At 10:40 a.m. on Monday, January 21st, a pipeline carrying natural gas ruptured in rural Noble County, in southeastern Ohio, producing a fireball that surged 120 feet into the air and engulfed the Noll family home, with 12-year-old son Nash inside. The boy’s grandfather rushed into the inferno and rescued him, says Noble County Emergency Management Agency Director Chasity Schmelzenbach, and together the two ran for their lives. Nash ended up with burns on the back of his legs and neck and on top of his head. “We are just happy our son is alive, honestly,” said mother Brittany Noll when reached by phone at a Comfort Inn, where the family was staying after the explosion. Their home had been largely destroyed.
It was the second time in three years that an explosion carrying a furious wave of burning methane gas had erupted into the lives — and bedrooms and living rooms — of residents living along this 76-year-old pipeline system. The 9,029-mile Texas Eastern Transmission Pipeline, which runs from the Gulf Coast to the Philadelphia and New York City metro areas and is operated by Canadian energy giant Enbridge, also exploded in April 2016 in Salem Township, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh. That incident produced a crater 50 feet long by 12 feet deep and generated a fireball — videotaped by morning commuters — that obliterated a home, melted a road and sent a 26-year-old man to the hospital with third-degree burns over 75 percent of his body.
And in Noble County, last month’s blast was the second major pipeline explosion in the space of a single year. “That is scary,” said resident Cheryl Rubel, as she recorded a video of a January 31st, 2018, explosion on a pipeline operated by the Kansas-based firm Tallgrass Energy. Her camera zoomed over a dark yard to reveal flames shooting above the nearest hilltop and noise like a roaring freight train.
In September 2018, a natural-gas pipeline exploded in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, on the Ohio border. Three months prior, in June, a pipeline had exploded in nearby Marshall County, West Virginia. “There goes another one,” a resident told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“I don’t want to point fingers here but a lot of this has to do with lobbying efforts to reduce the power of PHMSA,” says pipeline safety expert Richard Kuprewicz, speaking of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Kuprewicz, who runs a pipeline-safety consulting firm called Accufacts, has been a fixture for years at pipeline-safety conferences and regularly testifies before Congress on pipeline matters. In the wake of the Noble County blast, Kuprewicz, in a series of interviews with Rolling Stone, laid out startling safety concerns with ramifications for pipelines across the nation, and amplified his criticism of the country’s pipeline regulatory agency.
“Every time the agency trains someone, the industry pays them more money and they leave,” says Kuprewicz. “In this 35 or 36-day [government] shutdown, you can bet you see some PHMSA people saying, ‘Why do I want to put up with this crap?’ [The shutdown] was a really big hit, and people aren’t thinking about this stuff when they put up these battles. The shutdown just adds another pressure point.”
PHMSA has been hamstrung by industry lobbyists and industry-friendly legislators for decades, says Kuprewicz. But fracking, which has given drillers access to extraordinarily fuel-rich and previously inaccessible shale layers stacked beneath the farms, forests and towns of America, may have pushed the agency toward a breaking point. In 2012, the Government Accountability Office expressed concern over PHMSA’s ability to keep up with the proliferation of new pipelines connected to “the increased extraction of oil and natural gas from shale deposits.” In 2015, the GAO again raised concerns, and then again in 2018.
PHMSA numbers indicate that “significant incidents” — including explosions, volatile liquid releases and fatal pipeline accidents — have inched up in the past two decades, from a total of 275 in 1999 to 329 in 2015, and 285 last year. In the wake of recent natural-gas pipeline explosions across Appalachia and the Northeast, and growing unease by a public increasingly dubious of the legitimacy of government regulators, the critique of PHMSA has gone beyond government auditors, watchdog groups and industry experts and has entered the main stage of politics. “Unfortunately, federal safety regulators fail to do their jobs when it comes to pipeline safety,” Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey said at a Senate hearing held last November in the wake of the 2018 Merrimack Valley pipeline explosions, which damaged 131 structures and killed a young man in a suburb north of Boston. “The agency is the posterchild for an agency that has been captured by the industry it is supposed to regulate,” continued Markey. “Rather than being a watchdog it has become a lapdog.”
Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton was also highly critical of the agency during the hearing, as was New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan. “There has been safety incident after safety incident after safety incident,” said Hassan. “It is 2018 in the United States of America and nobody should be worried when they come home at night that their house is going to explode, nobody.”
THE SCENIC belt of farms and snaking rivers in the area where Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania meet is the epicenter for an incredible energy rush that some industry insiders have termed the “Appalachian Miracle.” Two gas-rich shale layers — the Marcellus and the Utica —are being harvested via the thunderous techniques of fracking. Together they are generating nearly one-third of America’s natural gas production. Each day, according to the Energy Information Administration, the Marcellus and Utica produce an astonishing 31.5 billion cubic feet of gas. A 2017 American Petroleum Institute study says the boom has created 656,300 jobs across the three states, a region that had been experiencing a notable economic slump.
Residents of this gas-rich tri-state area are regularly astonished by the pure hustle of the boom — the trucks, the drilling rigs, the busy installation of new pipelines. Yet along with all of that has come a barrage of carcinogenic emissions, toxic waste and explosions of fracking well pads and pipelines, leaving many residents scared, outraged and with the nagging feeling that regulators cannot keep pace with industry. Indeed, in late January the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the front-page news that Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro is pursuing criminal investigations of “environmental crimes” by frackers in the southwestern part of the state. People across this region are living, says Leatra Harper, founder of the Ohio-based watchdog group FreshWater Accountability Project, “in a fracking sacrifice zone.”
“For my own sanity I have to compartmentalize it, and put it on the backburner of my mind, because this whole year has been so incredibly stressful,” says Micki Rockenhauser. The 120-acre eastern Ohio farm she operates with her husband, Pete, was sullied last year when Williams, an Oklahoma-based energy company, began construction on a natural-gas processing plant on neighboring property — without first obtaining a proper air permit, which is “common practice,” according to Ohio EPA spokesperson James Lee.
These types of gas plants remove water and other impurities from “gathering pipelines,” which loop in natural gas from frack pads scattered about the surrounding countryside. The plants also emit an array of toxic chemicals, including known human carcinogens. The processing plant installed a pipe that drains directly onto the Rockenhausers’ farmland and regularly spews strange gray water into their cow pond. But the fear of pipelines exploding when, for example, her five-year-old son is out in the garden gathering herbs, is what worries Micki most. “They put the pipelines in so quick and dirty,” she says. “Who am I to know how these things are engineered? I saw the one that exploded in Beaver, it just seems like with all these regulation cuts, it is great for the companies.”
“Oversight is above and beyond what is called for by federal natural gas pipeline safety standards,” Matt Schilling, spokesperson with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, tells Rolling Stone. When asked if he is concerned about the pace of Ohio’s pipeline build-out, Schilling replies, “No. The PUCO has adequate staffing to keep up with the pace of pipeline construction and operations in Ohio.”
But the Rockenhausers remain very concerned. “From the distance that we’re at, if one of the pipelines over there was to explode, there would be blood vessels blown in our eyes and soft tissue damage, because we are still in the blast zone,” says Pete. Last summer, he says, he saw workers dig a massive pit near the entrance to the gas plant. A truck with a big tank attached returned throughout the day and dumped a sludgy, lumpy waste product into the newly dug hole. “Then they put seed over it,” says Pete. “They did it all so quick, it had to be something shady.” (Williams did not respond to Rolling Stone’s questions regarding this incident).
Harper, with the FreshWater Accountability Project, says stories like this are all too common across the Ohio-Pennsylvania-West Virginia border region. “People in the area are acclimated to being taken advantage of by the fossil-fuel industry and their operatives,” she says.
