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Op-Ed: Health and Safety at Risk if More Gas Pipelines Allowed in NJ

Federal safety rules are inadequate and liable to be made weaker by the Trump administration

Patty Cronheim
Patty Cronheim

Natural gas pipelines can explode for many reasons.

In San Bruno, California, in 2010, the problem was defective welding.

In the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts, last September, it was a faulty replacement process.

And in Edison, New Jersey, in 1994, investigators determined that the explosion resulted from an apparent gouge, probably from excavation equipment, combined with brittle pipe material and excessive operating pressures.

After the San Bruno tragedy that left eight people dead, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended, and Congress directed, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to redo the rules for pipeline safety. Some nine years later, nothing has changed.

PHMSA, created in 2004, is known for being so pro the pipeline industry that Carl Weimer of the Pipeline Safety Trust watchdog group said, “This isn’t like the fox guarding the hen house, it’s like the fox designing the hen house.”

Pallone is fighting to strengthen regulations

To his credit, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), from his position chairing the House Committee on Energy & Commerce, is fighting proposals to make pipeline regulation even weaker. He supports a measure that would require owners and operators of gas or liquid pipeline facilities to make important operational information available to the state, nearby communities and first responders, reduce rulemaking delays, and increase the likelihood of criminal penalties against owners of unsafe pipelines. The only thing the Trump administration — with industry’s blessing — wants to increase is penalties against anti-pipeline protestors, while letting pipeline companies meet voluntary safety guidelines.

Pallone’s efforts notwithstanding, don’t count on help from Washington. The Trump administration, in its ongoing preference for fossil fuels over safety, has proposed easing requirements that companies monitor and repair methane leaks at oil and gas facilities.

On top of that, President Trump signed an executive order in April aimed at speeding pipeline permitting and construction. It directs PHMSA to prioritize cost-benefit analysis that puts the price tag to industry above public safety. Trump’s PHMSA recommendations would decrease funding for the agency and reduce its ability to provide oversight. It also raises gas companies’ property damage-reporting thresholds, which would eliminate the reporting of thousands of incidents so natural gas pipelines look safer without any increase in safety.

The number of significant pipeline accidents across the United States is rising, and the rate of incidents occurring with pipelines built since 2009 actually is higher than with pre-1940s lines. Given how closely packed together our population is in New Jersey, the Garden State is the last place that should entertain the thought of building more pipelines. Yet there are proposals for seven new pipeline projects within a 50-mile radius of central New Jersey alone.

And, as that guy who used to sell knives on TV would say, “But wait, there’s more!” Though New Jersey regulations require natural gas pipelines built, operated, and maintained in our state to meet a higher safety standard than federal law requires, New Jersey is barred from enforcing its own rules for pipelines if they aren’t solely in New Jersey. So, for example, the proposed PennEast line that will carry fracked gas from Pennsylvania into Hunterdon and Mercer counties would pose a greater threat to New Jersey communities than if it were entirely within the state. There are eight schools, five parks, and hundreds of houses within the pipeline’s “blast zone,” where the most damage would occur in an explosion.

And, now, the prospect of LNG facility

There’s still more. Now, plans are underway to build a liquefied natural gas export terminal facility along the Delaware River in Gloucester County — raising the grim possibility of major damage from an explosion in storage tanks or the trains and trucks that would carry the LNG through residential neighborhoods. Don’t be fooled by the question, “Which is safer, natural gas pipelines or LNG rail transport?” The answer is “neither,” no matter what the industry claims.

Natural gas pipelines and liquefied gas facilities don’t blow up every day, it’s true. When they do, though, fires burn, homes are destroyed, and, often, people die. Over the past 20 years, pipeline incidents have killed hundreds of people in the U.S. and injured more than 1,300.

For the sake of argument, leave aside the fact that New Jersey doesn’t need more gas pipelines because we have all the gas we need to keep us warm on the coldest days and cool on the hottest.

Ignore, also, that gas is a dirty fossil fuel whose greenhouse gas emissions contribute significantly to climate change.

And, for a moment, never mind that renewable energy sources like wind and solar are poised to make up more and more of New Jersey’s energy supply to the point when we can have 100 percent clean energy by 2050 if we make sensible policy choices.

If none of that were true, it still would be foolhardy to build more pipelines in New Jersey or let LNG pass through the state on trains or trucks. When we consider the health and safety of our families, moving to clean, safe, renewable energy becomes even more urgent.

Patty Cronheim, of Hopewell, is outreach coordinator for ReThink Energy NJ, a campaign that informs and empowers New Jersey residents and decision-makers about the need for a swift transition to home-grown, efficient and renewable energy, and reduced use of fossil fuels. She trained and advocated in New Jersey and Washington, D.C. on pipeline safety and health issues.

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