Friday, June 12, 2015

"I'm glad no one is dead": Williams Pipeline Explosion, Lycoming County, Pennsylvania

Photo, Wendy Lynne Lee, 10.13.12, faulty re-welded weld, TRANSCO Pipeline,
CNYOG Compressor Station, Sullivan County, PA
Update 6.18.15: Letter from Kevin Heatley, Restoration Ecologist, 
Press Enterprise, 6.17.15

Pipeline Risk Unacceptable

Pipeline explosions rattle more than just windows in the same way that nighttime home evacuations result in more than just lost sleep.  These are public relations disasters for Williams Pipeline Company – the same firm that wishes to build the 42 inch, high-pressure Atlantic Sunrise pipeline across Pennsylvania.  Given recent events here and across the country, how do you justify subjecting citizens and property owners to the involuntary risk of a catastrophic event?

If you are editor Sachetti of the PE, you trivialize the opposition position as an emotional “...rush to judgement” as if a technical explanation from Williams will be sufficient assurance that future events will not occur.  It also helps if, as editor, you engage in adolescent name-calling and refer to concerned citizens as “greenies” and “anti-energy.”  If you are Gregory Markle (PE letter-to-editor 6/16/2015) you employ ad hominem attacks coupled with the standard logical fallacies and false equivalencies that industry apologists have promulgated for decades.

Markle, for example, improperly compares the risk of driving a car to living within the blast radius of a pipeline. What he fails to realize is that there is a profound difference between voluntary and involuntary risk.  Research into risk tolerance clearly shows that people have a lower risk threshold with respect to allowing the reckless conduct of others to impinge on their safety.  Choosing to skydive is fundamentally different from being pushed out of a plane, regardless of the quality of the parachute.

While a small number of property owners will receive a financial return on the permanent conversion of their land to a pipeline ROW, Willliams is forcing adjacent property owners who live within the “blast zone” (potentially well over 1,000 feet from the pipeline) to involuntarily submit to catastrophic risk. It is also requesting that citizens downwind of any compressor stations involuntarily submit to the chronic risk associated with toxic air emissions.

While there is indeed risk in any endeavor, it is inherently absurd to claim that because we assume some risk we should assume all.  The effect of additional risk may cause harms to increase exponentially rather than arithmetically. It is also absurd to argue, as editor Sachetti is fond of doing, a false “all or nothing” dichotomy.  Opposition to the reckless endangerment of the public health and welfare is not predicated upon living an ascetic existence void of energy consumption.  Arguing that people who drive cars or heat their homes and oppose extreme energy extraction are hypocrites is like chastising someone attempting to lose weight for not going on a starvation diet.

A more intelligent and prudent response to the recent explosion of the Williams Transco pipeline would be to employ the “Precautionary Principle.”  Given the severity of the event and the nature of the risk, the burden of proof falls upon Williams Pipeline Corporation to show that catastrophic ruptures and toxic compressor station emissions will not occur.  Appeals to existing regulations are insufficient given that the regulations pass involuntary risk onto an unsuspecting public. In the interim, to allow the building of a second pipeline is irresponsible.

Kevin Heatley M.E.P.C, LEED-AP
Bloomsburg PA.

Update: 6.17.15: Response to Gregory Markle 
from Wendy Lynne Lee

First, a local gentleman by the name of Gregory Markle went straight for the ad hominems and faulty analogies to try to refute my letter, writing that since, say, living in Tornado Alley is dangerous that living near a pipeline is comparatively safe--so nothing to worry about in William's pipeline explosion near Unityville, PA just last week. 

What Mr. Markle doesn't get, apparently, is that there's a world of difference between voluntary and involuntary risk.

Folks who live in Tornado Alley know that they may be at risk for cyclone activity--they take that on as a voluntary risk. But if, say, you lease YOUR land to Williams, and they build a pipeline that later explodes setting MY house on fire, I have been subjected to an involuntary harm. 

Indeed, I have been made to subsidize with MY house, MY property values, and potentially MY life and health YOUR voluntary risk. And I have been made to do so involuntarily. There's nothing remotely defensible in THAT. Hence, faulty analogy.

Second, Markle claims that my response to the Williams explosion has nothing to do with "concern for human lives," but rather is about "promoting" my "personal politics via fear-mongering." Mr. Markle then says precisely nothing about what these "personal politics" are, but blithely slides right on to falsely report that Williams accident record is just fine since, at least in Pennsylvania no one has died! 

