Hundreds clean up site of deadly Baltimore explosion as neighbors raise funds for families in need


August 16, 2020


Hundreds of Baltimore City residents, neighbors across the county line and others gathered Sunday afternoon to stage a cleanup effort and sidewalk sale to support survivors of last Monday’s gas explosion in Northwest Baltimore that killed two and injured seven.

Dozens of volunteers in neon green vests spread out on the lawns of boarded-up homes along Labyrinth Road and the alley behind the leveled homes, as they shoveled dirt and packed leftover debris into black trash bags.

A Baltimore Police Department cruiser blocked off that part of Reisterstown Station, as a Red Cross vehicle made its way up and down the narrow road, passing out water and snacks. Crew members continued to remove debris from the explosion site, with metal fencing surrounding the grounds of the leveled homes.

Nancy Diaz, a California resident, was in Baltimore for a few weeks to tend to a family situation when the explosion occurred. The 62-year-old decided to lend a hand.

“I was born to serve,” said Diaz, who used to work for the Red Cross and assisted in relief efforts when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. “This has been what I love to do. I just want to be hands of love and light, and that’s what my spirit is.”

Just a few houses from the explosion, Stephanie Hall stood on her front porch with her sister, Vera Skinner, as two volunteers searched her shrub for debris. Hall, a 17-year resident, had been sleeping when the blast went off just before 10 a.m.

She said she thought it was a “really bad crash,” before going outside to see the severity of the situation. Almost a week after the explosion, Hall was still taken aback by how many homes were affected.

The nonprofit Hadassah of Greater Baltimore on Sunday held a sidewalk sale in Pikesville on Reisterstown Road, with a portion of the proceeds set to go to survivors of the explosion.

Customers sorted through racks of inexpensive clothing, bags and jewelry outside the organization’s resale store, which remains closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Barbara Fink, co-president of the organization, said the store used to be located on Falstaff Road, just blocks from the explosion site, and called the neighborhood “a great part of the community.”

“We knew we had to do something. … The way [the sale] is going, I’m sure we’ll be doing it again,” Fink said.

The two events were a continuation of ways the community has banded together in the aftermath of the explosion. Lonnie Herriott, 61, and Joseph Graham, 20, were the two people found dead after the blast. Family and friends gathered Saturday for a candlelight vigil to remember Graham, a Morgan State University student. Organizers with CASA are planning another vigil Monday night.

The cause of the blast is undetermined and continues to be investigated.

The gas explosion that killed two people in Northwest Baltimore was caught on a RING.com camera footage on Labyrinth Road. (Video courtesy of Dominique Bass)
Sitting in a parked Baltimore City Fire Department utility terrain vehicle, Baltimore City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer said he thought to organize the cleanup effort after surveying the debris.

Schleifer, who represents District 5, said several elderly residents live on Labyrinth Road, and he wanted to relieve them of additional work after the traumatic blast. What started as 50 volunteers with Suburban Orthodox Synagogue grew to around 400 people joining in on the effort, Schleifer said.

“Hopefully, we can start rebuilding and try to get back to normal as much as possible. … Where people see the rubble and destruction, I see building blocks,” he said.


Death Toll Rises to 2 People from Baltimore Gas Explosion

Photo: Julio Cortez/Associated Press


August 11, 2020


BALTIMORE (AP) — Two people are now confirmed dead following a natural gas explosion that destroyed three row houses in Baltimore and sent seven people to the hospital, authorities said Tuesday.

A man was pulled from the debris shortly before 1 a.m. Baltimore Fire Department spokeswoman Blair Adams said at a morning news conference.

Family members identified him as Joseph Graham, 20, a student at Morgan State University who had attended a party at one of the row homes that was destroyed.

Sunshine Evans told WMAR-TV that Graham, her nephew, was in the home with two other of her family members when the structure collapsed. They were rushed to the hospital, she said.

Isaac Graham, an uncle of Joseph Graham, had told The Baltimore Sun on Monday that his nephew attended a party with one of his best friends and decided to spend the night. He said his nephew was a “good kid” who was studying at Morgan State and recently launched his own clothing line.

Ty’lor Schnella, a friend of Graham’s, told the newspaper that he “was always the one that kept everyone uplifted, kept your spirits high.”

Friends were in disbelief over his death.

“Everyone was like, ‘Not Joseph.’ I would never think something like this could happen to him,” Schnella said.

Morgan State said in a statement that Graham was a rising sophomore pursuing an electrical engineering degree. The university said it mourns “the tragic loss of life as a result of this calamitous event and offer our deepest sympathies to the Graham family.”

Meanwhile, authorities have not identified a woman who was pronounced dead at the scene shortly after Monday morning’s explosion. Seven others were hospitalized, five in critical condition, said Adams, the fire department spokeswoman. The conditions of the other two were still being determined, she said.

More than 200 people in the neighborhood were affected by the blast, and about 30 have utilized temporary shelter since the explosion, she said.

The natural gas explosion leveled three row houses and ripped open a fourth, trapping people in the debris and scattering shards of glass and other rubble over the northwest Baltimore neighborhood of Reisterstown Station. Dozens of firefighters converged on the scene to free the injured.

“It’s a disaster. It’s a mess. It’s unbelievable,” said Diane Glover, who lives across the street. Her windows where shattered and her front door was blown open.

The exact cause remains unknown, and the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. appealed for patience as they investigate. No gas odors were reported before the explosion, and BGE did not receive any recent gas odor calls from the block of homes that were damaged, the utility said in a statement late Monday.

BGE also said it last inspected the area’s gas mains and services in June and July of 2019 and no leaks were found.

BGE said in a statement on Tuesday that it was providing information to the Baltimore Fire Department and other investigators regarding “the flows of gas and electricity on customer-owned equipment.”

The Baltimore Sun reported last year that dangerous gas leaks have become much more frequent, with nearly two dozen discovered each day on average, according to the utility’s reports to federal authorities. BGE has said it has thousands of miles of obsolete pipes that need to be replaced, an effort that would cost nearly $1 billion and take two decades, the newspaper said.

BGE asked the Maryland Public Service Commission to approve a new gas system infrastructure and a cost recovery mechanism in late 2017 to pay for upgrades.

“Founded in 1816, BGE is the oldest gas distribution company in the nation. Like many older gas systems, a larger portion of its gas main and services infrastructure consists of cast iron and bare steel – materials that are obsolete and susceptible to failure with age,” the PSC wrote in a 2018 order approving a modernization plan.

This area’s gas infrastructure was installed in the early 1960s. When aging pipes fail, they tend to make headlines. Last year, a gas explosion ripped the façade off a Maryland office complex in Columbia, affecting more than 20 businesses. No one was injured in the explosion early on a Sunday morning. In 2016, a gas main break forced the evacuation of the Baltimore County Circuit Courthouse. Under Armour Inc. had to evacuate its Baltimore office after a gas main break in 2012.


This story has been corrected to show that Joseph Graham was a rising sophomore at Morgan State University, not a rising junior.


Associated Press contributors include Mike Kunzelman in Silver Spring, Brian Witte in Annapolis, and Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia.


Sunoco may be forced to meet with county under initial ruling in Baker’s pipeline safety case

Wilmer Baker’s home in Lower Frankford Township is within the 1,000-foot safety radius of the Mariner East pipeline route. (Photo by Jason Malmont, The Sentinel)

By Zack Hoopes, The Sentinel
Dec 23, 2019 


A ruling issued Wednesday in Wilmer Baker’s case against Sunoco Pipeline gives the Cumberland County resident a partial victory in his effort to get the Mariner East pipeline operator to respond to his safety concerns.

The ruling was issued by Administrative Law Judge Elizabeth Barnes, who heard the case on behalf of the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission, under whose jurisdiction Sunoco falls.

The ruling is an initial decision, and the PUC could modify the advisory order at a subsequent commission meeting pursuant to the evidence and legal statutes Barnes outlined in her ruling.

