Shell Falcon Pipeline Under Investigation
Following probes initiated last year by Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell, state and federal agencies are now investigating the safety of Shell Pipeline’s Falcon project.
Expected to begin operations next year, the Falcon Pipeline stretches 98 miles through Southwestern Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. Once operational, the pipeline will deliver ethane to the cracker plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, to refine the natural gas liquid into plastic pellets.
After the infrastructure is completed, oil giant Shell plans to operate both the pipeline and the cracker plant.
Last year, McDonnell sent a letter to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in February, noting that issues related to the Falcon pipeline project posed “a possible threat of product release, landslide, or even explosion.”
“I write to you regarding a very serious public safety matter for Pennsylvania,” his letter began. McDonnell then went on to explain that the DEP had credible information indicating that some sections of Shell Pipeline’s Falcon project “may have been constructed with defective corrosion coating protection.”
McDonnell also cited that he had witness testimony who had seen the bad corrosion coatings on the pipeline first-hand and accused Shell of falsifying records and reports and conducting retaliatory firings, among other actions.
“These are very serious allegations, they deserve thorough investigation and appropriate resolution,” McDonnell stressed to Howard Elliott, Administrator of the PHMSA. At the time the letter was sent, prior secretary of transportation Elaine Chao, along with other members of Congress were also copied.
"It’s our view we have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to safe construction and operations through the robust...Posted by Beaver County Times on Thursday, March 18, 2021
However, in the year before receiving McDonnell’s letter, the PHMSA had already received intelligence from a whistleblower over concerns over how the project was being handled. While the PHMSA oversees the installation and operation of pipelines and not environmental matters, when it got word about potential underreporting of drilling and mud spills, the administration forwarded the concerns to the DEP.
Over that time, the PHMSA and DEP shared information with one another and began looping in investigators from the Pennsylvania’s attorney general’s office. From there, investigators were reported to have briefed officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and had also been in contact with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Reports indicate that OSHA had also been contacted by a fired whistleblower on the Falcon project prior to investigators. But this contractor’s complaint was dismissed by the agency on March 1.
Throughout the investigation process, the DEP used its own jurisdiction to issue several notices of violations to the Shell pipeline. In July, the project was cited for unstable soil and associated erosion control violations. Later that year, the company was cited for an 800-gallonw spill of drilling mud into a wetland. And in November, the DEP requested that Shell halt all underground drilling work upon learning that the company failed to follow permit policy in that it would use instruments to monitor and record how drilling operations were being carried out in real time.
For months following all reported concerns about the Falcon project did lawyers and federal officials look into the project. However, it was McDonnell who felt that PHMSA’s inquiry into the potential corrosion was incomplete and urged officials to take a more serious look at the project.
Recently, DEP spokesman Neil Shader told Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the DEP believes PHMSA had “taken these concerns seriously.” Although an investigation into the matter is still ongoing at this time, the results regarding the possible corrosion are not yet available.
While there is little to be known about probe findings, environmental advocacy group FracTracker Alliance had requested public records on the investigation and in finding McDonnell’s letter, was also told that there was a log of about 111 documents that hadn’t been released to the public at this time. It has been suggested that these documents contain information relayed from two confidential informants, pipeline job photos and notes, in addition to other investigation progressions.
FracTracker notes that while it is particularly focused on the allegations regarding corrosion and bad coatings, it is also looking at possible noncompliance of public safety requirements during construction and an alleged coverup of incidents that could put the public at risk.
“Residents of the Ohio River Valley know too well the serious and life-threatening impacts that have come from rushed pipeline construction in the wake of the fracking buildout,” said Erica Jackson of FracTracker Alliance in a press release. “We hope that regulators will take all necessary action to protect public welfare and bring justice for workers who may have been unfairly terminated.”
The advocacy group estimates that more than 8,700 people live within a radius from the pipeline where an explosion would impact them, known as the "vapor zone." Additionally, five schools, six daycare centers and 16 emergency response centers are in that zone.
FracTracker Alliance added that 29 groups are calling on Pennsylvania and federal agencies to increase investigative efforts into Shell and the Falcon Pipeline and is asking for work on the pipeline to be halted until it can be proven that this pipeline will not threaten public safety.
“These documented problems with construction of the Falcon Pipeline pose serious threats to public safety, workers, and critical natural resources,” said Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community, one of the involved advocacy groups. “Given the fragile geological bedrock in our area and the fact that the Falcon will transport hazardous liquids, defective pipeline corrosion coating could lead to disastrous outcomes. A thorough investigation should take place.”
Shell Takes a Look
According to Shell, in conducting an investigation into its Falcon project, representatives from PHMSA had already hosted three onsite audits of the pipeline and found no issues with the installed coatings.
“Further, as part of our corrosion prevention plan, all corrosion inspectors were certified by the National Association of Corrosion Engineers," a spokesperson said. "These inspectors tested the coatings to ensure their quality and adherence to the pipe. All weld inspectors were certified by the American Petroleum Institute (API). A specialized contractor applied a state-of-the-art fusion bond epoxy coating to all pipe and the majority of all weld areas. Additional steps were taken to include cathodic protection and placement of copper strips near overhead sources of current to provide added protection against corrosion.”
In addition to these findings, Shell stressed that the company has also completed 100% post-installation inspections of all welds, pressure-tested the pipeline and conducted an inline inspection as to prevent corrosion. The findings of the inspection were shared with PHMSA.
Shell also notes that with the Falcon project, it has gone beyond federal requirements in that it has been using a thicker pipe, has installed more emergency shutoff valves than required and has also buried the pipe a foot deeper than what is federally mandated.
“We believe we have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to safe construction and operations through the robust design and installation of the Falcon Pipeline,” the company said.
On the topic of the ongoing investigation, Shell stated that like all major construction projects, the government and regulatory agencies have been providing oversight throughout construction.