Proposed path of liquid fuel pipeline frightens North Huntingdon neighborhood
By Timothy Puko
Published: Saturday, December 1, 2012, 9:02 p.m.
Updated: Friday, December 28, 2012
Bob Kaczynski bought a home in North Huntingdon in October, and he's wondering whether he made a mistake. He just learned that his house lies along the path of a proposed and potentially dangerous type of gas pipeline.
Philadelphia company Sunoco Logistics Partners LP is almost finished surveying a 45-mile route from Chartiers in Washington County to Delmont in Westmoreland County for a high-pressure pipeline to help move Western Pennsylvania shale gas to markets overseas.
The route runs through backyards in Kaczynski's neighborhood, Markview Manor, and others. Many homeowners worry about their property rights, objecting to the chance that the company could obtain rights-of-way through eminent domain.
Safety experts say residents should consider the unique — though small — risk of explosions that comes with the pressurized liquid fuel that Sunoco Logistics plans to transport.
“This just scares the heck out of me, with my grandbaby running around,” said Kaczynski, 60, formerly of Penn Hills. “I had no idea this was a consideration. That's a little too close to the property line for that business to be going on back there.”
Unlike common natural gas that quickly dissipates into the air during a leak, the propane and ethane that would move through the 12-inch pipe can form thick clouds that hover and grow — and if the clouds find an ignition source, the results can be catastrophic.
“Those are some of the pipelines that are the scariest to me because of the risks associated with them,” said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, an independent group in Bellingham, Wash.
Sunoco Logistics spokesman Joe McGinn wrote in an email that “new and existing lines associated with this project will be maintained and operated under our robust standards that meet or exceed federal regulations. The safety of our lines to the communities where we operate is a core principal.”
High-pressure pipelines typically lie far from residential areas because of their explosive potential, safety experts said.
“I think pipeline is the way to go for any high-volume energy products that can be transported by pipelines. All that considered, these pipelines are different from your typical natural gas lines,” said Brigham McCown, a Dallas lawyer and consultant who was the first acting head of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “There is a heightened risk associated with these types of lines that needs to be taken into account while they're being planned.”
McGinn said Sunoco Logistics sent hundreds of letters to government officials and homeowners whose properties the company is surveying as part of the 50-foot right of way. He said the company has a 24-hour hotline (855-430-4491) for people with questions.
“We are ... focused on making local residents, elected and emergency officials aware of our pipelines,” McGinn said.
State leaders deemed the project important for growth of the gas drilling industry and the struggling gas processing industry. Gov. Tom Corbett, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, and others lauded it as a job creator in remarks they gave to the company for its September announcement touting the project's progress.
The pipeline would move as many as 70,000 barrels of fuel east every day from the MarkWest Energy Partners LP plant in Chartiers, which separates the propane and ethane that come up from the region's shale layer in quantities too large to go into standard natural gas pipelines.
Range Resources Corp., the dominant driller in Washington County, supplies most of that gas and has contracts to ship half of it to Europe.
The project would connect with existing high-pressure lines in Delmont so the gas can flow to Marcus Hook, near Philadelphia, for shipping.
Company officials said they're looking for land in open spaces, said state Rep. George Dunbar, R-Penn, who fielded complaints from landowners in Westmoreland County. They're likely to stick to existing rights of way, including roads and power lines, to make quicker land deals and for safety reasons, Dunbar said.
Sunoco Logistics plans to spend more than $600 million on the project and a sister line from the MarkWest plant to Canada. The Philadelphia-bound segment, named Mariner East, could employ 450 people during its construction, the company said.
The government oversees placement of some interstate natural gas lines, but not liquid fuel lines, experts said. Some states have authority, but Pennsylvania leaves it to local land-use laws.
The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration won't get involved until construction, when it starts visual inspections and records checks, spokesman Damon Hill said. It will review company records of safety tests.
The agency classifies Mariner East as a “highly volatile liquid” pipeline. Incidents on those types of pipelines killed seven people, injured 27 and caused $78 million in property damage nationwide since 2002, according to data from Pipeline Safety Trust.
That's a casualty rate of one for every 1,600 miles of pipe during more than 10 years, according to federal pipeline mileage data — nearly double the casualty rate of all pipelines nationwide during that time span, federal data show.
Home heating gas lines — such as those that exploded in Springfield, Mass., on Nov. 24, injuring 18 and damaging 42 buildings — have caused the most raw damage because of the huge number of distribution pipelines in close proximity to people. But natural gas transmission lines and high-pressure liquid fuel lines can do more damage in dense developments, safety experts said.
Frank Kranik, an industry environmental consultant and North Huntingdon resident, compared its worst-case scenario to the 2010 transmission pipeline explosion that killed eight people in suburban San Francisco. That explosion — from natural gas, not the more volatile liquids — was deadly because suburban sprawl grew over a large line. A new line would have been routed away from suburbs, experts have said.
Suburban sprawl and the growing domestic energy industry are drawing closer, causing more of the safety concerns that Mariner East is causing in North Huntingdon, Weimer said.
Several of Kaczynski's neighbors said that moving the pipeline about 30 yards away would help ease concerns.
“I don't care if (pipelines are) the safest way. Put it somewhere where it cannot bother people,” said Dominic Rossetti, 66, adding that he probably will hire a lawyer to fight the project if Sunoco Logistics decides to cross his land.
Weimer said some people question whether state and federal governments can help local governments ensure that Sunoco Logistics places the line in the safest area.
“All of a sudden, Sunoco's land agents are going to be out there buying land for the pipelines,” he said. “The citizens and landowners are going to be upset because they don't understand the process, and local governments don't even have a process.”
Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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