Barnes sides with Baker when it comes to his claims about Sunoco’s inadequate safety outreach, writing that Baker succeeding in “showing that [Sunoco’s] public awareness outreach in Cumberland County is not meeting regulatory requirements.”

“I consider this a victory that she’s publicly acknowledging there are problems,” Baker told The Sentinel on Friday..

In an email, Lisa Coleman, spokesperson for Sunoco’s parent company, Energy Transfer, said the company is “currently processing the information in the initial decision to determine how it relates to our public awareness programs that are in place, including those in Cumberland County.”

Otherwise, Barnes’ opinion finds that Baker’s claims regarding the origin and quality of the steel used in the Mariner East builds are either unfounded or out of the PUC’s legal jurisdiction.

Barnes’ ruling would require Sunoco meet with the Lower Frankford Township supervisors and the Cumberland County commissioners within 30 days to schedule public awareness and education meetings.

Sunoco’s abrupt cancellation of a Lower Frankford Township meeting last year touched off some public sparring with the county commissioners over Sunoco’s apparent reluctance to conduct any meetings or training beyond what the county described as a “boiler-plate” response.

“It appears Judge Barnes has deliberately and forcefully laid out the case for greater transparency from Sunoco,” Cumberland County Commissioner Jim Hertzler said. “I think the judge’s preliminary decision sides with the position taken by the county.”

Under Barnes’ ruling, the pipeline operator would also be required to meet with county public safety officials within 30 days to discuss additional training or communication that the county may desire.

Sunoco will also have to submit to the PUC a written plan to improve certain deficiencies in its public awareness and emergency training programs within 90 days and will need to submit an audit of such programs within six months.


Baker’s complaint before the PUC centers on the Mariner East pipelines, which transport liquefied gas from hydrofracking sites in western Pennsylvania to the Marcus Hook processing facility in Philadelphia.

Sunoco’s right-of-way now houses three lines: Mariner East I, a line originally built in 1931 and recently repurposed for fracking liquids, as well as the newly built Mariner East II and IIx.

Baker’s home in Lower Frankford Township is within the 1,000-foot safety radius of the pipeline route, as are the homes of several of his friends and neighbors in the area just  northwest of Carlisle. Many of them testified before Barnes in support of Baker’s case.

Baker’s main charge was that Sunoco had sent out safety information to his rural community only intermittently, and left residents, many of whom are physically disabled, with questions as to exactly how they should handle a pipeline leak or possible evacuation.

Barnes agreed, writing that Sunoco’s limited response to Baker as well as the county commissioners “shows a ‘one size fits all’ approach to public awareness rather than an enhanced public outreach program and perhaps a lack of proper record-keeping or internal controls designed to meet regulatory compliance within the company.”

Barnes’ opinion cites regulations from the state code and from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and industry standards from the American Petroleum Institute.

In addition, Baker had sought to require Sunoco to install some type of alarm or early-warning system to detect leaks via pressure drops, or simply by adding an odorant to chemicals traveling in the pipeline so that residents could smell a leak.

As Barnes reiterated in her ruling, there are no hard requirements in current regulations for such provisions, and she ruled in Sunoco’s favor on that matter.

But the PUC is moving through a rulemaking process for pipelines, including matters of public awareness, pressure testing and leak detection, in accordance with its authority to create necessary safety rules.

The PUC’s enforcement division has submitted comment to the rule-making case “requesting odorization or in the alternative enhance[d] leak detection to identify small leaks,” Barnes wrote.

Thus, Barnes said, Baker’s intent may come to fruition, regardless of his own case, via the PUC’s rule-making process, which is a more appropriate avenue.

“Even if there is not a consensus on every regulation, there is at least formalized due process before requirements of an odorant and/or alarm systems are placed upon the operator,” Barnes wrote of the future rule-making.

During the in-person hearing for Baker’s case in July, Barnes had pressed Sunoco consultant John Zurcher over the industry’s ability to self-determine what is and isn’t a reasonable safety precaution, after Zurcher had described leak-detection alarms as “feasible but just not practical.”

Baker’s other assertions in his filings were generally denied in Barnes’ ruling.

This included Baker’s charge that the European-made pipes used in part of the Mariner II and IIx projects, which had been imported by a company subject to steel-dumping penalties by the U.S. Department of Commerce, should be replaced.

“The commission has not authority to direct Sunoco to replace any foreign made steel pipes or fittings with American-made steel,” Barnes wrote.

The PUC’s rule-making case regarding pipeline construction and safety ended its comment period in September and is under review.

Sunoco’s comment on the case makes it clear that the industry does not believe the PUC has the legal authority to further put requirements on the pipeline, potentially setting up a legislative issue in Harrisburg.

The lack of certain provisions in Pennsylvania’s pipeline laws, relative to other utilities, “means the General Assembly did not intend to grant the PUC regulatory authority to dictate installation/construction techniques for pipeline facilities,” Sunoco wrote.

The Cumberland County commissioners, along with several municipal governments in the county, submitted comments to the PUC’s rule-making case encouraging stricter public outreach requirements.

Sunoco lobbied the PUC for the Mariner East builds to be considered public utilities in order to have eminent domain powers; now, Hertzler said, the company seems to not want the responsibility.

“They can’t have it both ways,” Hertzler said. “Now, as a public utility, they have a fundamental responsibility to the public.”


NTSB Pipeline Accident Brief: Natural Gas Explosion at Minnesota Educational Facility

Full Pipeline Accident Brief Report: Natural Gas Explosion at Educational Facility Minneapolis, Minnesota August 2, 2017

Issued by National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on December 2, 2019

Executive Summary
​On August 2, 2017, at 10:22 a.m., local time, a building on the north campus of the Minnehaha Academy, a private school in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was destroyed by a natural gas explosion. Figure 1 shows an aerial view of the north campus prior to the accident, with a yellow arrow pointing toward the explosion site. Figure 2 is a photograph of the accident site taken after the building explosion, with emergency responders and gas company personnel on scene. At the time of the explosion, two workers were installing piping to support the relocation of gas meters from the basement of the building to the outside. Two new meters mounted on an exterior wall were ready for the piping to be connected. While workers were removing the existing piping, a full-flow natural gas line at pressure was opened. The workers were unable to control the release of the gas; thus, they evacuated the building and warned others to evacuate. The explosion occurred during their evacuation. Two individuals were killed, and nine others were injured.

Probable Cause​
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the natural gas explosion at the Minnehaha Academy occurred when a pipefitting crew disassembled piping upstream of a gas service meter. Contributing to the accident was the lack of detailed documentation that clearly established the scope of work to be performed.


New Jersey DEP rejects PennEast’s permit application, setting back the project again

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has shut the door again on a bid by PennEast Pipeline to obtain crucial permits for its 120-mile interstate project.

In a letter to the company dated Tuesday, the agency deemed the company’s applications deficient, largely based on a federal court’s decision blocking the company’s bid to condemn state-owned lands to build its pipeline (at a projected cost of $1 billion).

The decision marks a new setback in a five-year quest by PennEast to build a gas pipeline from Luzerne County in Pennsylvania, across the Delaware River, to Mercer County, N.J. It aims to bring cheap natural gas to markets in New Jersey and the metropolitan area, but has encountered stiff opposition in both states.

Without the permits, the project is unlikely to be built, at least under its current proposed route, which crosses 49 separate properties owned by the state, most of them permanently preserved for agricultural, recreational or conservation purposes, largely with taxpayer dollars.

“Not necessarily,’’ said Tom Gilbert, campaign director for Rethink Energy NJ, referring to PennEast’s likely appeal of last month’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. “It’s another brick in the wall against this project.’’

PennEast vowed to press forward with the project.

“PennEast is confident the legal actions will be resolved favorably and the long-standing legal precedent under which FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) has operated to bring needed, clean, reliable, and affordable energy to consumers will be upheld,’’ said Pat Kornick, a spokeswoman for the company.

“The recent public statements by natural gas utilities in New Jersey expressing serious concerns about the lack of infrastructure capacity and an inability to reliably serve families and businesses who depend on natural gas service, underscores the need and public benefit of the PennEast pipeline,’’ Kornick said.

But critics of the project question its need, particularly at a time when New Jersey and other states are trying to transition to 100 percent clean energy by 2050. Many environmental groups have urged Gov. Phil Murphy to impose a moratorium on new fossil fuel projects, whether they be new gas pipelines or new gas-fired power plants.

DEP’s rejection occurs at the same time the governor came out on Wednesday night in a call-in radio show on WBGO opposing a big new gas-fired power plant in the Meadowlands. The agency’s actions signal a possible shift in the Murphy administration’s stance on allowing new fossil fuel projects, advocates said.

“Gov. Murphy and the NJ DEP are to be applauded for standing in defense of the rule of law, our environment, and our communities,’’ said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper.

This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.


Overpressurized Gas Distribution System Caused Explosions, Fires: Columbia Gas of Massachusetts

National Transportation Safety Board News Release September 24, 2019

The National Transportation Safety Board determined Tuesday that Columbia Gas of Massachusetts’ deficiencies in management and oversight led to overpressurization of a natural gas distribution system which resulted in a series of fires and explosions in Merrimack Valley, Massachusetts.

The Sept. 13, 2018, accident occurred after high-pressure natural gas was released into a low-pressure gas distribution system in the northeast region of the Merrimack Valley. One person was killed and 22 people, including three firefighters, were transported to area hospitals. The system over-pressure damaged 131 structures, including five homes that were destroyed.Prior to the overpressurization event a Columbia Gas-contracted work crew, which included a Columbia Gas inspector, was performing a Columbia Gas-designed and approved pipe-replacement project at an intersection. The contracted crew was working on a tie-in project that bypassed the existing cast-iron line and directed gas pressure to a new plastic line. The bypassed cast-iron line was still connected to the primary regulator control lines, providing input to the gas pressure regulator used to control system pressure. Once the contractor crews disconnected the cast-iron line, the section containing the control lines began losing pressure. Since the gas regulators did not sense system pressure, they responded by opening fully, allowing high-pressure gas to enter the low-pressure system.

“Catastrophic tragedies like this should never happen,” said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt. “When tackling major repair work that has the potential to impact a community, all precautions and planning should be considered and coordinated before, during and after the work has been done.”   

In the investigation discussed Tuesday, the NTSB found Columbia Gas of Massachusetts should have first relocated the control lines to the newly installed plastic main line after the existing cast iron main line was replaced. The NTSB noted, as part of its probable cause, that a low-pressure natural gas distribution system designed and operated without adequate overpressure protection contributed to the accident.As result a of the investigation, the NTSB issued five new safety recommendations with two issued to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, one to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety, and one to NiSource, Inc.  Thirty-one states each received one safety recommendation.  These recommendations address safety issues including adequacy of natural gas regulations, project documentation, project management, risk assessment, emergency response and safety management systems.

The urgent safety recommendations issued earlier in the investigation are available at https://go.usa.gov/xVx73.

An abstract of the final report, which includes the findings, probable cause, and all safety recommendations, is available at https://go.usa.gov/xVdTY.

Links to other publicly released information about this investigation are available at https://go.usa.gov/xVpR5.

Contact: NTSB Media Relations
490 L’Enfant Plaza, SW
Washington, DC 20594
Keith Holloway
(202) 314-6100


Pipeline Rules Adopted Years After Deadly Explosion, Spills

Matthew Brown, Associated Press Updated 1:06 pm PDT, Tuesday, October 1, 2019

San Bruno, California.

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — U.S. transportation officials on Tuesday adopted long-delayed measures that are meant to prevent pipeline spills and deadly gas explosions but don’t address recommended steps to lessen accidents once they occur.

The new rules from the Department of Transportation apply to more than 500,000 miles of pipelines that carry natural gas, oil and other hazardous materials throughout the U.S.

In the works for almost a decade, the rules came in response to a massive gas explosion in San Bruno, California, that killed eight people in 2010, and large oil spills into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010 and the Yellowstone River in Montana in 2011 and 2015.

The rules require companies to more closely inspect underground pipelines, including in rural areas and after catastrophic weather events. They also require better record-keeping so companies can monitor lines in some cases installed decades ago.

Left unaddressed were longstanding recommendations by safety officials to install valves that automatically shut down pipelines following accidents. Also absent were requirements for more advanced systems to detect pipeline ruptures.

Those issues were being addressed through a separate, ongoing rule-making process.

Industry groups and safety advocates backed the adopted changes. In February, they joined to prod the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to finalize the rule for gas transmission lines after it had been repeatedly delayed.

“It doesn’t seem to us like any of those rules should have taken 10 years to pass … Everybody thinks these are common-sense, small regulations,” said Carl Weimer with the Pipeline Safety Trust, a Bellingham, Washington-based group that formed after a 1999 gasoline pipeline break and explosion killed a teenager and two 10-year-old boys.

While the rules were pending, pipeline companies moved on their own to make safety improvements such as developing guidelines for identifying and repairing cracked lines and responding to pipeline emergencies, according to the Association of Oil Pipelines.

Federal regulators are expected to soon release their proposals for pipeline shut-off valves and rupture detection equipment. A separate proposal due sometime next year would extend safety regulations to so-called gathering pipelines that transport natural gas from drilling locations.

Congress also is considering changes to the government’s pipeline safety rules through legislation that would re-authorize the program for the next four years.

Virginia: Long-awaited environmental justice study calls for ‘a cultural shift’ at DEQ

Pastor Paul Wilson of Union Hill Baptist Church stands in front of a group protesting the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (Photo© Chesapeake Climate Action Network)

Link to original article at Virginia Mercury

October 17, 2020

By Sarah Vogelsong, Virginia Mercury

An 18-month study of how the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality can incorporate environmental justice into its policies and procedures calls for both sweeping changes in the agency’s culture and new laws to more clearly govern the evaluation and management of projects that could impact sensitive communities. 

“Ultimately, DEQ must create the space for a cultural shift that centers and aligns environmental justice within its core mission and everyday activities within each program and that supports staff in moving towards a dramatically different approach to their culture and work responsibilities,” the study’s authors, a coalition of consultants headed by Skeo Solutions in Charlottesville, concluded.

The report, issued Friday, was commissioned by DEQ in April 2019 in the wake of national criticism of the state’s approval of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s proposal to construct a natural gas compressor station in the predominantly Black community of Union Hill in Buckingham County. That approval was later struck down by the Richmond-based Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which declared in its ruling that “environmental justice is not a box to be checked.”

Similarly, the consultants caution DEQ that its success in integrating environmental justice into its work “will depend less on checking off each individual recommendation of this report and more on the investments the agency makes in building trust, shared understanding and skills for implementation among its staff, stakeholders and partners.”

The conclusions of the 47-page report are based on more than 70 interviews with people representing environmental justice advocates, conservation groups, regulated industries, local government, citizen boards and DEQ staffs, an interactive webinar held over the summer with more than 400 attendees, a survey that garnered 65 responses and reviews of best practices in other states. Proposals are grouped into nine primary areas focused on issues such as leadership, agency authority, accessibility and community engagement. 

Among its recommendations are the creation of an environmental justice office within DEQ, the establishment of an ombudsman or external agency review process to “address real or perceived influence of political and economic interests on DEQ,” and the development of new laws that would outline specific methodologies “for evaluating environmental justice benefits and impacts (including adverse, cumulative and disproportionate impacts on sensitive populations) during the permitting process.” 

Other recommendations look beyond DEQ. One would “require Virginia municipalities to consider environmental justice in their comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances.” 

Transparency and public engagement concerns, which have dogged recent permit decisions by DEQ and the state’s citizen boards for controversial projects such as the Green Ridge landfill in Cumberland County and two new natural gas plants in Charles City County, feature prominently in the Skeo proposals. These recommendations run the gamut from the development of “guidance on using a respectful approach to security during public hearings” to the creation of a “‘one-stop’ shop” statewide mapping tool to identify environmental justice and tribal communities. 

