Explosion at Pennsylvania compressor station highlights gaping loopholes in regulation of pipelines and compressor stations

The following is a guest post by NRDC Legal Fellow Matthew McFeeley:

In late March a natural gas compressor station exploded in northeastern Pennsylvania. Now the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) has cancelled its investigation of the explosion--which blew a hole in the roof of the facility and started a fire that burned for several hours. The PUC is supposed to enforce pipeline safety rules in Pennsylvania, but because this facility was in a rural area, the PUC has no authority to continue its investigation. 

As I’ve discussed in previous guest blogs, federal pipeline regulations contain a gaping loophole-–there are no federal regulations that apply to “gathering lines” in areas defined as rural.  And the definition of “gathering line” is so broad that it can include large compressor stations used to pressurize the gas for long-distance transport. Most states, including Pennsylvania, choose not to add their own rules, so the PUC cannot regulate the facility to ensure safety. Nor can it even look into the causes of the explosion.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has said that it will consider whether there were violations. But DEP's primary authority over compressors relates to air pollution, and the federal pipeline loophole means that few safety rules apply. DEP asked Williams, the facility's owner, not to restart the compressor without permission. But within two days Williams had restarted the compressor against DEP's wishes.     

There is something very wrong with this picture. You can see for yourself; here’s a video of the facility after the explosion:

The video gives you a sense of how big the facility is and how close it is to the highway. Examples like this should serve as a wake-up call to federal pipeline regulators and to Congress: the current system is not working.  All pipeline facilities should immediately be subjected to minimum federal safety standards.