By Anthony Hennen
(The Center Square) — State and federal investigators charged two Pennsylvania men for “risking catastrophe” when they cut corners on a natural gas pipeline project.
In early May, Attorney General Michelle Henry filed charges against Joseph Berkich and Welton Darl Shipe, ranging from falsifying documents and providing false statements to risking a catastrophe and criminal conspiracy.
“These men allegedly put lives at risk by carelessly ignoring certifications and safety assurance requirements in an effort to profit from pipeline work,” Henry said in a press release. “Unfortunately, we have seen recently the devastating environmental impacts of such carelessness, and my office is committed to holding accountable those who put the environment and our citizen’s health and lives at risk.”
Berkich, of Washington County, faces seven different charges and Shipe, of West Virginia, faces five charges.
The charges are related to welding work on the Mark West Liberty Pipeline, which moves various natural gas liquids from processing plants in West Virginia and Pennsylvania to fractionation facilities in Ohio and Pennsylvania that separate them into different products.
Berkich was hired by Shipe to evaluate the integrity of welds on sections of the pipeline, but did not have the proper certifications for the work — he was “neither trained nor certified” for the work. When EnTech Energy, who employed Shipe, demanded Berkich’s certification paperwork, he forged signatures.
EnTech hired out the work to re-examine the welds, which discovered that Berkish signed off on seven welds “that threatened the integrity of the project and endangered the public.” Shipe had also told Berkich and another welder to cut out the welds and repair them without reporting the repairs.
“Reporting repairs is critical because the applied heat can cause the metal to become brittle leading to increased risk of leaks and the potential for the weld to become an ignition source,” the attorney general noted.
The state attorney general’s office conducted the investigation with the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General.
The indictment is one of several cases related to natural gas pipelines in the commonwealth in recent years.
In August 2022, Energy Transfer was convicted on criminal charges for allowing drilling fluid used in the construction of the Mariner East 2 Pipeline to leak into streams. A plea agreement required the company to pay $10 million to support projects for cleaning water sources near the pipeline’s route.
Also in 2022, the attorney general filed charges against Cabot Oil and Gas for violating the Clean Streams law and illegal discharges related to polluted water in Dimock, a town in northeast Pennsylvania. In November, the company pleaded no contest and agreed to pay $16 million to build a new public water supply and will cover 75 years of water bills for affected residents.
Other indictments involved fraud schemes or infrastructure damage.
In 2012, a federal grand jury indicted a Pennsylvania man for fraud related to natural gas drilling supplies and in 2015, a Greene County resident was charged for allegedly damaging a pad for five natural gas wells.
Anthony Hennen is a reporter for The Center Square. Previously, he worked for Philadelphia Weekly and the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. He is managing editor of Expatalachians, a journalism project focused on the Appalachian region.
Originally published by The Center Square. Republished with permission.
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