But, we might ask Mr. Markle, if DEATHS are what's required to become wary of Williams plans to build a monster 42 inch pipeline through far more densely populated regions of Columbia County, then why regulate the company at all? 

Mr. Markle as much as admits that pipeline inspection is not what it ought to be (and, of course, better to drive Williams out of the state altogether), when he tells us he "won't go deeply into [his] opinion on government inspectors, but let's just say that for every one who actually has the skills to be in the field doing inspections, there are 10 who should be slogging their way up through the ranks." That's pretty cold comfort for safety, yet Mr. Markle would have us put our faith in a company who didn't even know how long the exploding 24 inch, 1000 PSI pipeline had been in the ground.

Third, on this point about deaths, Mr. Markle implies that because "there is risk in any such endeavor" we must balance that risk against the benefits of natural gas production.

Sounds reasonable--until you realize that what he's really saying is that even though the risks are expected to be borne by people who did not agree to them--for whom they're involuntary--and the benefits accrue to a few already wealthy landowners and, of course, to the tune of billions to Williams, that THAT'S balance enough.

But it's clearly not. Indeed, the only "balance" resides in Williams flush bank accounts.

All of this dithering with Mr. Markle, however, pales in comparison to the embarrassment that Columbia County, PA commissioners ought to be feeling in the wake of this explosion--one that could have taken the lives of the very people who voted these politicians into office.

The photograph below came to me this morning from a friend. I'll let him identify himself should he wish, and I wish to thank him here. It's a letter dated 5.21.15 from Chris--my support is not unconditional!--Young, silent Richard Ridgeway, and equally silent Dave Kovach, thanking Kimberly Bose of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (whose name they misspell as "Rose"(!)) for FERC's support of the 42 inch, 12-1500 PSI monster pipeline set to bi-sect Columbia County.

In it they claim that "Williams has been a good neighbor...respectful of our community," and that they're happy for the county to be a part of the future growth of natural gas.

In other words, they're happy to be a party to subjugating the citizens of Columbia County to the involuntary risk associated with Williams' profit venture.

A last point. Williams will be more than happy to enhance YOUR level of involuntary risk. 

The moment they execute their "right" to eminent domain against landowners who said NO to that risk, they've not only made you an involuntary--COERCED-- subject of your neighbor's decision to convert their property into a right of way, they've made YOU effectively forfeit your own land, drinking water well, health, and potential life to their profit venture. 

Eminent domain is intended for projects that clearly perform a PUBLIC good--like a bridge to an island. 

The gross abuse of eminent domain appropriated by Williams--and endorsed by your elected representatives--is in no fashion whatever a public good. The gas will be shipped to the global markets, and the profits go right into Williams pockets.

A last last point: What states have seen LOADS of gas production, pipelining, export? Louisiana and West Virginia--two of the poorest states in the union. So the next time commissioners Young, Ridgeway, or Kovach tell you about how the Atlantic Sunrise is going to benefit you and your county--tell them that if you wanted to live in West Virginia or Louisiana, you'd move there.


Original Letter to the Editor, the Press Enterprise, 6.12.15, Concerning Williams Pipeline Explosion, Lycoming County, Pennsylvania

To the Editor:

What if that 24 inch, 1000 PSI Williams TRANSCO transmission pipeline explosion—a blast that fired a  “huge boulder” 300 ft., forced evacuation of 60 people, and was heard “miles away”—had been the 42 inch, 1200-1500 PSI Atlantic Sunrise expansion of the TRANSCO Williams wants to build? The one that will intersect a far more populated area throughout Columbia County?

What if you were confronted with that second explosion—potentially double that of Tuesday night’s blast that spread debris hundreds of yards into the tops of trees—and asked to evacuate even though it meant leaving your dog? What if you’d need to transport an elderly parent? What if there’d been a fire? What if you’d just happened to be driving, cycling, or walking near the blast zone?

Mr. Mordan points out that he’s “glad no one is dead.” Me too, but are we really entitled to let that be the end of this when the disaster that might have happened could have taken life?

These are the questions you should direct to commissioner Chris Young who says his support for the Atlantic Sunrise is “not unconditional,” but when queried by concerned citizens demonstrates his support is precisely that: unconditional. Young’s posturing for the sake of protecting his political capital is disingenuous; Kovach’s and Ridgeway’s silence, both staunch cheerleaders for Williams, is equally telling.

