WAYNESBURG, Pa. - Through the hilly fields here in southwestern Pennsylvania, crews worked for months this year, cutting a trench through woods and past farms for a new natural gas pipeline.
Like many other lines crisscrossing the state's Marcellus Shale regions, this pipe was big - a high-pressure steel line, 20 inches in diameter, large enough to help move a buried ocean of natural gas out of this corner of the state. It was also plenty big enough to set off a sizable explosion if something went wrong.
There was trouble on the job. Far too many of the welds that tied the pipe sections together were failing inspection and had to be done over.
The Marcellus shale drilling boom has tapped a bounty of natural gas worth billions, but Inquirer reporters Joseph Tanfani and Craig R. McCoy found that thousands of miles of high-pressure pipelines carrying the gas to market are being installed with no government safety checks – no construction standards, no inspections, and no monitoring. In fact, state and federal regulators don’t even know where many lines are located.
A veteran welder, now an organizer for a national pipeline union, happened upon the line and tried to blow the whistle on what he considered substandard work.
But there was no one to call.
Pennsylvania's regulators don't handle those pipelines, and acknowledge they don't even know where they are. And when he reported what he saw to a federal oversight agency, an inspector told him there was nothing he could do, either.
Because the line was in a rural area, no safety rules applied.
"It's crazy," said Terry Langley, the union official, worried that any problems would literally be buried. "It seems to me that everyone is turning a blind eye."
In Pennsylvania's shale fields, where the giant Marcellus strike has unleashed a furious surge of development, many natural gas pipelines today get less safety regulation than in any other state in America, an Inquirer review shows.
Hundreds of miles of high-pressure pipelines already have been installed in the shale fields with no government safety checks - no construction standards, no inspections, and no monitoring.
"No one - and absolutely no one - is looking," said Deborah Goldberg, a lawyer with Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm focusing on the environment.
Belatedly, the state's elected officials and regulators are trying to catch up. The legislature is poised to give the state Public Utility Commission authority to enforce federal safety rules in the shale regions, as in other gas-producing states.
Still, because of a long-standing gap in the federal rules - the same issue that affected the line near Waynesburg - the new law would leave many gas pipelines unregulated over vast swaths of rural Pennsylvania, especially in the very shale regions that are ground zero for pipeline construction.
These new Marcellus Shale "gathering" pipelines that connect to the wells are going unregulated, even though they are large-diameter, high-pressure pipes - as powerful and potentially dangerous as the transmission lines that cut across the continent.
Although accidents in natural gas pipelines are rare, they can be devastating. Last year, 21 people died and 105 were hurt in 230 gas-line accidents in the United States, according to federal data, the highest death total in a decade.
This year, 16 people have died in gas explosions, including five people in Allentown and one in Philadelphia. The accidents in this region were all due to failures in old cast-iron pipelines, not the type of lines being installed in the shale regions.
Drilling and pipeline companies say the new generation of steel lines has never been safer. They say they have a huge financial stake in making sure the lines don't leak, and are building the pipes to meet federal standards - whether or not the rules require it.
"We're all about making sure we have safe and reliable operations in the commonwealth," said David J. Spigelmyer, vice president of Chesapeake Energy and the new chairman of the Marcellus Shale Coalition trade group.
And the industry notes that there are relatively few reports of accidents in gathering lines, and none so far in Pennsylvania.
As for the line near Waynesburg, its owner, Consol Midstream, said it also identified flawed welds, caught by independent inspectors hired by the firm. Consol fired welders and made repairs.
By using a stronger grade of steel and examining all welds, Consol ensured that the pipeline exceeded federal requirements, according to the company, a major coal and gas producer based outside Pittsburgh.
"While we are not required to do this, we felt it was very important to employ additional oversight and inspection services than is customary to protect our and the public's best interest," Joe Fink, Consol's manager, said in an e-mail.
An increasing number of Pennsylvanians in rural areas say corporate vigilance is not enough - they want government to step up oversight.
"We're taking all the risks up here. We should be afforded the same protections," said Emily Krafjack, a resident of Wyoming County and self-taught expert on pipelines who now works as a county consultant.
"We are not a risk assessment," she said. "We are real people. We pay taxes. We have kids. We are regular people like everybody else."
Pipelines are the second wave of the Marcellus revolution that has revived Pennsylvania as a major oil- and gas-producing state.