Throughout the report, the consultants repeatedly emphasize the importance of providing sufficient funding and resources for the agency to carry out environmental justice goals given “several decades of continual and significant budget cuts.” 

According to figures provided by DEQ spokesman Greg Bilyeu, appropriations for the agency from the general fund have been cut by more than $46 million since 2001, including almost $18 million in funds for management and administration. 

The biennial budget passed by the General Assembly in March would have restored a significant amount of funding to DEQ that would have allowed the agency to add 85 new positions over the next two years. Those positions would have included a dozen or more jobs devoted to environmental justice and communications, according to a presentation DEQ Director David Paylor gave to the State Air Pollution Control Board Sept. 17. 

Those hopes have since been dashed by the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated economic fallout. In the wake of the coronavirus’ appearance, DEQ instituted a hiring and spending freeze, and the budget increases were rolled back. 

Despite these constraints, DEQ pledged Friday that it would adopt several of the Skeo recommendations, including the creation of a new Office of Environmental Justice that will craft a two-year action plan to implement the study’s proposals. 

Calling the report “a much needed framework for action,” Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew Strickler said in a statement that “no community, especially those historically marginalized and underrepresented, should face greater risk and impacts of pollution.”

Federal court delays stream crossings for Mountain Valley Pipeline

Link to Original Article from The Roanoke Times

October 16, 2020

By Laurence Hammack, The Roanoke Times

The on-again, off-again pace of building the Mountain Valley Pipeline is off again.

A temporary administrative stay of stream-crossing permits was issued Friday by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a brief order, the court said the delay — which was requested Thursday by conservation groups concerned about environmental damage from the massive natural gas pipeline — will remain in effect until it has time to consider a full stay that was sought earlier.

“Our streams and wetlands get at least a temporary reprieve from MVP’s destruction,” said David Sligh of Wild Virginia, one of eight environmental groups fighting the pipeline in court.

After the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reissued the permits Sept. 25 and a stop-work order was lifted last week, Mountain Valley said it would resume construction “in the coming days.”

While burrowing the 42-inch diameter pipe under nearly 1,000 streams and wetlands is now back on hold, it was unclear whether Mountain Valley is free to resume clearing the right of way and digging trenches to bury the pipe in upland areas.

Asked Friday whether any such work had begun, Mountain Valley spokeswoman Natalie Cox did not answer directly.

“With MVP’s upland construction now scheduled to begin, and as we receive additional information” about other areas being cleared for work, “MVP will continue to evaluate its current construction plans, budget and schedule,” Cox wrote in an email.

Observers have not seen any heavy equipment being moved back to construction zones, according to Russell Chisholm, co-chair of the anti-pipeline Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights coalition.

The most recent report filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission by environmental monitors, which covered the week of Sept. 27 through Oct. 3, did not list any construction in its “Summary of Activities” section.

Although Mountain Valley has regained two of three sets of key permits that were set aside by legal challenges, continued delays raise questions about whether it will meet its often-stated goal of completing the 303-mile pipeline by early next year.

In a weekly report released Monday, an investment banking firm that has been tracking the project said that if a stay was not granted, it expected work to be finished by mid-2021. “If the opponents successfully secure a stay, this timing could slip” to the third quarter, Height Capital Markets stated.

On Oct. 9, FERC allowed work to begin again on all but a 25-mile segment of the pipeline that includes the Jefferson National Forest.

In 2018, the 4th Circuit threw out a permit that allowed the pipeline to pass through 3.5 miles of the forest, citing concerns with erosion and sedimentation. The U.S. Forest Service is not expected to reissue the permit before year’s end.

But Mountain Valley this week asked FERC to allow it to resume construction in much of a buffer zone established around the forest. New sedimentation studies showed no danger to federal woodlands, it said. FERC had not responded by late Friday.

In her email, Cox said Mountain Valley is disappointed that the 4th Circuit stayed the stream-crossing permits temporarily.

But, she added, “we respect the court’s request for additional time to thoroughly consider the Motion for Stay and look forward to a resolution of this matter.”

To obtain a more lasting stay, Wild Virginia and other environmental groups would have to show that they have a good chance of winning their legal challenge, and that they would be “irreparably injured” if construction were allowed to proceed.

Derek Teaney, the attorney for the groups, said in court papers that the Army Corps failed to adequately consider the pipeline’s impact on endangered species, including the Roanoke logperch and the candy darter.

In a statement Friday, POWHR said it was “both heartened and guardedly optimistic” that the court will rule in favor of the project’s opponents.

PHMSA Advisories Target Distribution Pipeline Meters and Overpressure Protection

Flower Branch apartment complex in Silver Spring, Maryland, site of a deadly 2016 gas explosion. Photo: Jabin Botsford/Washington Post

October 7, 2020

By Catherine D. LittleAnnie M. Cook & Viktoriia De Las Casas in PIPELAWS.com

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has issued two Advisory Bulletins directed to natural gas distribution pipeline owners and operators. PHMSA released the advisories in response to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendations arising out of two high-profile distribution pipeline incidents in Silver Spring, Maryland and Merrimack Valley, Massachusetts. The first advisory focuses on indoor meters and regulators to remind operators of the relevant regulatory requirements and risks. The second advisory covers low-pressure distribution systems, emphasizing the possibility of failures due to overpressurization.

While advisory guidance does not create legal requirements, it does signal potential areas of renewed enforcement focus. Both advisories stress the importance of distribution integrity management programs (DIMP), including in particular effective leak detection, threat identification, risk reduction, and periodic evaluation. More specifics regarding each advisory are provided below.

Inside Meters and Regulators Advisory

By way of background, following a 2016 incident in Silver Spring, Maryland that caused an explosion and partial collapse of an apartment building, the NTSB investigation identified the probable cause as the failure of an indoor mercury service regulator with an unconnected vent line. The fact that the mercury service regulator was located in a space where leak detection by odor was not readily available contributed to the incident.

In response to the incident and the NTSB’s findings and recommendations, PHMSA’s advisory reminds distribution operators of the consequences of failures of inside meters and regulators and of the regulations applicable to these devices. Among others, these include requirements regarding installation in readily accessible locations and the additional requirement for indoor devices to be located as near to the point of service line entrance “as practical.” See 49 C.F.R. § 192.353; see also 49 C.F.R. §§ 192.355 (ventilation and venting); 192.357(d) (regulators must be vented to the atmosphere).

The advisory also reminds owners and operators of the requirement to conduct leakage and atmospheric corrosion surveys of their systems, which should also encompass indoor meters and service regulators (49 C.F.R. §§ 192.481 (corrosion); 192.723 (leak surveys)). PHMSA notes that if access to indoor regulators is an issue, operators should work with their customers to provide access for needed checks and surveys. In addition, operators should continue assessing risks to their systems and addressing those risks in accordance with their distribution integrity management programs (DIMP), which includes knowing the location of all meters and regulators, evaluating the risk of failure or damage to these devices, and addressing the risks. Specifically, PHMSA recommends that distribution operators review the points-of-failure identified in the NTSB accident investigation report, assess their systems in light of these failures, and adjust their DIMP if needed.

Overpressure Protection on Low-Pressure Natural Gas Distribution Systems Advisory

PHMSA issued its second advisory in response to the NTSB recommendations arising out of the September 13, 2018, natural gas pipeline incident in Merrimack Valley, Massachusetts. The NTSB identified the probable cause of the accident as weak engineering management and specifically the operator’s failure to relocate regulator sensing lines when conducting main replacement on the system. As a contributing cause, NTSB identified a lack of adequate overpressure protection on the low-pressure system.

In its advisory, PHMSA reminds operators of low-pressure systems to thoroughly review their current DIMP for the threat of overpressurization and to make necessary changes. In particular, PHMSA recommends that operators develop written procedures for all activities involving new construction or pipe replacement projects for their low-distribution systems to account for the additional precautions needed to protect them from overpressurization. The advisory offers a list of topics to be covered in such procedures. Further, PHMSA recommends that while identifying threats and ranking risks, operators consider the single point of failure that could lead to an overpressurization as a high-risk threat, given the Merrimack Valley incident. If operators do not consider the threat of overpressurization as an existing threat in their DIMP programs, PHMSA suggests they provide a written justification. PHMSA also urges operators to use a failure modes and effectiveness analysis (FMEA) model or an equivalent method when performing risk analysis. Lastly, PHMSA reminds operators to implement measures designed to reduce the risk of overpressure events and provides several means for doing that.

If you have any questions regarding these advisories, please contact Catherine Little and Annie Cook at Troutman Pepper.

MA: Weymouth Officials, Residents Want To See Gas Company’s Emergency Plan

Workers build the Weymouth Compressor Station on September 18, 2020 in Weymouth, Massachusetts. (Staff Photo By Matt Stone/ MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)


October 6, 2020

By Jessica Trufant, The Patriot Ledger

WEYMOUTH — Officials are pushing to get more information on the emergency response plan for the newly-completed natural gas compressor station on the banks of the Fore River following two incidents at the facility in less than three weeks that caused emergency releases of gas.

Alice Arena, president of the Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station, went before town council at its virtual meeting this week regarding safety, risk and evacuation planning at the compressor station, which is close by the MWRA sewage pumping station, Fore River Bridge, numerous industrial facilities and hundreds of homes.

Arena said Enbridge, the energy company that owns the compressor station, is required to have an emergency plan, yet has released no information on how it will build and maintain communications with local first responders, make personnel, equipment, tools and materials available during an emergency, evacuate residents and other factors.

“It is simply unacceptable that this compressor station has received its final operating permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but we still have no safety and evacuation plan available to the vulnerable residents and no risk assessment was ever done by federal or state agencies,” Arena said.

At-Large Councilor Becky Haugh, a North Weymouth resident, said residents have the right to see the emergency response plan for the facility based on the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, a law passed in 1986 to ensure local, state and federal agencies make the information available to the public. The council voted to send a letter to federal and state officials urging them to make sure residents have access to any emergency plan.

“Myself, Alice, FRRACS, we’ve been asking for this emergency response plan for two or three years now. It’s been six years in the making for this project, and it’s not uncommon. I can go online and find the emergency response plan for a compressor station in Colorado. I should be able to find my own town’s emergency response plan,” she said.

In a statement on Tuesday, Max Bergeron, a spokesperson for Enbridge, said the company has been coordinating with local first responders and will continue to do so to ensure they are familiar with the facility.

“All along our system, we partner with first responder organizations in the interest of supporting safety in the communities where we live and work, offer training, resources, and maintain open communication,” he said. “We have provided a tour of the Weymouth compressor station to local first responders, along with information to allow for proper planning in the event a response is required.”

He said the system is monitored around the clock, and “highly-trained technicians” are available to respond when other workers aren’t on site.

Residents and officials have focused in on the need for an emergency response plan in recent weeks following two emergency shutdowns at the facility during testing that forced the facility to vent natural gas.

In response, federal regulators last week ordered Enbridge to investigate the emergency shutdowns and draft a plan to minimize risks once operations restart. The company will not be allowed to restart the facility without the approval of a chief regulator at the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Alan Mayberry, associate administrator for pipeline safety, said in a corrective action order that the release of natural could create significant risks and must be investigated.

“I find that continued operation of the station without corrective measures is or would be hazardous to life, property, or the environment, and that failure to issue this order expeditiously would result in the likelihood of serious harm,” he wrote.

The controversial compressor station is part of Enbridge’s Atlantic Bridge project, which will expand the company’s natural gas pipelines from New Jersey into Canada. It has been a point of contention for years among neighbors and some local, state and federal officials who say it presents serious health and safety risks and has no benefit for the residents of Weymouth, Quincy, Braintree, Hingham and surrounding communities.

Algonquin Gas Transmission, a subsidiary of Spectra Energy, received initial approval for the compressor station in January 2017 from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Enbridge later acquired Spectra. The company also needed several state permits, all of which were granted by regulators despite vehement opposition from local officials and residents. The Town of Weymouth alone filed two dozen lawsuits and spent more than $1.6 million in legal fees trying to stop the project.

On Sept. 11, crews at the site manually triggered the emergency shutdown system following a gasket failure, releasing 169,000 cubic feet of natural gas into the air, according to the pipeline agency’s summary.

The station’s emergency shutdown system then automatically triggered on Wednesday for reasons that Enbridge is still investigating. The federal agency said the second incident released about 275,000 cubic feet of natural gas.

While neither shutdown caused any injuries or fatalities, Mayberry wrote in his order that “the release of large quantities of pressurized natural gas in a heavily populated area carries a substantial risk of fire, explosion, and personal injury or death and releases harmful methane into the environment.”

District 1 Councilor Pascale Burga also said town council should do everything it can to approve an alert system that puts the town high on the list, since Enbridge has failed to notify residents itself during these recent incidents.

“Waiting over two hours to be informed by MassDEP or neighbors noticing odors is too late. We need need to immediately develop an emergency plan for evacuation, road closures and whatever else may be necessary,” she said.

Chris Lisinski of State House News Service contributed to this report.

‘Less-than-ideal bedfellows’: Mountain Valley Pipeline Payout Prompts Criticism

Photo: wikipedia.org

October 5, 2020

By Elizabeth McGowan, Energy News Network

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy expected scrutiny for accepting a $19.5 million gift from the pipeline’s developer but believes time will show it was the right decision. 

Maury Johnson has been tangling with a long, skinny, unwelcome intruder — the Mountain Valley Pipeline — on his West Virginia homestead for close to six years.

He and his rural neighbors figured the Appalachian Trail Conservancy would continue to back them as they strategized to prevent the long-delayed, contentious natural gas pipeline from being buried along 303 miles of sensitive West Virginia and Virginia habitat.

So, Johnson was crestfallen when he learned in mid-August that the nonprofit Conservancy had signed a $19.5 million “voluntary stewardship agreement” with the handful of companies building the pipeline. A Conservancy staffer delivered the news via telephone minutes before a press release landed in his inbox.

“It shocked me so much that I almost fell to the floor,” said the 60-year-old retired farmer and former teacher from Monroe County. “At first, I wanted to drop my membership in the Conservancy. But then I thought, wait a minute, membership gives me power because they have to be responsive to members.” 

The Conservancy, founded in 1925, is the guardian of the storied footpath that stretches 2,193 miles from Georgia to Maine. Its charge, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, is a unit of the National Park Service.

Johnson convinced his anti-pipeline colleagues to hold off on a protest at the Conservancy headquarters in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, until he composed a letter to Sandi Marra, the president and CEO of the nonprofit, and checked in with other allies.

“I didn’t want to be confrontational with Sandi,” he said, adding that other Conservancy staffers had reassured him that anti-pipeline efforts would not be ignored just because of the pact. “I wanted to give ATC the benefit of the doubt, to trust but verify.”

Johnson is upset enough that the Mountain Valley Pipeline is slated to be buried under a lengthy section of his 150-acre farm. But he’s also heartsick because his once-pristine view of Peters Mountain is now of chain-sawed trees.

That’s about 11 miles from his home and where the pipeline will likely cross under the Appalachian Trail in the Jefferson National Forest on the Monroe County, West Virginia-Giles County, Virginia border.

Johnson first bonded with the iconic treasure as a teen when he helped with trail maintenance.

He’s resentful that pipeline construction is leaving what he calls a 30-mile scar from Peters Mountain to Keeney Knob. Continued destruction nearby, he said, spoils the view of Sinking Creek Mountain from Kelly Knob, an Appalachian Trail landmark.   

“Every time you crest a ridge, you see it coming at you like a big snake,” he said. “It’s right in your face.”

Johnson serves on the executive committee of the Preserve Our Water, Heritage and Rights (POWHR), a coalition of Virginia- and West Virginia-based local grassroots groups that have combined forces with the Appalachian Blue Ridge Alliance to halt fossil fuel pipelines. 