Williams’ appalling history of regulatory violation, accident, their effort to deflect responsibility and avoid liability is well-documented. Even more reprehensible is the willingness of local agencies and townships to be bribed by the company’s spare pocket change. Orange Township Secretary/Treasurer Erika Burkhardt, for example, recently sent a letter of thanks to Kimberly Bose, Secretary of FERC, the deceptively named Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, for FERC’s support of the Atlantic Sunrise—and the money that will flow from that township’s silence to Kocher Park. Burkhardt writes that “Because of Williams support, Orange Township will be able to improve areas that hold the greatest needs in our community.” What Burkhardt fails to calculate is the prospect that the township’s greatest needs might be a burn unit, an expanded graveyard, or far more voluntary firefighters and expensive equipment.

This smug arrogance, however, appears to belong not only to Burkhardt, but to county commissioners, township supervisors, PE Editor Sachetti, Senator Gordner and Representative Mallard. We seem to be lulled by the mantra of “jobs” as if “jobs” had some magical power demanding our wholesale acquiescence. We’re willing to horse-trade the future of the county for a few paychecks, a spattering of royalties, and some absurd hand-waving at “national security” for a pipeline whose golden gas is headed straight for the global markets. Or maybe we’re just that lazy—happy to ignore the hazard at our doorsteps because Wheel of Fortune’s on.

Maybe folks think that Tuesday night’s explosion just couldn’t affect them, that the Atlantic Sunrise will somehow be safer, that Williams actually gives a damn about anything but the money they’ll get from mid-streaming the gas the industry is prepared to eek out of the ground at literally any cost—so long as it’s not theirs’.

Williams record is clear: they’ll do everything they can to cover this up, avoid investigation, and make sure you don’t know diddly about the causes. They’ll hale local firefighters and reassure us “there’s nothing to see”—until we forget. Until next time. Here’s a question: What will it take for our electeds to decide to care about us? I’m glad no one died, but if that’s what it takes, we’ve acceded to moral bankruptcy.

Pick up your phones—starting with Young: 570-389-5608.

Wendy Lynne Lee

600 words.


Anonymous said...

Liked the picture at the top, Looks like new construction to me, therefore these are inspection markings, no "re-welded welds" Misinformation.As for your rant, "What if's"
if you were driving,cycling or walking near the blast zone you would have been trespassing on private property, and I do not mean the pipeline right of way.
"This smug arrogance" where you blast just about everyone, save a few, who are ELECTED officials. The only smug arrogance here is you. You are what's known as NF
H scum. Move back to where you came from.

Wendy Lynne Lee said...

Here's Gregory Markle's letter--6.16.15:

"I’d like to proclaim Jim Sachetti clairvoyant for predicting the inevitable “rush to judgment” on pipeline safety from the usual suspect(s), just as I’d like to proclaim the same of myself for so quickly responding to that rush. The reality is that he was merely hedging a very predictable bet. I read Wendy Lynne Lee’s submission online, where she posted it the same day as Jim’s editorial (Friday, June 12) and before her letter was published (June 14). I’ll not expound much on it, since Jim managed to predict almost everything she wrote because, well, she’s very predictable.

One does have to wonder, though, if Wendy thinks we should evacuate “Tornado Alley,” depopulate every area over a known fault, ban human activity in ANY area that’s ever been flooded, not live near dormant volcanoes, etc. After all, each of these is FAR more dangerous than any pipeline accident could be, even if there were a massive, almost unimaginable failure in the system; on average, natural disasters claim more lives each year than pipelines have killed in their entire existence. That’s just a guess, but considering that since the year 2000 there have been exactly four deaths due to pipeline accidents, I’m pretty comfortable that you could multiply pipeline deaths by 10 and still be safe with that statement. (Tornados claimed more than 500 in 2011, Hurricane Katrina over 1,800 in 2005, and they aren’t even close to the largest in U.S. history.)

She will, of course, predictably respond that natural disasters are an acceptable risk, but man-made risks, especially if the source is on her personal political hit list, are unacceptable in any way because her concern is not as much for human lives as it is for promoting her personal politics via fear mongering. She claims to be making rational decisions based on facts, but the actual facts of pipeline safety will not be mentioned as she blithely creates fictional accounts of what has never happened to frighten people while brushing off the reality that driving to the supermarket carries a higher risk of injury and death than living near a pipeline.

According to the PHMSA (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) there have been 10 reportable pipeline incidents in Pennsylvania since 2002, with no loss of life. Wendy refers to Williams Transco as having an “appalling history of regulatory violation, accident, their effort to deflect responsibility and avoid liability is well-documented” (sic) but yet fails to explain how their over 1,000 miles of pipeline in Pennsylvania have not caused any of the deaths she cautions and have only resulted in two actual incidents, the other being a flange gasket failure in Luzerne County lasting just over two hours.

