Sunoco's Mariner East 2 pipeline could run through public land in Delco
Sunoco Logistics moved a step closer to building its proposed Mariner East 2 pipeline project through a Delaware County township when the local council late Monday advanced a plan to provide easements on four parcels of public land for construction of the controversial lines.
But the company could face further delays on the major cross-state project when on Friday, the state Department of Environmental Protection demanded many changes to its application for a permit to build the pipelines across waterways and wetlands.
The move also comes as communities across the nation are protesting the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline after the federal government temporarily blocked construction of a section of the line near a Native American reservation.
Middletown Township Council voted unanimously after a two-hour public meeting to introduce an ordinance that would allow Sunoco to build and operate two natural gas liquids lines that would pass within some 800 feet of an elementary school and cross a public park. The plan will now be considered for adoption by the next council meeting on September 26.
Opponents, including members of the newly formed Middletown Coalition for Community Safety, urged the council to at least defer its decision on whether to grant the easements, and give the public more time to consider the impact of the lines, which some say represent a major risk to public safety.
The $2.5 billion project would take ethane, propane and butane though 17 counties from the Marcellus Shale of southwestern Pennsylvania to a processing terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia, where the fuel will get shipped overseas. Sunoco has negotiated easements with many private landowners but is asserting eminent domain in some cases of people who have rejected its offers of compensation.
Critics, representing a clear majority of people who spoke at the meeting, presented the report of an independent consultant which concluded that the pipelines would expose the community to the risk of explosions and asphyxiation in the event of a leak from the line.
“Placement of pipelines conducting explosive gases in densely populated areas presents a worst-case scenario – multiple catastrophic disasters that may occur at any time of day or night,” said the report by Paul Rubin, a hydrogeologist from New York State.
But Matthew Gordon, the Mariner East 2 project manager, assured an overflow crowd in the township building that Sunoco would take multiple precautions to ensure the safety of the line.
Asked by the meeting’s chair, Councilman Mark Kirchgasser, to respond to critics’ claims that Sunoco has an “abysmal” safety record, Gordon said welds in the pipe are coated with epoxy and inspected repeatedly by company and government officials during the construction process and after being placed in the ground.
Once in operation, the pipeline’s pressure, temperature and flow is monitored around the clock by computer from a control center in Reading. The center is equipped with battery backup and a generator that would power the monitoring equipment in the event of a power outage, Gordon said.
“The system monitors flow and pressure,” he said. “It doesn’t need human intervention if it detects a leak.”
Asked by an audience member whether the pipeline would be vulnerable to a terrorist attack, Gordon replied: “If I was a terrorist, I would look for a more densely populated area than this one.”
Gordon’s comments follow a scathing assessment by the Department of Environmental Protection of Sunoco’s plans to protect waterways in five Delaware County townships including Middletown from any damage by the pipeline.
In a 21-page letter released on September 6, the DEP’s chief of dams and waterways, John Hohenstein, said there are “significant technical deficiencies” in Sunoco’s application. Among many other criticisms, the letter demanded more detail on how Sunoco proposes to construct and restore stream crossings, and to identify provisions for shutoff at each crossing in the event of a pipeline break or rupture in the pipeline.
The letter also called for more information on Gordon’s credentials, asking for proof that he is authorized to sign the application. It said the permit application and an accompanying electronic file contained different titles for Gordon, and it asked the company to provide a consistent title. The letter said the company should correct the deficiencies in its application by November 7 or face the possibility that it will be rejected.
At the meeting, many residents were not willing to accept Sunoco’s assurances that the pipeline would be safe.
George Siter, a township resident, said the possible consequences of a leak or explosion from the line outweigh any economic benefit that would result from it.
Citing the consultant’s estimate that any leak of gases from the line would take less than five minutes to reach Glenwood Elementary School where his oldest daughter is in second grade, Siter predicted there would be mass confusion in an effort to escape a cloud of the colorless, odorless gas that could be released in the event of a leak.
“Who will tell us when it is time to go? Or which direction to run? How will we know which direction is upwind?” he asked. “The lack of a clear notification system and evacuation plan from Sunoco quite frankly scares the hell out of me and the risk to my family and others in Middletown is just too great.”
Seth Kovnat, another resident and a member of the critics’ coalition, said that a cloud of escaped gas would risk an explosion equal to the power of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima in the Second World War.
Some residents challenged the conclusion of the Commonwealth Court which ruled in July that Sunoco was entitled to exercise eminent domain to obtain land along the 350-mile pipeline route because it is a public utility corporation – a designation that critics reject on the grounds that the pipeline’s products will be sold overseas.
The company says some of the gas will also be sold in Pennsylvania. But as StateImpact has reported, documented in court testimony last year, a senior Sunoco executive estimated Pennsylvania consumes between 20,000 to 22,000 barrels of propane per day. Its existing Mariner East 1 pipeline already has more than three times that capacity. So opponents argue Sunoco can meet demand without building a new line.
Copies of the Commonwealth court’s July ruling, which said Mariner East 2 would operate both interstate and intrastate, were made available at the meeting, as were copies of a Philadelphia judge’s decision to allow a separate challenge to the project by Clean Air Council and other plaintiffs. Attorneys involved in the eminent domain cases expect the issue to go to the state Supreme Court before its resolved.
Calls for more safety information on the pipeline also came from Marty Molloy, Democratic nominee for State Senate in the 9th District, who accused state lawmakers of not doing enough to ensure the pipeline will be safe.
“The residents of Delaware and Chester Counties deserve to know the dangers of building a pipeline through their communities and what precautions the builder, Sunoco, has taken to keep our families safe,” Molloy said in a statement.
But some labor union leaders spoke in favor of the pipeline, saying that their members who would build the line would do so to the highest safety standards.
“Claims by anti-pipeline advocates … are unfounded and meant to do nothing more than to strike fear into the hearts of Pennsylvania residents,” said Anthony Gallagher, Business Manager for the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 420.
Joe McGinn, a Sunoco spokesman, said the proposed easements on the Middletown parcels are the latest in a series of agreements to build the pipeline on public lands elsewhere along the route.