(Photo courtesy Chris Baker Evans Photography)
Caroline Hughes spends 24 hours a day in a potential blast zone. Her home is 700 feet away from one of the pipelines included in Energy Transfer Partners’ statewide Mariner East project. At work, she’s 250 feet away.
If any of the odorless liquids transported by the pipelines leak and find an ignition source, Hughes and thousands of other residents in Chester and Delaware counties are at risk of serious harm by an explosion.
Not only that, but the suggested evacuation plan is to run half a mile in an upwind direction.
“We are as safe as the least-informed resident and our most vulnerable residents,” Hughes said. “How do you evacuate an entire school of children? … How about, right next to my son’s school, where its 25 feet from the pipeline, is an assisted living facility. How do you evacuate them? You don’t.”
“How do you evacuate someone with cerebral palsy?” Hughes continued. “How do you evacuate people who can’t walk a half a mile? What if it’s in the middle of the night? What if it’s snowing? What if it’s raining?”
These are among the many questions Hughes wants answered about the project, which was originally headed by Sunoco before the company merged with ETP in 2017. As an organizer for Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety, Hughes is part of a years-long, suburban grassroots movement that’s calling for more transparency from ETP about the Mariner East project.
"I think the biggest thing that we've done and the most important thing that we've done is we've managed to unite people."
Groups like Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety, the Pipeline Safety Coalition and Uwchlan Safety Coalition have taken action by testifying in front of Congress, commissioning risk assessments and filing complaint after complaint with state regulatory agencies. Municipal government has also gotten involved. On March 11, the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office and the Office of the Pennsylvania Attorney General announced a joint investigation into allegations of criminal misconduct by ETP regarding Mariner East. (Sunoco has not responded to Generocity’s request for comment.)
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Rebecca Britton, one of the founding members of the Uwchlan Safety Coalition, said fighting the project has brought people together.
“I think the biggest thing that we’ve done and the most important thing that we’ve done is we’ve managed to unite people on common ground, regardless of party,” Britton said. “Together, the people on the coalition have educated ourselves, shared information with one another and really shown people that people united on common issues can move mountains.”
What is the pipeline?
There are three pipelines included in ETP’s Mariner East project: Mariner East 1, Mariner East 2 and Mariner East 2X. Per ETP’s plan, they will all carry hazardous volatile liquids. HVLs become colorless and odorless vapor when exposed to air.
Here is a timeline of the pipelines’ general operation and construction history:
Hughes realized she needed to advocate against the pipeline when she learned it would run 100 feet from her son’s K-8 school, the Ss. Peter & Paul School in West Chester, Pennsylvania. It’s one of 40 schools in the pipeline’s blast zone, she said.
It took the pipeline’s proximity to her child for Hughes to get involved, but she now “advocates for everyone impacted by this injustice.”
Similarly, Britton’s first concerns about the pipeline were personal. She became aware of it when she was running for school board of the Downington Area School District in 2016 and was asked about the pipeline by neighbors. Three years later, she spends hours every evening reading law and information about emergency services to learn how to best advocate for her community’s safety, she said.
“Now we are petitioning — just regular everyday people without lawyers — the Public Utility Commission for our rights,” Britton said. “These are basic property rights. Our basic ability to protect our children in school.”
In January, Britton filed a complaint with PUC, asking it to “to evaluate, if, all pipelines in the Mariner East Pipeline System are safe, adequate and reasonable to the public.” Her argument relies on what she has dubbed as oversights on Sunoco and ETP’s part, including lack of sufficient public awareness about the project, unclear evacuation plans in case of emergency and potential contamination of public water drinking sources by the pipelines.
According to PHMSA database, there were 986 accidental leaks from buried, on-shore pipelines transporting HVLs between 2010 and 2017.
Sunoco filed a request to have Britton’s complaint dismissed, but it still stands. Since January, Downingtown Mayor Josh Maxwell filed a petition to intervene on the complain, and Kim Doan, one of the three Uwchlan Township supervisors, submitted a letter of support for Britton.