“At the end of the day no child should be subject to unnecessary risk or trauma,” says Rebecca Britton, who lives in suburban Philadelphia less than 500 feet from the Mariner East pipelines. “I am sending my children out into the world knowing that if they simply run the wrong way, if they run to the left or to the right, if they run downhill or uphill, they can be ending their life,” says Britton, who founded a group called the Uwchlan Safety Coalition, aimed at keeping her community safe from pipeline hazards. “Those are really heavy loads for us parents to carry on our backs.”
THE EXPLOSION on the Texas Eastern line in Noble County, Ohio, has exposed a new concern that up until now has received little media attention but has quietly gained notice among regulators and pipeline experts: “flow reversal.”
“Reversals used to be very, very rare,” says Kuprewicz. “Now they are showing up in a lot of places, so it’s valid to question whether our safety regulations have kept up with the changes in these pipeline systems.”
Flow reversals — when an operator switches the direction fuels are flowing in a pipeline — are a product of America’s fracking boom. “The sudden abundance of oil and natural gas is putting pressure on North America’s existing pipeline infrastructure, which simply cannot cope with this additional demand,” reads a September 2015 article in Pipeline & Gas Journal by Oklahoma-based energy expert Mike Kirkwood. Building new pipeline networks can be extraordinarily expensive, thanks in part to the U.S.’s cherished institution of private property, and a growing network of pipeline protesters. Flow reversals can be a way around all that.
By retrofitting an existing pipeline to carry product in a different direction, operators can relieve supply surpluses in new areas of heavy production, such as the Marcellus-Utica region, or get gas or other fuels to new markets or port regions. Kirkwood, writing in Pipeline & Gas Journal, had concerns. “Many of the pipelines undergoing reversals are older,” he wrote, “and were manufactured using outdated processes, materials or design elements that aren’t acceptable by today’s standards.”
PHMSA has been concerned about flow reversals too. In September 2014, the agency issued an advisory bulletin that warned operators of “the potential significant impact” of reversals. “Failures on natural gas transmission and hazardous liquid pipelines have occurred after these operational changes,” states the bulletin, which lists two notable examples.
In September 2013, the Tesoro High Plains Pipeline ruptured in North Dakota, leaking 20,000 barrels of crude oil into Steven Jensen’s wheat field. “The location of pressure and flow monitoring equipment had not been changed to account for the reversed flow,” says the PHMSA bulletin. In March 2013, the Pegasus Pipeline spilled 3,190 barrels of Canadian heavy crude oil into a neighborhood in Mayflower, Arkansas. A local news photo shows dark gunky oil flowing out of the woods, through a yard and into the street. The oil, according to the EPA, then entered “a nearby creek, wetlands and a cove of Lake Conway.”
PHMSA reserves particular concern about reversals in older lines and lines that have exploded before, such as the Texas Eastern. The bulletin warns of performing flow reversals on “pipelines that have had a history of failures and leaks most especially those due to stress corrosion cracking, internal/external corrosion, selective seam corrosion or manufacturing defects.”
“If you are doing flow reversals on a pipeline,” says Kuprewicz, “you want to be damn sure you don’t have bonified crack threats, and there is a whole family of those.”
In its investigation of the 2016 Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, explosion, on the Texas Eastern pipeline, PHMSA determined “the preliminary cause of the rupture was external corrosion” and that a second line in the pipeline system exhibited “a pattern of external corrosion with characteristics similar to the condition that caused the failure.”
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas and oil and has some authority over flow directions on interstate lines. “Only in cases where the flow direction involves the construction of new equipment, like a valve or compressor station, would the company be required to seek FERC approval,” says agency spokesperson Tamara Young-Allen, meaning, once an operator has reversed flow on a line, or if new facilities are not needed, a pipeline operator may reverse flows at their own discretion, without notifying FERC.
Neither PHMSA nor the Texas Eastern line’s operator Enbridge provided specific answers to Rolling Stone’s question of whether or not the line had reversed flow. Built in the early 1950s, the Texas Eastern originally transported gas up from the Gulf region to the cities of the lower Midwest and Northeast. But an article published in late January by Reuters, referencing the January 21st Noble County explosion, revealed that “Before the blast…gas was flowing south through the damaged section of pipe from the Marcellus and Utica shale in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia toward the Gulf Coast.” Thus, at some point, flow in the line had been reversed.