They might not have felt as deflated by the Conservancy’s agreement had it not come on the heels of the July cancellation of Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Ostensibly, both pipelines were designed to carry a glut of hydraulically fractured natural gas in West Virginia to a market in North Carolina that close observers say is non-existent. At 600 miles, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline  was twice as long as Mountain Valley — and also received more than double the amount of attention.

For one, Atlantic Coast traversed a wealthier stretch of Virginia, and two, activists could go after a local bogeyman because the joint venture was led by Richmond-based Dominion. 

The ownership of Mountain Valley is more distant. The limited liability company is a joint venture of EQM Midstream Partners, NextEra Capital Holdings, Con Edison Transmission, WGL Midstream and RGC Midstream. 

“Mountain Valley is the ugly stepsister pipeline that nobody wants to talk about,” Johnson said. “All along I’ve said that the powers that be will let Mountain Valley be built to keep the Atlantic Coast from being built.”

Charges of greenwashing

The nebulous subject line of the initial news release circulated August 17 by the Conservancy states, “Voluntary Stewardship Agreement to Advance A.T. Conservation.”

Subsequent paragraphs in the body of the email spell out that the Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC initiated contact with the Conservancy more than a year ago.

Marra emphasized in an interview that the Conservancy will not use the money to mitigate damage caused by pipeline construction. 

Instead, the organization will dedicate at least 80% of what is by far the largest donation in its 95-year history to managing and protecting land to enhance the trail corridor in West Virginia and Virginia. An expansive inventory of high-priority, climate-resilient lands and fabled vistas in the region includes some 5,000 acres.

The remainder of the money will support recreation-based economies in tiny, remote communities that haven’t capitalized on their proximity to the Appalachian Trail. 

While some activists with environmental organizations said Mountain Valley’s payout had a bad odor, few want to go on the record criticizing an entity active in land protection.

However, Lee Williams didn’t hesitate to label it greenwashing. She co-directs Green New Deal Virginia.

“It’s an example of a group accepting money from a bad actor and allowing them to greenwash their image,” Williams said. “This is infuriating for people who know what’s going on with pipelines. For those who don’t, they’re the ones who will think that pipeline companies are wonderful for doing this.”

The Richmond resident, active as a volunteer with the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, has organized numerous anti-pipeline events.

“I always felt the Mountain Valley Pipeline route would be a sacrifice zone,” Williams said.

Initially, paid staffers at the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter were willing to grant interviews about the voluntary stewardship agreement.

Later, chapter spokesperson Tim Cywinski, responded to a reporter’s query via email: “Actually, I just realized that the Sierra Club will not be weighing in on this story. We are not connected with this particularly (sic) aspect of MVP.” 

Chapter staffers were more than willing to discuss the multiple reasons they had joined other organizations to stop the pipeline.

Conservancy: ‘We’re not the Sierra Club’

Marra emphasized that the Conservancy is not a broad-reaching environmental organization. Its chief reason for existence is protecting the Appalachian Trail, a unique resource that requires unique management considerations.

“We’re not the Sierra Club. We never say the trail is a green wall to stop all energy projects,” she said. “That’s not our role.”

For instance, she said, the Conservancy’s wind power policy wouldn’t support projects that scar viewsheds. The nonprofit also has a five-year-old pipeline policy.

At the same time, she’s not unsympathetic to the hurt Johnson and his colleagues have expressed.

While the Conservancy has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with local groups trying to halt the Mountain Valley or keep its design from harming the trail, causing landslides in fragile karst landscapes and sullying water sources, leaders’ belief that the pipeline would eventually be completed nudged them to the bargaining table.

“We went in very skeptical and with our eyes wide open,” Marra said. “And we had to factor in us burning some bridges and facing scrutiny. This had to be a win for the Appalachian Trail.”

The Conservancy hired an experienced law firm to help negotiate a financial amount that could make on-the-ground differences and also partnered with the Conservation Fund. 

“This is brand new and quite a stretch for us,” she said. “The Conservation Fund has the capacity to help guide us through this.” 

The Virginia-based fund has helped protect 8 million acres nationwide since it was created in 1985. 

Marra said the pipeline builders who approached the Conservancy last autumn seemed sincere and contrite.

“The people I dealt with were honest in acknowledging that there had been significant mistakes and poor handling of this pipeline project,” she said. “At the end of the day, this is about protecting the Appalachian Trail and sometimes this creates less-than-ideal bedfellows.” 

While Marra understands frustrations voiced by Johnson and others whose lives have been disrupted by pipeline planning and construction, she said the majority of Conservancy members and its affiliates have been supportive. 

She addressed the agreement at the Conservancy’s virtual annual meeting on Sept. 12, where the treasurer highlighted the $19.5 million as a “midyear financial highlight.” She also fielded several queries from critics during the Q&A portion of the meeting.

“I don’t think you judge anybody by one decision, you judge them by their actions,” Marra said in an interview after that meeting. “We might not convert everyone, but three, five or 10 years from now, folks will look back and say ‘I wasn’t happy with the agreement, but now we have lands protected.’

“I’m willing to weather this because I know personally we are genuine in our intent. Managing the Appalachian Trail is the long game.”

A series of self-inflicted starts and stops 

The Mountain Valley Pipeline is actually two projects. The mainline is 303 miles and the 72-mile Southgate extension would reach into North Carolina. In the last five years, costs for the entire project have almost doubled from more than $3.5 billion to upward of $6.5 billion, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

That same NRDC report cites sloppy construction practices. For instance, the pipeline owners have paid more than $2 million in penalties for 300-plus water quality violations in Virginia and West Virginia. As well, North Carolina recently denied the operators a key water permit for the Southgate extension.

The deadline for the pipeline to be online is Oct. 13. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is in the midst of reviewing Mountain Valley’s request for a two-year extension of that initial construction timeline. 

Before FERC greenlighted the pipeline project, Andrew Downs, the Conservancy’s Virginia regional director said his nonprofit “finds that MVP’s proposed routing could not be worse.”

“The route snakes through the Appalachians requiring thousands of acres of forest to be cleared and creating gashes the width of a 12-lane highway,” Downs wrote in a 2017 opinion piece in the Roanoke Times. “The resulting eyesores would be devastating to the trail and surrounding landscape, and would be seen from as far as 20 miles away.”

In a September letter, a southwest Virginia environmental hydrologist urged FERC to reject the two-year extension because construction has already compromised the delicate karst topography, formed by limestone and other soluble rocks. It is characterized by steep slopes and underground sinkholes, caves, aquifers and streams. Mountain Valley filed its first application with the federal agency in October 2015.

“Since beginning construction of the pipeline in early 2018, MVP has not been able to control erosion and landslides,” Jacob Hileman wrote. “This has resulted in significant harm to water resources and upland forest outside the project’s limits of disturbance … and most worrisome, situations where buried pipe has shifted as a result of unstable hillslopes.”

Hileman’s 20-page document also points to the ongoing suspension of multiple crucial federal permits needed to complete the pipeline, as well as local and project-wide stop-work orders. He attributes those losses to severe deficiencies in the federal environmental impact statement and process by which the pipeline was approved.

The Conservancy and the pipeline operators stated that “there is no relationship between this voluntary agreement and the various federal and state permitting decisions.” In addition, the Conservancy said it will continue to engage in the federal permitting process.

Hileman also disputes the operator’s repeated claims that the pipeline is 92% complete. His math and measurements put that figure just above 51%.

Marra, the leader of the Conservancy, said she was aware that number was controversial, but that her staff had vetted it. She said she felt comfortable citing it when she spoke at the Conservancy’s annual meeting. 

Critics want to eyeball pact language

Johnson, of West Virginia, has exchanged several letters with Marra. 

And even though she told him in a late September email that “We have no more information to share with you,” he is doggedly pursuing access to the stewardship agreement as he also continues to bird-dog the pipeline operators.

Currently, he’s exploring a petition movement and legal options.

The Conservancy has clearly stated that its internal business agreements, regardless of the subject, are shared only with appropriate staff and officers.