Hughes has also stepped in front of PUC with safety concerns about the pipeline as one of the “Safety Seven,” a group of seven residents from Chester and Delaware counties who filed an emergency petition with the commission. Filed in 2018, it requested Mariner East 1 to be shut down and construction on the other two pipelines to cease until it’s proven they’re safe. There is a pre-hearing conference call for the petition on April 24.
Both Delaware and Chester counties have filed to join the lawsuit, in addition to multiple school districts and townships.
Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety also sought out an independent risk assessment of the pipeline from the Oklahoma-based firm Quest Consultants. Clean Air Council served as the fiscal agent for the study, which was completed in August 2018. It stated that the risk of three pipelines is triple the risk of one.
There could be a leak from the three Mariner East pipelines every 2.8 years, per the firm’s analysis of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration data about leaks in HVL lines. According to PHMSA database, there were 986 accidental leaks from buried, on-shore pipelines transporting HVLs between 2010 and 2017.
People up to 2,135 feet away from the pipeline could be in a predicted fatal impact zone if there was a leak, the report also stated.
Though Sunoco asked for assistance with educating the community about the project in 2015, Pipeline Safety Coalition refused because of its concerns about its safety, said Lynda Farrell, the nonprofit’s director. The nonprofit is neither anti- or pro-pipeline, but focused on education and awareness relating to their construction.
That year, Pipeline Safety Coalition conducted an independent report that stated the pipeline puts homes, schools and businesses at risk 24/7, similar to the risk assessment by Quest.
The pipelines’ proximity to schools and densely populated residential areas in Chester and Delaware counties has been repeated as a concern by advocates, local government and independent reports. Eve Miari, the advocacy coordinator for the Clean Air Council, said that this pipeline fight differs from others that were more environmentally focused, like opposition to the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. ETP was the builder for that project.
Instead, Chester and Delaware residents are primarily focused on public safety and private property rights, Miari said.
“There is unique concern because of the unique properties of this pipeline and the way it’s uniquely situated through dense vulnerable populations,” Miari said. “Thousands of people in suburban Philadelphia exist within a mile-wide blast zone of the pipeline at any given moment. In a worst-case scenario pipeline explosion on the Mariner East, we would have a catastrophe on par with 9/11.”
Local government involvement
Chester County, Delaware County and townships within them have joined citizens taking a stand against the pipeline. Officials have joined ongoing lawsuits in front of PUC that are against ETP.
Earlier this month, the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office announced a joint investigation with the Office of the Pennsylvania Attorney General into wrongdoing by ETP while constructing Mariner East (A spokesperson for the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office declined to comment for this story because of the ongoing investigation).
The Chester County Commissioners also spoke out against ETP earlier this month when it received a redacted version of the company’s emergency management plan.
The county had already gotten involved with the Safety Seven lawsuit, but is considering other legal options after receiving the emergency management plan for a project that Chester County Commissioner Kathi Cozzonne said she has “no confidence in its safety when it’s completed.”
“Sunoco, a long time ago, has broken the public trust,” she said. “They’ve done nothing to restore it and, at this point, I don’t think there is anything that they can do to restore the public trust.”
"We need to be able to prepare the schools."
Jim Scanlon, the superintendent of the West Chester Area School District, said it’s been frustrating communicating with Sunoco about the appropriate response to take if there’s an emergency involving Mariner East. Four buildings in his district are within 3,000 feet of a pipeline.
Some of the school district’s buildings are supposed to be used as shelters as part of the county’s emergency response. Scanlon said a mass notification system by Sunoco could help schools better prepare and save lives if there is a catastrophe.
“We still don’t have a clear communication plan from them, and we can do an awful lot in four or five minutes,” Scanlon said. “We need to be able to prepare the schools.”
The urgency of local officials’ work against the pipelines is not prompted just by duty. It’s emblematic of their personal ties to the communities mostly likely to be impacted in the case of a disaster.
“I live in this area, my son goes to school in this area,” Cozzonne said. “While I’m certainly committed to the public safety of all Chester County residents, this one is literally close to home.”-30-
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