State oversight of gas pipeline drilling gets bipartisan criticism

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – David Mano stepped to the podium in the Capitol Media Center and held up a Mason jar filled with a cloudy liquid.

“This is what we were drinking,” Mano said.

He choked back tears when he noted that it took days for his family to realize that their Chester County well had been compromised by pipeline construction. They drank it, he said, bathed in it, and watered their organic garden with the murky fluid.

“We have no idea what the water has done to us,” he said.

Mano was among dozens of Chester and Delaware County residents in Harrisburg Tuesday in support of several bills that would tighten restrictions and requirements for pipeline construction and give local municipalities the ability to tax them.

“My children’s school is a mere 100 feet from these pipelines,” said Melissa DiBernardino. She questions the wisdom and safety of putting pipelines close to homes, schools and senior centers.

“Without warning, a colorless, odorless, highly flammable, and heavier-than-air vapor cloud could form from a leak which could then be ignited by something as simple as a cell phone or doorbell,” DiBernardino said.

Many of the residents are nearly combustible, frustrated at what they believe is lax oversight of pipeline construction and indifference by governmental agencies to their concerns. They brought several school children to the Capitol to deliver a petition with 6,000 signatures and another 1,200 cards to Gov. Tom Wolf’s office.

They are seeking a “pause” in pipelines until the full extent of the public danger can be assessed.

“We are probably the weakest of any state when it comes to regulating pipelines,” said Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-Chester) who organized the event. He was joined at the news conference by Sens. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery/Delaware) and John Rafferty (R-Montgomery/Berks/Chester).

There was bipartisan criticism of the Department of Environmental Protection and state oversight of the industry.

“There’s this perception that these pipelines just get thrown into the ground and that’s just not the case at all,” said Kurt Knaus with Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, a pro-pipeline advocacy group.

Knaus notes that the approval process takes years and dozens of public hearings. He understands the emotion is not on his side, but he insists the economics are.

“These pipelines are the safest means we have for transporting these vast energy resources and they’re going to be an incredibly important asset for Pennsylvania in the years ahead,” Knaus said.

The bipartisan lawmakers emphasize they don’t want to kill the golden goose. They do want to make it more responsive to the gander.

“You haven’t listened to us Mr. Governor,” Dinniman said in a preacher-like cadence. “You haven’t listened to us Secretary of DEP. We’re the people and we’re gonna make sure you listen to us, and that’s why we’ve come to Harrisburg.”

Wolf’s spokesman released this statement following the news conference:

“The governor takes seriously the concerns expressed by residents affected by this project and has instructed the Department of Environmental Protection to utilize all appropriate tools to enforce the stringent requirements of the permits associated with the pipeline. The governor has been in communication with various legislators and met personally with them to hear their concerns. The administration remains committed to the protection of Pennsylvania’s residents and will hold operators accountable to their obligations.”

DEP also responded to ABC27’s request for reaction:

“DEP is engaging in serious and comprehensive oversight and regulatory enforcement.

To date, DEP has issued 14 Notices of Violation to Sunoco for the project. Additionally, two Consent Order and Agreements has been executed, one with a penalty of $87,600 for a violation that impacted a wetland area next to Interstate 81 in Cumberland County and the other which has halted drilling since late July for impacts to private drinking wells in Chester County.

Notices of Violation were issued to Sunoco in 9 of the 17 counties along the pipeline route for impacts to waters of the commonwealth from inadvertent returns associated with the horizontal directional drilling (HDD) operations. Violations involving “inadvertent returns” refer to incidents in the course of HDD in which the drilling fluid, a mix of water and bentonite clay used to lubricate the drill bit. The drilling fluid is non-toxic and is not expected to have any lasting effects on impacted waters of the commonwealth. The permits DEP issued specifically limit the use of additives in drilling fluids to an approved list that complies with drinking water standards.”

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