“I won’t take no for an answer,” Johnson said. “I’m not expecting to put a halt to the agreement. I want to see its specific language and make sure it is on the up-and-up.”

He emphasized that what he calls a lack of transparency has soured people in the local communities from collaborating with the Conservancy on projects that advance both the region’s cultural heritage and its connection to a rich recreational legacy.

“We’re disappointed,” Johnson said. “We feel like we got kicked in the teeth.”

In the meantime, he’s keeping his Conservancy membership.

Small Pipeline, Large Worries for Some South Carolina Residents

October 3, 2020

By MICHELLE LIU, Associated Press

Reatha Jefferson looks out over the Great Pee Dee River on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, Pamplico, SC. Dominion plans to build a new 14.5-mile-long gas line along the river and cites new energy demand spurred by economic growth in eastern South Carolina as the impetus for the project. Jefferson is one of several landowners protesting the pipeline because they are worried about its potential environmental effects. (AP Photo/Michelle Liu)

PAMPLICO, S.C. (AP) — The land agent who arrived at Reatha Jefferson’s door in May, unannounced and unmasked in the middle of the pandemic, told her he was giving her one more chance.

The agent was there on behalf of Virginia-based utility giant Dominion Energy. He wanted to see if Jefferson would let Dominion run a new natural gas pipeline through the land her great-grandfather, a rural Black farmer, had bought more than a century ago in Pamplico, South Carolina.

Jefferson sent the agent away and in July, the utility served her with court papers in an attempt to use eminent domain to build the pipeline.

The proposed 14.5-mile-long (23-kilometer-long) gas line is small in contrast to projects like the recently canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline, or even a 55-mile-long (88.5-kilometer-long) pipeline Dominion built recently in the state. But for Jefferson, it threatens to stain the land where her relatives once grew tobacco, corn and wheat, and the river where her father used to catch catfish for dinner.

“This property’s been in my family for 100 years. How do they think they can tell me what they’re going to run through my property?” she said.

The company cites new energy demand spurred by economic growth in eastern South Carolina as the impetus for the project. Dominion declined to make anyone available for an interview but said in a statement that the project could help attract and grow businesses, adding jobs and possibly lowering energy costs for residents.

The gas main, designed to supply customers directly with natural gas, would run 14.5 miles from a valve station to a regulating station along the Great Pee Dee River, according to permitting paperwork Dominion submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers. It would traverse 65 pieces of private property along the way.

Some environmental groups think the pipeline’s true purpose is to jump-start a natural gas-fired power plant that state-owned utility Santee Cooper has previously discussed building at the same spot where the proposed pipeline would end. The company had said it would use natural gas from a utility partner such as Dominion.

Shelley Robbins, energy and state policy director of Upstate Forever, an environmental watchdog group focused on preserving land in South Carolina, said she wonders if the proposed pipeline is being designed with a relatively large diameter so that it could connect to a natural-gas power plant in addition to supplying customers with electricity. Such a plant would have a far bigger footprint in the community than the proposed line, she added.

Dominion spokesperson Paul Fischer said in an email that the gas line would be solely operated and owned by Dominion, and is unrelated to any current or future projects by other utilities. Santee Cooper spokesperson Mollie Gore said the company was unfamiliar with the pipeline and had made no decisions about future sites for natural-gas power plants.

Kathy Andrews, a landowner in the area who, like Jefferson, is opposed to the project, says she’s concerned about environmental damage such as leaks once the pipeline is in operation. She points to the explosion of a Dominion gas line in Ohio and allegations over pollution involving coal ash in Virginia.

In addition to worrying about the pipeline’s possible effects on the environment, Jefferson is concerned that she will lose more of the property her father entrusted to her on his death bed. The 40 acres (16 hectares) Jefferson’s great-grandfather, Andrew Hyman, once owned has been whittled down to about 30 acres (12 hectares) over time. Jefferson is determined not to lose any more.

In recent years, the land has grown dense with trees and brush, obscuring the driveway that once led to the house Jefferson was born in. That house burned down a few decades ago, but lately, some of the other heirs to the land tell Jefferson they contemplate returning and rebuilding. Jefferson dutifully pays the property taxes every year, as her father asked her to.

But Jefferson and Andrews may be out of luck. In cases where a company or the government is arguing that a utility upgrade is for the public good, it’s nearly impossible for property owners to fight, said Renee Gregory, a lawyer at the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation in Charleston, South Carolina.

“In these situations, it’s not a matter of will the property be taken, just how much you will be compensated for,” she said.

Andrews, who owns the parcel bordering Jefferson’s, said Dominion offered her $500, then $1,000 when she refused. She said she worries that the economic woes some people are experiencing amid the coronavirus pandemic will lead other property owners to take Dominion up on its cash offers.

Dominion held a community workshop in January at the town’s elementary school so residents could learn more about the proposed pipeline. But Andrews said the workshop was in the afternoon when most people were working; the explanations they got from Dominion weren’t that thorough, and there was no mention of a public hearing.

“It’s like we had no say in the matter,” Andrews said.

Other landowners reached by The Associated Press had varied reactions to the project, though most expressed unease at the thought of agreeing to an easement on their lands.

Andrews and Jefferson have tried to rally their neighbors against the project. The pandemic makes organizing hard. Instead of meeting in person, concerned residents hop onto weekly conference calls. And some community members are apathetic to their cause, the women say, assuming Dominion will win out in the end regardless.

Jefferson, who is still handing out photocopied, handwritten appeals to her neighbors and looking for an attorney to represent her in court, remains even-tempered despite the stress of the past few months.

“It’s not about money. It’s about principle,” Jefferson said.

DEP Orders Sunoco to Reroute Pipeline After Marsh Creek Lake Spill

Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

September 14, 2020 (Updated)

By Jon Hurdle, StateImpact Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania environmental officials on Friday ordered Sunoco to reroute one of its problem-plagued Mariner East pipelines away from a site where construction spilled more than 8,000 gallons of drilling fluid into a lake and created a 15-foot sink hole.

The order from the Department of Environmental Protection was the first to demand a partial reroute of  the pipeline in its troubled three-and-a-half year construction history, and follows criticism that a series of fines and shutdowns previously imposed by the DEP have done little to improve Sunoco’s performance on the project — which has prompted the department to issue more than 100 notices of violation.

“These incidents are yet another instance where Sunoco has blatantly disregarded the citizens and resources of Chester County with careless actions while installing the Mariner East II Pipeline,” said DEP Secretary Patrick McDonell, in a statement. “We will not stand for more of the same. An alternate route must be used. The department is holding Sunoco responsible for its unlawful actions and demanding a proper cleanup.”

The DEP ordered Sunoco to immediately stop all construction on a horizontal directional drilling site in Uwchlan Township, Chester County, and to prepare to reroute its 20-inch pipeline over an approximately 1-mile section that the company previously identified as being technically feasible but which was not implemented.

The company was also directed to submit full reports on how it spilled some 8,100 gallons of drilling mud into a stream that fed Marsh Creek Lake on Aug. 10, and how its construction led to the sinkhole the next day. And it was ordered to submit an impact assessment and cleanup plan for the incidents by Oct. 1.

The order said Sunoco re-evaluated the site, as ordered by a court, following two spills there in 2017 while it was building a 16-inch pipeline along the same route, and concluded there was a “moderate to high risk” that drilling fluids would be lost and there would be inadvertent returns.

The DEP noted that 33 acres of Marsh Creek Lake, in a state park less than 40 miles west of Philadelphia, had been closed to the public because of the spill.

DEP spokeswoman Virginia Cain said the order had been issued because of the spill but also because Sunoco had not acted on earlier assurances that it would prevent further spills at the site, following “inadvertent returns,” or spills, there in 2017.

“It was the nature of the spill, and the things that they said they would do if there was a spill, which they didn’t do,” she said.

Sunoco issued a statement saying: “We are currently reviewing the DEP’s Administrative Order and will continue to work closely with the DEP on this issue as we have done throughout the duration of this project. Our first priority remains the safe completion and then operation of this important infrastructure project. Beyond that, we will decline to comment on the DEP’s press release.”

