corroded pipe
An example of pipeline corrosion (not Mariner East). The corrosion of this pipe occurred in spite of the “cathodic protection” that was supposed to prevent it. From:

The American Petroleum Institute has issued its “Annual Liquids Pipeline Report” for 2018, and it’s an eye-opener. It contradicts many of the claims Sunoco has been making about the causes of pipeline leaks, and it should prompt us to take a fresh look at safety concerns surrounding the Dragonpipe (Mariner East pipeline system).

For decades, the federal Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) has been requiring pipeline operators to report leakage incidents that involve more than a minimal amount of material or that cause injuries requiring hospitalization or deaths. Citing these statistics, pipeline operators and their supporters have often claimed that third-party excavation damage is the leading cause of leaks. It is to their benefit to claim this, because it makes the leak someone else’s fault.

It’s questionable whether the “third-party excavation damage” claim has been true at all in recent years. Now, new statistics are available that show exactly how hollow a claim that is.

Meaningful metrics and IPE leaks. Starting in 2017, PHMSA began requiring what they are calling “meaningful metrics” in leak reporting. This involves determining whether a given leak fits the category of “Impacting the Public or the Environment” (IPE).

A leak is considered an IPE leak:

  • If it results in death or personal injury requiring hospitalization, or
  • If it results in the release of over 5 gallons of liquid in a public space in a “high consequence area”, or
  • If it results in the release of over 5 barrels of liquid in any public space.

A “high consequence area” is defined in terms of population density. Urban and suburban areas qualify. A “public space” is any land not owned by the pipeline operator.

So IPE leaks are the serious leaks and the ones affecting the general public. In a given year, these make up 20-25% of all reported leaks. From my point of view, IPE leaks are the only ones I am really interested in.

What causes IPE leaks? When you look at the causes of IPE leaks, as listed in the report from the American Petroleum Institute, you get quite a different picture from the one Sunoco and other operators have painted. Looking at the last 5 years, here are the leading causes of failure resulting in an IPE leak:

  • Corrosion failure (32%)
  • Equipment failure (20%)
  • Material Pipe/Weld failure (12%)
  • Incorrect operations (12%)

Excavation incidents follow, in fifth place, with only 9% of IPE failures.

So rather than focusing on third-party excavators (as Sunoco would have us do), we need to look at the quality of maintenance, equipment, and pipeline materials. And these are all areas where Sunoco has been weak.

The corrosion problem. In particular, Sunoco has neglected maintenance on its 1930s-era Mariner East 1 pipeline. This has resulted in several leaks, including the 2017 leak near Morgantown (see “Sunoco sat by while ME1 rusted”). The PUC’s own investigative division brought a formal complaint against Sunoco based on their investigation of that leak. They concluded their complaint report by requesting that Sunoco do statewide testing to determine what other locations had dangerous corrosion. They also asked Sunoco to set a retirement date for ME1. (That PUC complaint has not yet been resolved. The parties are said to be close to a settlement but as of today (4/1/19) nothing has been announced. The deadline for a settlement is 4/4/19.)

No doubt we’ll continue to hear people say that “third-party digging” is the biggest cause of leaks.  That may once have been true, and it may have been true for leaks occurring on pipeline company property that did not affect the public. But no longer. If someone starts to tell you that leaks are mostly caused by excavation, you can tell them that, for the last five years, and for the leaks that matter to the public, that just isn’t true. It is failures of the installed infrastructure—pipelines and pipeline equipment—that account for the vast majority of failures. And the most frequent cause of those failures is shoddy maintenance, resulting in corrosion. There is no one to blame for that except the pipeline operator.