Photo of Gov. Tom Wolf touring Route 30 landslide area used by permission via Gov. Tom Wolf / Flickr</a.

At approximately 5 a.m. on September 10, during heavy rains brought on by Tropical Storm Gordon, a methane gas pipeline run by Energy Transfer Partners in Beaver County was hit by a landslide and exploded. No lives were lost, but a home was destroyed, dozens were evacuated and several farm animals were killed in the blast.

The pipeline had been operating for one week.

Environmental groups in the Pittsburgh region say the incident raises significant questions about the long-term safety of pipelines and natural gas infrastructure all over Western Pennsylvania.

In particular, experts are wary of Shell’s Falcon Ethane Pipeline, a proposed 97-mile pipeline that would cross through 22 different counties in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. According to Shell’s website, the oil behemoth hopes to secure permits and begin construction in late 2018.

In a letter sent to PA Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell on Sept. 17, a consortium of 17 environmental groups urged the department to deny Shell’s construction permit applications.

“We are making this request based upon our witnessing the safety and environmental impacts of insufficient reviews of risky pipeline construction projects across the Commonwealth,” says the letter, “that have led to safety concerns and contamination of public waters and watershed resources.”

The Breath Project, as the consortium is known, includes The Sierra Club, Clean Air Council and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

In addition to risks posed by building the pipeline in areas that are under increasingly high risk of landslides, the letter notes that this is only one of the many grave risks to public health posed by the pipeline.

“The Shell Falcon pipeline will increase harmful air pollution and associated public health impacts in the region, increase risks to public safety, exacerbate climate change and allow for an expansion of petrochemical infrastructure in the region,” says Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project.

In a statement emailed to NEXTpittsburgh, Shell spokesperson Ray Fisher said, “While this unfortunate event did not involve a Shell pipeline asset, we continue to pay close attention to the matter and expect to learn from this event, as we do with all events in our industry.”

Fisher goes on to say that the company will ensure the safety of the project by “conducting thorough geotechnical and environmental studies, robust pipeline design, strategic placement of automated shut-off valves along the route, ongoing inspections and monitoring, and plans to operate the system from our state-of-the-art, 24/7 monitoring center.”

When reached for comment, PA Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson Lauren Fraley said her organization is still reviewing Shell’s applications for the pipeline, and could not estimate a date for their final decision.

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.