The Lead

Southeast Pa. lawmakers want to create a board on pipeline safety. Regulators have concerns about record privacy

By: - August 21, 2019 1:45 pm

Suburban Philadelphia lawmakers are trying to figure out how much transparency is too much as local governments and the public clamor for more information about the risks of natural gas pipelines.

At a hearing Wednesday, the House Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee heard concerns from the state Public Utility Commision about a bill from Rep. Carolyn Comitta, D-Chester, and Rep. Chris Quinn, R-Delaware, that would set up a state board of pipeline safety and communications.

Seth Mendelson, executive director of the PUC, pointed out that the bill as written would repeal a 2006 law that protects utility companies’ records.

Specifically, the law gives utilities the ability to shield certain documents submitted to the PUC from open records laws. 

Utility companies can deem records confidential if it is “necessary for the protection of life, safety, public property or public utility facilities,” according to the law. Non-disclosure must help prevent “sabotage or criminal or terrorist acts.”

“It would not be prudent to lower the limits of public disclosure,” Mendelson said.

He added that he was concerned utility companies would provide less information to the PUC if the bill passed as is.

Comitta said she is open to amending the bill to find more balance between “protecting sensitive information but not preventing important conversations on safety.”

But after talking to the earlier law’s authors, Comitta said that “there is a lack of consensus on how the act is interpreted.” The purpose, she continued, was linked more to post-9/11 fears of terrorist attacks than preventing families from knowing about a pipeline laid next to their home or school.

One bill in the Senate, from fellow southeastern lawmaker Sen. Tom Killion, R-Delaware, would create an exemption in the existing utility records law to allow local emergency response agencies to acquire more details about pipelines. Those details would not be made available to the public, however.

Comitta’s proposed board is broader, and would collect and distribute information on public safety issues around pipelines from private companies to the public as well as state and local governments.

Pipelines — especially the controversial Mariner East 2 pipeline — have fed a wave of activism and concern among residents of the well-populated Philadelphia suburbs, who have dealt with sinkholes and ruined groundwater from construction and fear explosions from pipelines in operation.

The Chester County District Attorney has even opened a criminal investigation into the pipeline’s construction.

The pipelines — some new, others built as far back as the 1930s — ship a wide variety of oil and natural gas products from the western half of the state to the Marcus Hook facility near Chester, Pa.. From there, products can be shipped by sea to the rest of the country or abroad.

A frequent complaint from anti-pipeline activists has been a dearth of information around how residents and local first responders would react to an incident.

Earlier this year, Chester County received a heavily redacted version of Sunoco’s emergency response plan for its Mariner East 2 pipeline. 

Chester County’s director of emergency services told the Daily Local News that just 5 percent of the document’s information was usable.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.