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Philadelphia Inquirer lives up to its name with “Battle Lines,” investigative series on pipelines in PA

December 14, 2011

The Philadelphia Inquirer has put award-winning writer Craig McCoy at the head of an investigative team doing an in-depth report on pipelines in Pennsylvania. The four-part series, titled “Battle Lines,” gives readers a comprehensive look at the health and safety impacts of hundreds of miles of gathering lines (pipelines carrying gas directly from wellheads) on the rural communities they bisect. From “Part One: Powerful Pipes, Weak Oversight:”

“[The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)] found steel that didn’t meet specifications, inadequate coating on pipes, and slipshod welding techniques. The agency found the problems were exacerbated when the lines cut through hills and streams – common terrain in Pennsylvania’s shale fields.

Inspections were supposed to catch the bad welds, but those procedures suffered from their own ‘quality control problems,’ PHMSA found. . . Bad welds are supposed to be caught right away, not during final testing.”

The absence of oversight comes from a series of federal legal loopholes that leave rural areas – areas with 10 or fewer homes along each mile of pipe – in a regulatory vacuum. The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (or PUC) regulates gas lines in urban areas (such as those for utilities like Peco and PGW), but neither PUC nor PHMSA have been keeping track of the thousands of miles of built or planned pipelines throughout PA’s shale country.

In part two of Battle Lines, “Similar Pipes, Different Rules,” McCoy writes:

“In Bradford County, another company – Chesapeake Energy – is building a pipeline the same size as the Tennessee line, 24 inches in diameter. And it’s designed to operate at even higher pressure – up to 1,440 pounds per square inch.

But for this line, in this rural section of shale country, there are no safety rules at all.”

Because of pushback from environmentalists, fracktivists and concerned community members, local governments have stepped in to draft regulations on pipelines in their municipalities (such as Dallas Township, PA’s custom-tailored ordinance banning high-pressure pipelines in residential areas).

But Governor Corbett is determined to give the gas industry another leg-up.

Currently, the Pennsylvania state legislature – pressured by Corbett and his administration – is reconciling SB1100 and HB1950: legislation that would strip municipalities’ ability to limit gas drilling and pipeline development. Protecting Our Waters has joined with Delaware Riverkeeper Network, PennFuture, PennEnvironment, the Sierra Club and other environmentalist groups in a series of six rallies at state legislators’ offices to demand they vote “no” on the bill. There are three rallies scheduled for today (check out abe’s blog post “Write, Call, Rally: Six Rallies to Stop PA ‘Impact Fee’ Bill that Strips Municipalities’ Right to Limit or Ban Gas Drilling” for more info).

Part three of McCoy’s series, “ ‘Us vs. Them’ in Pa.’s Gaslands,” further explores community members’ battle to defend their land and homes from gas drilling.

For years, the realities of gas drilling – the radioactivity in flowback, the health impacts of fracking chemicals moving through air and water, the trouble with TDS, the aggregate air pollution stemming from fracking operations, the heartbreaking impact on rural families, the illnesses and the animal deaths – have been made invisible to Philadelphia Inquirer readers. Industry ebullience has been trumpeted while the significance of scientific studies about gas drilling’s impacts on climate and groundwater have been minimized.

Protecting Our Waters welcomes this investigative report as a step in the right direction, and urges all to read the full series and comment to the Inquirer about it. Craig McCoy is an award-winning writer who previously investigated the Philadelphia police practice of ignoring – in fact “disappearing” – sexual assault cases which involved girls, poor women, sex workers and women of color. His reporting made a serious difference in the lives of our most vulnerable in the past – and, with your help, we can make sure it does again.

P.S. The last part – “Aging pipes, deadly hazards,” – of the Inquirer’s four-part series will be published this Sunday, December 18.

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