Pennsylvania was home to the nation's first oil well, in Titusville, and the first petroleum pipeline, a 109-mile line that ended in Williamsport. The energy-drilling industry faded - until companies discovered huge gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale. This vast reservoir is now being unlocked with hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," a technique that uses a mixture of high-pressure water, chemicals, and sand to blast gas loose from the rock.
Today, more drilling rigs are operating in Pennsylvania than on land in Louisiana, stoking the state economy with billions of dollars in royalty payments, paychecks, and infrastructure projects. Shale gas now accounts for 34 percent of U.S. production, and the Marcellus play is a major reason why.
Without pipelines, all that gas will stay in the ground. One study says Pennsylvania can expect anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 miles of new natural gas pipelines - enough, in the higher estimate, to circle the globe at the equator.
Like fracking, the quickening pace of pipeline construction has heightened safety worries, aroused environmentalists, and divided communities.
Pipeline digs already have caused problems in Pennsylvania, with erosion clogging some high-quality streams and polluting some wells.
And the build-out will require the clearing of as much as 150,000 acres of forest, and bring dozens or even hundreds of new compressor stations, which will add to noise and air pollution.
"The scale of it, I don't think a lot of people really grasp yet," said Nels Johnson, deputy state director of the Nature Conservancy and the study's author.
While environmental inspectors keep a watch for pipeline damage to streams and landscapes, the wave of construction caught Pennsylvania's safety regulators unprepared.
Much of the gas in the state still arrives from western fields via interstate transmission lines, which are regulated by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA.
In urban areas, the PUC regulates gas lines for utilities such as Peco Energy and PGW.
But thus far, no one in the PUC or PHMSA has kept track of what gathering pipelines have been built in the shale fields, or where they are going.
"We have no idea," said Paul Metro, the PUC's top pipeline-safety regulator.
Under federal regulations, a rural area is defined as one with 10 or fewer homes along each mile of pipe, within a quarter-mile-wide right-of-way.
The new shale-well lines are not even included in the One Call system, the "Call 811" program that aims to prevent digging accidents with buried pipelines.
"I just can't believe that," said Jim Weaver, Tioga County planner. "That to me is one of the most ludicrous situations I have ever heard of." So far, he said, companies have built or planned 1,000 miles of pipeline in his north-central Pennsylvania county.
The loophole for rural America is part of a much larger vacuum in government oversight for pipelines, here and in Washington:
PHMSA, the main U.S. regulator, has been criticized for decades as ineffectual and overwhelmed.
The safety of the entire system largely hinges on industry self-policing. But when inspectors have visited job sites, they have turned up some shoddy welds, substandard steel, and other potentially dangerous construction errors - particularly about five years ago, when the industry was going through another boom period.
"Houston, we have a problem," one top inspector warned at a conference with the industry.
Throughout the country, pipeline firms have won the right to build lines with few if any restrictions from local governments. In Pennsylvania, the gas industry's clout is such that legislators are preparing to bar local officials from imposing tough restrictions on wells and pipelines in their communities.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, whose agency oversees pipelines via PHMSA, has acknowledged that pipeline-safety oversight is a thin "patchwork" that needs to be made far tougher.
"We need to step up our enforcement," LaHood said in an interview. "We're going to do everything we can to make sure safety is the number-one priority when it comes to pipelines."
On Thursday, congressional leaders reached a compromise on a new pipeline-safety bill that authorizes adding 10 inspectors nationwide, requires new tests on some older pipelines, and doubles maximum fines for violations to $2 million.
One key player in those negotiations was Rep. Bill Shuster (R., Pa.), a strong supporter of the Marcellus industry and chairman of a House subcommittee with oversight over pipelines. In the discussions, critics said, he managed to significantly weaken the bill.
Shuster says Congress needs to plug regulatory holes, but cautions that excess regulation would get in the way of industry investment. He says pipelines are safe, but can never be perfect.
"The reality is, if you're going to ship things through pipelines, there's going to be accidents," said Shuster, while the negotiations were under way. "And if you drive a car, you're going to have some accidents. If you don't want that, don't drive."
A deadly year
The massive pipeline construction in Pennsylvania is taking place during a debate in Washington and Harrisburg on how to improve safety - questions that took on more urgency after deadly line failures in the last year.
Overall, PHMSA argues that the safety record of gas pipelines is improving. Pipeline accidents in which someone died or was badly hurt have dropped over the last 20 years, Cynthia L. Quarterman, PHMSA administrator, said in congressional testimony in June.
