This article originally appeared on StateImpact Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced an agreement Friday that includes a record fine against the company responsible for a 2018 natural gas pipeline explosion in Beaver County.
The settlement also lifts a nearly year-long permit freeze on the company’s other pipeline projects, including the cross-state Mariner East pipelines.
As part of the settlement, the DEP assessed a $30.6 million fine against ETC Northeast Pipeline, a subsidiary of the pipeline company Energy Transfer, the largest ever issued by the regulator. DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said in a statement the fine’s size was in part due to the company’s failure to comply with an order the agency issued one month after the blast.
“ETC’s lack of oversight during construction of the Revolution Pipeline and their failure to comply with DEP’s October 2018 compliance order demanded serious accountability. Their inaction led directly to this unprecedented civil penalty,” McDonnell said.
At the heart of the settlement was the Sept. 10, 2018 explosion along the Revolution pipeline. A landslide near Ivy Lane in Center Township caused the pipeline to rupture. The subsequent blast shot flames 150 feet into the air, forced evacuations and burned one house to the ground. The fire damaged power lines and destroyed two garages, a barn and several vehicles.
The Revolution had only been in service a week, carrying gas along a 40-mile route between Butler and Washington counties, when the blast occurred.
In the Consent Agreement, the DEP determined that “neither temporary nor permanent stabilization…had been achieved” along the pipeline when the landslide and rupture occurred.
As part of its consent agreement, the DEP outlined a laundry list of violations and oversights. Those violations extended well beyond the blast site and included failure to stabilize more than a dozen hillsides, poor stormwater management and more than 2,000 other deficiencies, resulting in impacts to “numerous” streams and wetlands.
The DEP says it found that between February 2018 and December 2019, 19 different hillside sections of the pipeline weren’t stabilized, “resulting in numerous slides”; 352 separate occurrences of accelerated erosion and sedimentation; and 540 different occasions when sediment-laden water was discharged into several western Pennsylvania creeks and wetlands. In addition, the agency found over 2,000 instances where the company failed to properly implement “best management practices,” construction standards required by state permits.
The state found that the company “eliminated at least twenty-three (23) streams by removing and/or filling the stream channels with soil,” resulting in a loss of 1,857 feet of stream channel. It also “(e)liminated at least seventeen (17) and altered at least seventy (70) wetland areas by manipulating and/or filling wetlands with soil.”
The DEP also found the company had plenty of warning signs the hillside was slip-prone but failed to properly manage the site. It says a January 2016 Energy Transfer analysis “concluded that the area of the Incident Site had a high susceptibility to slope failure.” Three months before the blast, a “slip” occurred on the hillside about 30 feet from where the pipe would rupture.
While the company tried to restore the hillside, the DEP said, “neither an engineer nor any other geotechnical expert was consulted by field staff.”
The settlement binds the company to restore the site of the blast and other wetlands it damaged, and to monitor the blast site for a minimum of five years.
The DEP says that despite these deficiencies, the company hired a new management team for the pipeline and “has demonstrated its intention to correct its unlawful conduct to DEP’s satisfaction.” Therefore, it’s lifting a hold on permits for Energy Transfer’s other projects in the state. These include the Mariner East pipeline, which carries natural gas products from west of Pittsburgh to an export facility near Philadelphia.
McDonnell said DEP will continue to monitor the company’s activities. “The conditions imposed by this agreement seek to ensure that (Energy Transfer) will get this right. Anything less is unacceptable.”
A spokeswoman for the Dallas-based Energy Transfer said the company is pleased that the settlement is now final, and work on its other projects can proceed.
“This has been a thorough and detailed process that involved a great deal of analysis and we appreciate the time and effort by the DEP to get to this point,” said Lisa Coleman, a company spokeswoman, in an email. She said the company is committed to following the regulations in the approved permits, and touted the economic benefits of the pipeline projects.
Environmental groups renewed their criticisms of Energy Transfer, which has already racked up more than $12 million in fines for its violations along the Mariner East.
PennFuture CEO Jacqueline Bonomo said in a statement that the organization “applauds the DEP for holding this bad actor accountable for its environmental degradation and repeated violations.”
The Better Path Coalition, a coalition of environmental groups, said in a statement that many Pennsylvanians “will shudder at the thought that the company will be able once again to get permits for its projects.”
Kurt Knaus, a spokesman for Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, a statewide pipeline industry group, praised the settlement, saying it shows DEP is ensuring pipelines in the state will meet “the highest environmental standards.”
“Skilled laborers who have been waiting to get back to work will finally be back on the job, putting their training to use for the safe, responsible development of critical infrastructure,” Knaus said, in a statement.