Whistleblowers Speak Out About Shell Falcon Pipeline
According to two former pipeline inspectors, “bad seeds” are undermining the safety at Royal Dutch Shell PLC’s Falcon pipeline project, part of the company’s massive new petrochemical plant northwest of Pittsburgh.
Expected to be fully operational by 2022, the 97-mile-long pipeline plans to carry ethane, a highly volatile liquid, from Marcellus Shale wells in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to the Shell plant—also known as the Beaver County cracker plant.
Shortly after warning Shell managers and federal regulators in 2019 of a defective anti-corrosion coating on the Falcon pipeline back in 2019, Frank Chamberlin and Susan D’Layne Carite told reporters that they were fired.
Regardless that a coatings manufacturer representative told Chamberlin that the protective layer was “unacceptable,” or that another reported the coatings peeled from the pipe during installation, both Chamberlin and D’Layne Carite were ordered off the project by Shell and were later fired by the project’s contractor.
“We did our jobs, and we were harassed, abused, ridiculed and humiliated then released because we would not follow the bad seeds that are giving the industry a very bad reputation,” Chamberlin wrote in his complaint to the Department of Labor. He also added in his statement that the couple would be “run off” the project if they kept pressing safety concerns.
A pair of former inspectors who reported possible hazards on Shell Pipeline Co.'s Falcon Pipeline two years ago claim they were fired for doing so. https://t.co/kW8wFtiu1a— Timesonline.com (@bctimes) July 17, 2021
While the allegations have been contained in their whistleblower complaint, critics point out that inspectors in charge of assuring safety and environmental protection on large pipeline projects are usually paid by the pipeline builders themselves, oftentimes inspiring a conflict of interest, as highlighted in this project.
“The system isn’t set up to ensure experienced and accountable inspections,” said Shannon Smith of the FracTracker Alliance, a Pennsylvania-based energy watchdog group that has monitored Shell’s project.
Since filing the allegations, it was reported that federal pipeline safety regulators from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration stepped in, but found no issues with the coating, reporting that the peeled coating was a protective overcoat. However, there is no record that PHMSA followed up with the coatings manufacturer on this matter.
“The robust design and installation of Falcon has been supported by numerous inspections and the pipeline meets or exceeds all safety standards and regulatory requirements,” said Shell spokesperson Curtis Smith.
Earlier this year, in April, state and federal agencies were announced to be further investigation the safety of the Shell Falcon Pipeline project following last year’s probes made by Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.