But other statistics point to a dramatic increase in safety failures in big gas transmission lines. "Significant" incidents - those involving injuries, big leaks, or major repairs - have shot up by 55 percent since 2003.
In fact, an Inquirer analysis found that most of the safety improvements can be traced to a decrease in excavation accidents brought on by the spread of One Call programs.
Quarterman called the increase in transmission failures "troubling," even as she acknowledged that PHMSA doesn't know the reasons behind it. "We want to stop that trend and reverse it," she said.
Last year was the worst for pipeline deaths in a decade.
One early evening in September 2010, a steel gas transmission line, later found to be riddled with faulty welds, erupted in a neighborhood in San Bruno, outside San Francisco. The blast killed eight people, destroyed 38 homes, and left a crater 72 feet long. Dozens were injured, some suffering third-degree burns.
The explosions and the deaths have continued this year, in Pennsylvania.
In February, an 83-year-old cast-iron gas line blew up in downtown Allentown, killing five, including a 4-month-old baby. And in January, another old cast-iron main exploded in Northeast Philadelphia, sending a 50-foot fireball into the sky and fatally injuring a young gas company worker.
Cast-iron pipelines, which turn brittle with age, have long been identified as a safety hazard, but utilities have been slow to replace them. Pennsylvania still has thousands of miles of these lines. Philadelphia Gas Works, with more than 1,500 miles, has the highest percentage of cast iron in the nation.
On a day of intermittent, spitting rain this spring, a pipeline welding crew was working under a blue tarp on the edge of a hillside in Bradford County in northeastern Pennsylvania - the epicenter of the Marcellus boom.
A deep trench had already been cut into a hillside, and the green sections of steel pipe, coated to resist corrosion, were already laid out on support frames waiting for the welders.
Parked on the highway was a square panel truck, a rolling darkroom. The owner of this line, Chesapeake Energy, was X-raying and visually inspecting each one of the pipeline welds. Another worker was using a sophisticated GPS device to record the precise location of every weld and connection.
Once the lines are done, they are electrically charged to resist rust and subjected to a hydrostatic test, pumped full of water to make sure there are no leaks. Chesapeake also is permanently marking its routes with bright-yellow pipeline signs.
The industry says that pipelines today are made of better steel and built and welded to higher standards than ever before.
"These are not yesterday's gathering systems," said Chesapeake's Spigelmyer.
In the absence of any regulations or inspections, though, it's impossible to know whether every company is following the same standards as Chesapeake. In short, Pennsylvania is depending on the companies to make sure the pipelines are built correctly.
"I've heard some companies only check 10 percent of the welds," said Jay Senozetnik of Buffalo, working as an X-ray inspector on the Chesapeake job. "The problem is, people living next to it don't know which lines are inspected 10 percent and which are 100 percent."
"The biggest concern is that one company may be a good actor, but another company may not be," said Lynda Farrell, a pipeline-safety activist in Chester County.
Many of the people living closest to the new pipelines say they are unconcerned - particularly if they have a lease and need the pipeline to start collecting their royalty payments. They say they trust the companies to build them safely.
Joan and Bill Carlson, of Chester Springs, have a gas well on their land in Springville, in Susquehanna County. They made lease deals for three more pipelines to cross their property.
"Could it happen? Sure," Joan Carlson said when asked if she was worried about an accident. "Anything could happen. But will it? Likely not. They've been doing this for a hundred years."
Given the expense of pipelines, gas-industry executives say the last thing they want is to spend millions more to dig up a faulty line, let alone risk an accident.
"There's no shortcuts being taken just because there isn't some type of public regulation," said Ted Topakas, marketing director of Henkels & McCoy, a pipeline contractor in Blue Bell.
"You want to make sure that what you're putting in the ground is of high quality and the safest construction," he said. "You want to protect the people, you want to protect the environment, you want to protect your investment."
When problems are caught, it's almost always by the companies themselves, or by their own inspectors.
The problem is, the companies sometimes make mistakes.
In recent years, there has been growing evidence that quality controls can break down - particularly during times of strong demand for new lines, as there is now in Pennsylvania.
"They've got so much construction going on, companies are really getting lean," said pipeline-safety expert Richard Kuprewicz. "And if you're spread so thin, you start to cut corners, and take risks. It's not like they do it intentionally; it's the system [that] takes over."
