Locations of pipelines of concern
Lycoming County has been among the state’s busiest areas for natural gas activity in recent years, leading to the construction of pipelines, including more than 100 miles of gathering lines.
But some people are concerned that there has not been adequate oversight for how the infrastructure is regulated.
The issue, some say, raises plenty of red flags in a rural area where a pipeline failure could have a devastating effect on the environment and pose a significant risk to people living or working around the sites, especially at a time when the area gas industry continues to grow.
In December 2012, a report to the state General Assembly was issued by Patrick Henderson, energy executive, Office of Gov. Tom Corbett, outlining some of the concerns.
As yet, the state Legislature has taken no formal action on those recommendations to improve oversight and safety standards for all pipelines.
“I see the major problem to be gathering lines,” said Roberta Winters, who represents the state’s League of Women Voters.
The League of Women Voters used a federal Department of Transportation, Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration Technical Assistance Grant to consider the growing number of natural gas pipelines in Lycoming County, as well as regulations of the existing and evolving transmission system and recommendations for educating the public and elected officials about decision-making. Winters has served as vice president for Issues and Action of the League of Women Voters state board.
She and her organization based concerns on the report issued by Henderson.
Lycoming County’s rural location as a gas-producing area and its 2,200 miles of streams and history of flooding made it a prime target for the study, Winters said.
“There is a need for public awareness and improved emergency preparedness and enhanced involvement of the government,” Winters said. “We did this study because we felt this was important.”
But county officials claim they have a pretty good handle on what’s happening with respect to underground lines.
“We know where they are,” said Lycoming County Public Safety Director John Yingling when asked about pipeline location.
Underground lines for gas, as well as for electricity, cable and other activities, must all be marked at their locations by specific colors.
The markings serve as protectors, preventing the lines from being inadvertently disturbed by anyone digging at the sites of pipelines, Yingling said.
According to Henderson, as of December 2012, Lycoming County had 128 miles of gathering lines for natural gas operations alone.
Gathering lines are the lines that transport gas from the wellhead to a transmission line or compressor station.
Henderson said he’d like to see the state Public Utility Commission have more direct involvement in the siting of larger diameter, higher-pressure Marcellus shale gathering lines in Class One, rural areas of Pennsylvania such as Lycoming County.
“How do they end up where they are?” he asked. “Is there a better way to do this, so we sort of avoid the spaghetti line?”
Henderson said in the earlier days of drilling for natural gas in the state, many companies were so intent on getting to the gas that they perhaps didn’t follow the best practices for building the lines.
“Things have improved over the last three or four years,” he conceded.
However, the PUC does not regulate Class One gathering lines, which are sites of less than 20 buildings of human occupancy within 220 yards of the centerline of a pipeline.
Yingling said PUC oversight for those areas is something that could be considered.
Lycoming County Commissioner Jeff Wheeland noted that the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania supports PUC enforcement of pipeline safety laws and regulations to specifically include Class One gathering lines. Moreover, the CCAP supports sharing the location of gas pipelines with counties for planning, emergency response and other purposes.
Wheeland said there needs to be information available to future generations about the location of abandoned lines as well.
Henderson recommended a state map shared with the Commonwealth’s county planners regarding location of all pipelines.
“The information is out there,” he said, while adding that the problem is getting it out to the public.
State Sen. E. Eugene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township, questioned the need for the public’s right to know where lines are located.
Yingling said information leading to public access can possibly open up the lines to being vandalized.
Anadarko Petroleum Corp. spokeswoman Mary B. Wolf noted that the state’s One Call Law requiring homeowners and contractors who dig around pipelines to call 811 at least three business days prior to an excavation project. She said her company certainly supports the law and for following proper procedures should problems arise.
Local officials said they were not aware of any problems anywhere regarding pipelines.
Lycoming County Department of Planning and Economic Development Director Kurt Hausammann said permits are not needed for gathering lines, although they are required for drilling and pipelines that cross public rights-of-way.
He noted the efforts in recent years by the county to best monitor the growing gas industry.
It started with an amendment to the county zoning ordinance to address some of the issues.
Coming up with a plan involved working with different groups to help balance quality-of-life issues with economic development.
“I think we have struck a good balance,” he said. “We don’t tell them (gas companies) how to do their business, but where to do their business.”
Yingling noted the formation of the county gas exploration task force comprised of various industries, agencies, educators and others working together to resolve issues.
But Winters feels there’s simply too little regulation.
One reason, she said, is that the natural gas industry has evolved very quickly in the state and Lycoming County.
“Regulations are always behind the technology,” she said.
Winters supports Henderson’s recommendations calling for an increase in the number of certified gas safety inspectors in the state and an adequate number of annual investigations. In addition, she’d like to see a standardization in state best practices for pipeline design and construction.
She fears, she said, that it may take some type of accident, such as a gas line explosion resulting in the loss of lives, for things to change.
She said gas companies should take the lead in ensuring that safety is a priority.
“It really behooves them to do the right thing,” she said.
Wolf said in many ways the gas industry has lead the way in ensuring best practices within.