Nobody is saying these companies shouldn’t be regulated, and nobody is saying they don’t look out for their own interests to save money. On the other hand, I won’t go deeply into my opinion on government inspectors, but let’s just say that for every one who actually has the skills to be in the field doing inspections, there are 10 who should be slogging their way up through the ranks, working in the industry to add some actual working knowledge to the paper they have hanging on the wall.

The truth is that there is risk in any such endeavor, but we must balance those risks with their return, and it’s easy to point fingers at those who work to provide the fuels and energy that run all of the many things we take for granted every day.

Until you drop everything and devote your life to actually creating and implementing new, clean sources, rather than simply declaring that they should exist and criticizing others for not making them fit your unrealistic demands, I will continue to not take you seriously. I suggest others do likewise.

Gregory Markle, Bloomsburg"

Wendy Lynne Lee said...

Dear "Anonymous":

Actually, I sent that specific photograph to a welding expert, and he informed me that the weld lines were NOT up to spec. And of course, I have no way of determining your credentials since you don't have the guts to use your name.

If I had been walking, cycling--whatever--and this were MY property, I'd not be trespassing; I'd just be dead.

But what's really interesting is that you apparently think that if someone's trespassing--and they get blown to bits in a pipeline explosion--that's OK.

These elected officials deserve nothing but derision. They were well-informed of the dangers; they ignored them in exchange for bribes from Williams. And whether or not they're elected is utterly irrelevant--except that it makes them more responsible, not less. I am a citizen--not a subservient.

And you, madam or sir, are what's known as a coward who doesn't have the guts even to use his/her name.



Try for a little bit more imagination.

Harold Ackerman said...

The May 21 letter from the Columbia County commissioners to FERC is actually a formal record of the Commissioners' signed support of the proposed Atlantic Sunrise pipeline construction at least with reference to Columbia County, PA. Its glowing and unreserved report rests on the Commissioners' unqualified satisfaction with the 15-year safety record they claim for Williams. It also cites a "significant" economic impact which the Commissioners expect to manifest itself here. If we are wrong in doubting a boom for this county, fine; meanwhile the available evidence from small towns elsewhere, such as the Bakken oil fields of S.D., as well as the court record of Williams' UNsafe practices and fees paid had already confirmed our suspicions about safety. Now, faced with the explosion near Unityville, Mr. Young reveals that he is a liar. The May 21 letter proves that despite what he now says, he was wholeheartedly and without reservation on board with Williams.--Harold Ackerman, Briar Creek

Wendy Lynne Lee said...

Thanks Harold Ackerman for that clarification. I thought that was clear from my own phrasing--but you make the particularly good point that Commissioner Young is simply not telling the truth when he says his support for ASP is not unconditional. Clearly, it was unconditional.

In this morning's (6.18.15) Press Enterprise, Young was praised by Editor Sachetti for his "equanimity" in responding to the ruptured pipeline incident. But hedging for political gain is not equanimity--it is self-preserving posturing. The first may be morally neutral; the second is mercenary.

It is interesting, however, to watch Editor Sachetti work so hard to try to tamp down the explosion--and potential for future explosions--all the while castigating those who'd lay out the real hazards here as the hysterics.

Then again, 30 Seconds Frequent Flier, J. Pushinaitis, just can't help but call folks who don't want to be Williams' casualties "ecoterrorists."

Thanks for your comment.

NFH and Proud of it! said...

To clarify for those unfamiliar with the acronym "NFH" - posted here on June 14th by anonymous (Hi Erika!)- it stands for "Not From Here". This defensive, fallback position is common amongst those who are insecure regarding their educational level or lifelong geographic limitations. The implicit assumption is that only those whose great-granddad killed the last Native American in the region are genetically qualified to decide local policy, hold local office or, god-forbid, have an opinion expressed. Setting aside the deep philosophical question as to what constitutes "local" - the Township?, County?, State?, etc. - these xenophobes undercut their own credibility when describing lifelong immobility as an asset. Who is better qualified to make an informed decision regarding any policy matter - someone who has lived and traveled abroad and has the benefit of experiencing various approaches and solutions to a problem or someone whose default is historical tradition "that's how we've always done it"? Just like in genetics, ideas can become inbred and maladaptive if a population of them is not exposed to new influences on a regular basis. "NFH" should confer respect, not derision. When you hear someone with a different accent or who speaks in polysyllables, pay attention, you might just learn something.