"The way things are going, 'Trust us' isn't cutting it," Kuprewicz said.
In late 2008, after a surge in projects left the industry stretched to find qualified workers, some serious problems began cropping up in big pipeline projects.
Alarmed, PHMSA engineers started spending more time in the field actually observing work crews. In all, they looked at 35 projects. What they found were "very serious issues covering all aspects of construction," according to Alan K. Mayberry, a top PHMSA official.
"It really paints a portrait of an industry that over the last year or so has really been stretched to capacity," Mayberry said during a conference in Texas to warn the industry to be more careful.
The agency found steel that didn't meet specifications, inadequate coating on pipes, and slipshod welding techniques. The agency found the problems were exacerbated when the lines cut through hills and streams - common terrain in Pennsylvania's shale fields.
Inspections were supposed to catch the bad welds, but those procedures suffered from their own "quality control problems," PHMSA found.
Some of the bad welds weren't caught until the lines failed during hydrostatic tests. Another PHMSA official said that was "extremely troubling."
Bad welds are supposed to be caught right away, not during final testing. Did that mean, Mayberry wondered during the conference, that there were other bad welds lurking?
Construction mistakes have caused other new pipelines to fail.
In January, pipeline company workers found bubbles in a stream in a remote section of southern New York - natural gas from a pinhole leak in a high-pressure transmission line just two years old.
The 182-mile Millennium Pipeline has announced expansion plans to accommodate demand from Marcellus Shale wells in Pennsylvania and New York.
A later investigation found that a section had flunked a visual inspection and was set aside - but was installed anyway, by mistake.
Last week, the pipeline's owner said it thoroughly inspected the pipeline after doing repairs and "verified the integrity" of the line. It is operating again at full pressure, Millennium Pipeline Co. said.
As for the line near Waynesburg, Langley, the union organizer, said he happened upon it at a road crossing while he was prowling the shale fields in Pennsylvania, looking to make sure none of his workers were doing jobs for nonunion contractors.
His union, Local 798, based in Tulsa, Okla., has been aggressively documenting what it considers slipshod, rushed work by nonunion contractors, particularly in Texas and Louisiana.
"It's happening everywhere, and the sad part is there's very, very little regulation," said Danny Hendrix, Local 798's business manager. "You and I are the ones who have to live around that stuff."
He said inferior construction practices mean that pipelines that should last 70 years might last only 10 or 20.
In the case of the Consol job, Michael Yazemboski, an inspector at a Pittsburgh office of PHMSA, got the call. "He didn't look at the pipe," Langley said. "He said, 'I wasn't allowed to do that because it does not fall under any regulations I have.' "
Because the gathering line was in a rural area, it fell outside safety rules, a PHMSA spokesman confirmed. The agency declined permission for an interview with Yazemboski.
Consol took action, firing a half-dozen welders from the job and eventually dismissing the subcontractor, Eagle Pipeline Construction, based outside Dallas. An Eagle spokesman declined to comment.
El Paso Corp.'s Tennessee pipeline system stretches across half the country, from the Texas Gulf Coast through the Marcellus regions of northern Pennsylvania and into New England.
One morning last month, near the town of Glouster, in a remote section of hills and hamlets in southern Ohio, the line blew up when a weld failed.
It was the third such failure on that pipeline in Ohio this year.
Two miles away, George Pallo, mayor and senior firefighter in the town of Jacksonville, spotted it: a 1,000-foot tower of flame. As he got closer, he said, he had to roll up the fire truck window so he could hear the radio.
"I still hear that roar," he said.
Three houses and two barns caught fire, not from the explosion but from the radiant heat. One woman waited almost too long to get out, fleeing only when her home's vinyl siding started to melt. The backs of her legs got burned as she ran away.
In February, a weld split and touched off another fireball 150 miles away; no one was hurt. Another weld failure created a big gas leak in March, but this time there was no fire.
For pipeline people and regulators, this is worrisome: The welds tying the sections together are supposed to be stronger than the steel itself. Three failures in one year means something has gone very wrong.
"You can bet we are paying a lot of attention to that pipeline," said Quarterman, the top pipeline regulatory official.
El Paso says it's not known yet whether the third failure is, like the first two, related to defective welds; the company says shifting soil may have cracked the pipe.
In a statement, El Paso said it is committed to safety, with an inspection program that "goes well beyond what is required by federal regulations."
