Pennsylvania

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U.S. fines Sunoco for pipeline safety lapse after valve incident injures workers

The entrance to Sunoco's refinery in Marcus Hook, Delaware County.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

The entrance to Sunoco's refinery and headquarters in Marcus Hook, Delaware County.

Sunoco’s pipeline division suffered the latest blow to its safety reputation on Thursday when the federal government proposed to fine the company $251,800 for an accident in which five workers were hurt during maintenance of a valve in Wortham, Texas last year.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said Sunoco Logistics failed to properly train workers to maintain the valve on a crude oil pipeline, and their work on it resulted in failure of the valve, damage to piping, and injury to the workers, who were disassembling the valve. The incident also led to a minor spill of crude oil.

The agency, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, said the company’s procedure for repairing the valve failed to isolate the energy source – in this case, crude oil – exposing the valve to high pressure that led to the incident.

“The … process failed to ensure adequate steps were taken to identify and mitigate the hazard by isolating all energy sources,” the agency said in a notice of probable violation and proposed civil penalty following the incident in November, 2015.

It also said Sunoco failed to have a formal written procedure for the operation and maintenance of the 10-inch flow-control valve involved in the accident.

Sunoco Logistics, which plans to build the Mariner East 2 natural gas liquids pipeline across southern Pennsylvania, has been accused of lax safety standards after a series of incidents, most recently the rupture of a pipeline which spilled an estimated 55,000 gallons of gasoline into a Lycoming County creek in October.

Data from PHMSA show the company had 271 incidents from 2006 to 2016, leading to 27 federal enforcement actions.

Since 2010, Sunoco has seen some 200 crude oil leaks, more than any of its competitors, according to a report by the Reuters news service, based on government data, in September.

Scrutiny of the company’s safety record has tightened recently because it is due to operate the controversial Dakota Access pipeline which has been opposed by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe amid fears that its sacred sites will be damaged and its water supplies tainted by the pipeline.

In Pennsylvania, the new federal action fueled public concerns about the safety of Mariner East 2, said Lynda Farrell, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Coalition.

The penalty “reaffirms citizens’ concerns by not only citing Sunoco’s failure to provide written procedures for operation and emergencies but also Sunoco’s failure to follow protocol in Texas,” Farrell said in a statement.

She said the coalition has followed the federal investigation into the Texas incident for its relevance to Sunoco’s safety record.

Jeff Shields, a Sunoco spokesman, said the company would have no immediate comment on the PHMSA fine.

The company has 30 days to pay the fine or contest the order and ask for a hearing, said Damon Hill, a spokesman for PHMSA. Once the order is finalized, Sunoco will have 20 more days to pay the fine or ask for reconsideration.

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