Over Petro Coalition.

Another photo showed a pipeline coating damaged by a horizontal directional drill, Jackson said.

“This letter left us with a lot more concerns and questions,” she said.

Allegations and investigations

The meeting also renewed calls for transparency. A coalition of 29 regional advocacy groups wants an independent investigation of the pipeline and for all construction and operation on the line to be halted until it can be proven it’s safe.

“Construction of the Falcon pipeline is responsible for the spilling of over 250,000 gallons of drilling fluid in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and the pipeline is not even operational yet…We need Shell to prove without a shadow of a doubt they have addressed our public safety concerns and PHMSA needs to use their authority to make that happen,” said Sarah Martik, campaign director for the Center for Coalfield Justice.

A whistleblower contacted the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHSMA, in July 2019 with allegations that the pipeline may have been built with a defective corrosion coating. News of these claims went public in March.

The 98-mile Falcon pipeline was built to feed Shell’s Beaver County ethane cracker plant, which is still being built. The plant, expected to be operational sometime in 2022, will process ethane, a component of natural gas, into plastics. 

Other environmental concerns brought up by the whistleblower, a former Shell employee, were referred to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Pennsylvania DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell wrote a letter in February 2020 to Howard Elliott, then-administrator of the PHMSA, after the federal agency decided through its investigation that there were no deficiencies in the coatings. This letter was released in March by FracTracker Alliance after it received it through a public records request.

McDonnell said the investigation by the PHMSA was “incomplete” and asked the agency to conduct a more thorough investigation into the allegations. The letter states that the DEP found information relating to the corrosion issues through its investigation. The DEP oversees the environmental impact of pipelines.

PHMSA said in its letter to FracTracker that it conducted on-site inspections during the construction of the pipeline between July and September 2019. PHMSA also said in the letter that it investigated Shell for falsifying coating inspection reports, but found no evidence to support that allegation either. Though they did find one instance where the wrong test strip was used on a pipe, and it was reported that the proper test strip was used.

The Pennsylvania DEP and Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office is investigating allegations about the pipeline. Representatives from PHMSA and the DEP also sat in on the public meeting.

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