This month, another explosion, in rural western Alabama, blew up another gas line that extends into Pennsylvania, without injuring anyone.
The national pipeline system's main line of defense against leaks and explosions of this type is "integrity management," a set of rules requiring companies to inspect older pipelines. Before the program went into effect in 2004, once pipelines were in the ground, companies never had to check them again.
Since then, companies have found, and repaired, more than 3,200 problems in big interstate transmission lines.
But the program can confer a false promise of safety.
The standards cover only 7 percent of lines, in "high-consequence areas" - a euphemism for densely populated neighborhoods, or malls or schools.
And pipeline inspections are usually audits of paper records, but these utility records are sometimes missing or wrong.
In the case of San Bruno, the utility's records didn't show that the pipeline was cobbled together out of short sections of leftover pipe, and had poor-quality steel and dangerous welds, according to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates such major accidents.
Two audits by the state and PHMSA didn't find these issues, "despite the fact that many of them should have been easy to detect."
The Safety Board concluded that PHMSA's enforcement program has been "weak" and ineffective in supervising state regulators - the same criticism made by federal auditors 32 years ago.
"For government to do its job - safeguard the public - it cannot trust alone," NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said. "And as we saw in San Bruno, when the approach to safety is lax, the consequences can be deadly."
Quarterman said the agency was already attacking some of the issues raised by the NTSB, including better oversight of state safety programs and utilities.
"I think the agency is very strong and very well-respected by the companies we regulate," Quarterman said in a recent interview. "There's always room for improvement."
As companies have ramped up their pace of pipeline construction in Pennsylvania, the number of government safety inspections has actually gone down.
"They are the responsibility of PHMSA, but PHMSA doesn't have the resources," said Metro, Pennsylvania's top pipeline-safety regulator. "They do some inspections, but not a lot."
Overall, PHMSA says it has devoted a modest amount of time to inspections in the state in recent years - the equivalent, in 2009, of one inspector working half a year. Last year, inspector workdays fell by half.
In addition, the agency said, it spent 216 workdays reviewing records of companies active in Pennsylvania and other states. It couldn't say how much of that time was spent on Pennsylvania pipelines.
"No, I'm not satisfied," said Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), who pushed PHMSA officials for details of their staffing in Pennsylvania last year, even before the explosions in Allentown and Philadelphia.
"I still have real concerns about staff resources and training and overall safety."
Casey said the oversight gaps were even more worrisome given the rapid expansion of the Marcellus Shale pipeline network. "We've got an even bigger challenge than we had two or three years ago," he said.
Elsewhere, state regulators pick up some of the slack, taking responsibility for most inspections via agreements to enforce federal pipeline rules. But Pennsylvania has yet to take on that role.
The reason, Metro believes, goes back to the industry's decades-old muscle in the Statehouse.
"The gas lobby, for 100 years now, has been very, very strong," he said. "It appears they were able to convince the legislature they were able to self-police."
The PUC has eight safety inspectors, working under Metro. But they typically handle only the 46,000 miles of lines owned by utility companies. The lines that ruptured in Allentown and Philadelphia, for example, were under PUC oversight.
Critics worry that Pennsylvania's inattention now could lead to disaster later.
"There's nothing but a bunch of bad things that are going to happen in the next 10 or 15 years," said Don Deaver, a former pipeline engineer from Texas who now works as a consultant.
"You've had so much of it happening so quickly up there that the regulatory oversight just isn't there to keep up."
In legislation pending in Harrisburg, the PUC would get the authority to hire an additional 13 inspectors; the money to pay them would come from fees paid by pipeline operators.
But there is just one training school for pipeline inspectors in the country, in Oklahoma City. Metro says he's hoping to get his people rushed through. But it could be a year before the inspectors could get out in the field.
As for One Call, the program that's supposed to prevent digging accidents, key state legislators and the Marcellus Shale Coalition support the idea of including the shale pipelines, even in rural areas. But the measure is opposed by a second trade group representing smaller drilling companies.
Pennsylvania's oversight gap has left regulators in handcuffs.
Even when the PUC hears about potential safety issues involving shale gas pipelines, Metro said, he has no authority to investigate.
Would-be whistle-blowers have called the agency, but Metro says he sent the calls along to PHMSA and didn't keep records of the complaints.
"Since it's not in our jurisdiction, we don't keep track of that stuff," he said.