There are other reasons for concern. A 2013 FERC document regarding the Texas Eastern conveys that at least certain sections of the pipeline have been flowing with ethane, a fuel byproduct of the massive natural-gas production in the Marcellus-Utica region that is part of a group of gas byproducts called natural-gas liquids, or NGLs. Many producers, “in trying to get rid of this extra commodity,” explains Kuprewicz, are putting ethane and other NGLs in natural-gas pipelines. “But you have to be careful with how you do it,” he says, because once enriched with NGLs, the burn properties of natural gas are altered. “It burns hotter,” says Kuprewicz.
“Until [a] thorough investigation is complete, it doesn’t serve anyone to speculate on what may have caused the event,” Michael Barnes, an Enbridge media relations and crisis communications expert, tells Rolling Stone, concerning the Noble County explosion. “Since the early 2000s the access to domestic supply of natural gas has grown and allowed for flexibility in the markets. Over the past decade, pipelines have completed work to change the direction of the flow of gas when the market dictates so. Such reversals are subject to various regulations regarding pipeline safety and commercial operations, including those administered by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.”
PHMSA supplied Rolling Stone with a general response to the Noble County pipeline explosion, stating, “PHMSA is working closely with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and local authorities to determine the underlying cause.” But more detailed questions went unanswered. When pressed why PHMSA could not reply to specific questions regarding flow reversal, which had potentially grave significance for pipelines across the country, a PHMSA spokesperson eventually explained that, “Pipeline operators are not mandated to seek approval from PHMSA for flow reversals.’”
IN EASTERN Ohio, the building of new well pads and new pipelines continues apace. In Washington D.C., the Trump administration appears poised to weaken pipeline regulations even further. Back in January 2017 Trump issued his famous two-for-one executive order, which said for every new federal regulation implemented, two must be rescinded. But Kuprewicz says this order was done “willy-nilly” and helped kill an important set of new pipeline regulations — an update of the Integrity Management Program — that PHMSA had been working on studiously for many years.
Last October, The Hill reported that Trump was “likely to make a renewed push to permit and build oil and natural gas pipelines” in 2019. In late January, Politico suggested the promised pipeline push may be coming soon, reporting that the White House was considering “possible executive orders that would weaken states’ power to block energy projects and ease the construction of new pipelines.”
According to the Energy Information Administration, there are 305,000 miles of interstate and intrastate natural-gas transmission pipelines in the United States. A publicly available document lists all current natural-gas pipeline expansion projects, as well as those in the works and ones recently completed. Flow reversals are identified too. Since August 31st, 2017, the document indicates that nine flow-reversal pipeline projects have been completed, six have been approved and are in construction, at least one was canceled (in Ohio), and one project, on the Iroquois Pipeline, in New York, is on hold. The reversal projects that have already been completed are on pipelines that pass through Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Texas.
Whether or not residents who live in what PHMSA refers to as the pipeline “blast zone” have been informed about these flow reversals is unclear. The PHMSA advisory bulletin on flow reversals states that, “Public awareness communication should start in the project’s planning stage, continue into the operations phase, provide project specific information and be responsive to the concerns of potentially affected persons.” But a PHMSA report that expands on the advisory explains, essentially, that the document’s warnings are merely recommendations, and do not have the full weight of the law behind them.
It’s this regulatory toothlessness that set the New England senators into fiery tirades last November over the Merrimack Valley pipeline explosions, and has turned mothers like Rebecca Britton in Pennsylvania into activists. “Historically, Americans were prided across the world because we had checks and balances and we did the right thing,” says Kuprewicz. “Now, people think that the same institutions and checks and balances that have been in place that made the country great are still in place. We expanded, we built pipelines and all that, but the truth is these systems have gotten weaker not stronger, and they continue to.”