Rerouting the 20-inch line will further delay the project, which began in February 2017, and will add to construction costs. Even though the project remains incomplete, the company started operating Mariner East in December 2018 by pumping fuel through different-diameter pipes, leading critics to dub the project “frankenpipe.”

The Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, which advocates for the industry, said the order was a significant blow to the state’s biggest infrastructure project.

“DEP’s order to reroute this portion of the project is no small matter, especially when you consider the pipe in this area is meant to connect two existing pipes that are already in the ground,” said Kurt Knaus, a spokesman for the group. “Communities that thought this project was coming to an end now face potentially many more months of disruption, because this action has the potential of dramatically extending the construction life of a pipeline project that was nearly finished.”

Food & Water Watch, an activist group that opposes the Mariner East project, said the pipeline should be shut down rather than just rerouted.

“Sunoco’s negligence has created a series of entirely predictable disasters, the most recent being the massive spill at Marsh Creek Lake. This dangerous, unnecessary pipeline does not need to be re-routed. It must be shut down entirely,” said Sam Rubin, an organizer with the group.Ginny Kerslake, a Mariner East opponent who lives near another drilling site in West Whiteland Township, Chester County, also called for the project to be shut down.“This action by the DEP is the least they could do,” she said.

The multi-billion dollar pipelines carry natural gas liquids from southwestern Pennsylvania and Ohio through 17 counties to a terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia, where most of the fuel is exported. The project has been plagued by legal, technical and environmental problems, and has aroused strong opposition along the route because of disruption to private water supplies and concern about threats to public safety.

In January, the agency fined Sunoco $2 million for spilling more than 200,000 gallons of drilling mud into Raystown Lake. In 2018, the DEP penalized the company $12.6 million for multiple violations during pipeline construction.

Vote Delays New Jersey’s Planned First LNG Terminal on Delaware River

Photo: Center for Liquified Natural Gas


By The Maritime Executive , September 10, 2020

Plans for a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal to be located on the Delaware River were again stalled today as the commission overseeing the river voted to delay its initial approval of the project pending an appeal from an environmental group. The proposed project would be New Jersey’s first LNG export terminal on the Delaware River.

Initially approved in June 2019, the plan calls for the construction of a 1,600-foot pier at the Gibbstown Logistic Center on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River not far from the Philadelphia International Airport. The Delaware River Basin Commission, made of representatives from four states that border the river and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, had granted initial approvals related to the dredging of the Delaware River to 43 feet and the building of the terminal. 

Due to additional protests from environmental and community groups, the DRBC later agreed to hold additional hearings to provide the Delaware Riverkeeper Network the opportunity to argue for a change in the approval. DRN, an environmental group, has argued against the increased traffic on the river as well as from the transport of the LNG and the environmental dangers. They contend the site would also increase air pollution and has the risk of explosion.

Under the plan put forth by New Fortress Energy, a second pier would be added to the facility built at the location of a former explosives plant. They had first proposed to create a single general-purpose pier for automobiles, cargo, propane, and butane. The second pier would be dedicated to the export of LNG being produced at the company’s liquefaction plant which is part of the contentious fracking process located on the Marcellus Shale fields in northern Pennsylvania. The fracking process has also been the center of numerous environmental challenges and became embroiled in political debates.

One of the issues that the environmentalists and residents have also raised is the transport of the gas from the facility in northern Pennsylvania to the terminal. It would be through heavily populated regions they contend and the truck traffic would create a danger to the residents. At the end of 2019, with the support of the Trump administration, the project was also issued the nation’s first LNG by rail permit to move the gas from the liquefaction plant to the terminal.

Construction on the terminal, which generally has been supported by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, could have begun as early as this month. The Engineers had previously issued a delay in the construction due to the potential impact on two species of fish in the river.

During its regularly scheduled meeting, the Delaware River Basin Commission representatives from New York, New Jersey, and Delaware voted in favor of the delay while Pennsylvania abstained from the vote. The Army Corps of Engineers voted against the delay. The commission has previously noted that it has not withdrawn its approval, but under its processes was giving the groups time to make their appeals for a reversal of the decision. In addition, a collation of environmental groups is appealing the rail transportation permit granted by the federal government.

No ‘bomb trains’: 14 states aim to take new rule on LNG transport off the rails


August 21, 2020

By Hannah Chinn/WHYY

Fourteen states — including Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware — and the District of Columbia have filed a legal challenge to a new federal rule that would allow trains to carry liquefied natural gas (LNG) across the country.

The states’ move coincides with a petition filed by environmental organizations that also hope to block the rule, which was approved in late July by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Both petitions say the rule, set to take effect Monday, Aug. 24, should be overturned because it poses health, safety, and environmental risks.

Environmental advocates have nicknamed the proposed LNG rail cars “bomb trains,” for their potential explosive capacity.

For Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the rule could prove to be particularly important. That’s because an LNG terminal in Gibbstown, New Jersey, for which approval is pending would use rail cars to carry liquefied natural gas from Wyalusing in northeastern Pennsylvania to a Delaware River port in Gloucester County.

It would be the first route in the nation to allow such rail transport, meaning residents of those states would be the first potentially exposed to the level of danger the legal challenges say the new rule represents.

No safety studies

Federal safety and environmental studies on the impact of LNG rail transport — the kind that are typically carried out before the implementation of new regulations — have not yet been conducted.

“There’s never been a full risk assessment done, there’s never been a quantitative risk assessment done on the use of these rail cars for carrying LNG,” Tracy Carluccio of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network said Thursday.

Given that, she said, the Gibbstown route would mean “everybody exposed along the railways are put in the position of guinea pigs … [They] would be part of a big experiment that could potentially cost them their lives.”

The petition filed by the states does not lay out the full legal argument in its text, but a release from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office said that the coalition plans to argue that “PHMSA’s failure to evaluate the environmental impacts of the rule is unlawful … the rule lacks the necessary safety requirements to minimize the risk to public safety associated with transporting LNG by rail.”

“The admin has fast-tracked a plan to haul explosive liquefied natural gas by train through communities nationwide. Without adequate safety and environmental studies,” New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal tweeted. “We’re fighting back to protect our residents.”

In a statement, Pennsylvania Attorney Josh Shapiro said, “Liquefied natural gas has almost never been allowed on rail cars in bulk, because it’s extremely dangerous — it’s explosive! Look, there are laws on the books to ensure safety, and the Trump administration must follow them.”

Rail transport’s track record: iffy

Under current federal law, it’s considered too dangerous to transport liquefied natural gas in regular tank railcars. LNG can be transported only by truck or — with special approval by the Federal Railroad Administration — by rail in small United Nations tanks mounted on top of railcars. That would change when the new rule takes effect.

In January, the same attorneys general voiced “strong objection” to the proposed change. But the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration chose to approve it July 24, authorizing bulk shipments of LNG by rail provided the transporting cars had certain enhanced outer tank requirements.

That wasn’t enough for the states or the environmental groups, which include the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Clean Air Council in Philadelphia, and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. Their petitions, filed Aug. 18, ask the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to find PHMSA’s rule unlawful under the Administrative Procedure Act, the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Representatives from the Standards and Rulemaking Division of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the legal challenges.

The petitions are not without precedent. After the derailment and explosion of crude oil trains in Quebec and North Dakota in 2013, as well as multiple incidents involving crude oil trains in Pennsylvania, advocates urged more stringent safety standards around rail transportation of hazardous and potentially explosive materials, both locally and nationwide. Some of those implemented regulations took effect as recently as 2019.

But the Delaware Riverkeeper Network’s Carluccio and other environmental advocates are worried that LNG — which can simultaneously combust and explode into vapor more than 600 times its volume — poses an unprecedented level of risk that far surpasses a crude oil shipment.

“We’re not talking about the usual hazardous material that are unfortunately [carried] every day across the nation’s railways,” she said. “We’re talking about a new breed of danger, danger that we’ve never faced before.”