Aftermath of the Revolution explosion in September, 2018. Photo: James Martin

On November 11, the DEP issued an order (which we’ll call the “Steep Slopes Order”) that places restrictions on when Energy Transfer will be able to begin operating the Revolution pipeline again. Before it can do so, ET must show that it has done the necessary engineering to prevent the pipeline from rupturing due to a landslide, as happened in 2018.

To start with, let me provide a bit of background. It has been challenging for those of us in eastern Pennsylvania to keep track of what is happening with the Revolution pipeline, in the Pittsburgh area, which is owned by Energy Transfer’s subsidiary ETC Northeast Pipeline. It is designed as a “gathering line”, collecting raw gas from wells and conveying it to processing plants, where contaminants will be removed and the methane will be separated from the other gases that emerge from the wells.

Even those who don’t follow the Revolution story closely will remember vividly the explosion of September 10, 2018, when a section of the Revolution pipeline, in operation only a week, slid down a steep bank in a landslide and ruptured, releasing natural gas which caught fire. The fire consumed a nearby house, from which the residents narrowly escaped. Several acres of trees were burned and towers supporting an overhead high-voltage transmission line collapsed. Debris from the landslide ended up in the creek below.

It was subsequently learned that authorities had not been told the pipeline was in operation, that ET’s contractors had illegally filled in dozens of streams and wetlands in its construction, and that there were many more locations where the pipeline traversed steep and unstable slopes like the one where the rupture occurred.

DEP vs. ET: an ongoing battle. In the wake of the explosion, a long sparring match began between ET and the DEP concerning Revolution. It continued in parallel with the DEP’s attempts to deal with construction problems of the Dragonpipe (Mariner East pipeline system). With the exception of the “permit bar”, a period in February-March of 2019 when the DEP issued no permits for any ET projects in Pennsylvania because of compliance problems with Revolution, there has been no overlap between the Revolution and Mariner regulatory fights, and it has been easy for us in the southeast to lose track of what’s happening with Revolution.

Soon after the explosion, there was a “Compliance Order” issued by the DEP in October of 2018, telling ET what it needed to do to get Revolution to comply with DEP requirements. When ET failed to comply, the DEP took ET to court. The case was settled out of court, with ET agreeing to fix a variety of problems caused by its construction of Revolution.

In May, 2019, the DEP issued a second Compliance Order. This one dealt with the many streams, rivers, and wetlands that ET had contaminated or filled in and must now restore. It is not clear to me where this process stands now.

The Steep Slopes Order. The new Steep Slopes Order issued on November 11 is based on ET’s failure to comply with two previous documents: the “conditional approval” letter of December 13, 2019, and a “Consent Order” of January 3, 2020. (If you want to read them, both of those documents are attached as Exhibits to the Steep Slopes Order). These earlier documents required ET to show that it had done the engineering studies necessary to show that landslides, such as the one that ruptured the Revolution pipeline in 2018, would not happen again. It did not do those studies, and the Order forbids ET from operating the Revolution pipeline until they are done.

Within 30 days, ET must also submit a Preparedness, Prevention and Contingency Plan (PPC Plan) for how the pipeline will be shut down and purged in the event of another rupture. Until it does so and receives written authorization from the DEP, it is not permitted to put gas into the pipeline (and must remove gas that it has apparently already put into at least part of it).

The area that Revolution runs through contains many deep, steep-sided valleys. The Order contains two lists of more than two dozen steep-slope, unstable locations along the pipeline where further geotechnical and engineering work must be done. They are widely scattered along the pipeline’s 40-mile length. In those locations, ET will have to show that there is “a safety factor of 1.5” (that is, that given the geology of the site and construction plans, the pipeline will be able to survive a load of 150% of the load it might normally experience) as required by the conditional-approval letter of December 2019. ET has not submitted these reports.

ET has 30 days to appeal the Steep Slopes Order.

It appears as though unstable slopes in western Pennsylvania present analogous challenges to the limestone karst formations that Sunoco has struggled to deal with in the southeast. The slopes in the west delay the restart of the Revolution pipeline just as much as the karst problems and frac-outs have slowed construction of Mariner East.

One of the oddities of the DEP filings in connection with Revolution is that risk to human lives is never explicitly mentioned (although the 2018 explosion proved that the risk is very real). Instead, there is discussion of runoff, erosion, wetland loss, and the possibility of forest areas being burned. To me, this is a reminder that the DEP is only responsible for our environment (our water in particular) and not our safety.

If anyone is responsible for pipeline safety, it is the PUC (which seems not to have dealt with Revolution) and our elected officials. When will we get some action from them?

Join the Virtual People’s Hearing on Monday night. On Monday, November 16, at 7 p.m. Eastern, hear stories about the risks and environmental damages caused by Mariner East from residents all across Pennsylvania. Here’s a link with the details: