Delaware County’s Middletown Township decided on Monday to allow Sunoco Logistics to build its controversial Mariner East 2 pipeline through four parcels of public land but called for rigorous protections against leaks or explosions of natural gas liquids in light of grave public concerns about the pipeline’s safety.
The township’s council voted unanimously to approve an ordinance allowing easements for construction of the pipeline after a Sunoco official told a packed public meeting that the company was going to build the pipeline through the township regardless of what the council decided because the company has existing rights of way.
“We have the right to lay this pipeline without talking to anyone but we chose to negotiate easements,” Bart Mitchell, Land Project Manager for the company, told the council before the vote. “Should you decide to turn this down tonight, then we can still put the pipeline in. We will not slow up.”Mitchell’s comments prompted several people to accuse the company of bullying, and led one audience member to shout “screw that” despite repeated appeals for civility by Council chairman Mark Kirchgasser.
In an apparent attempt to salvage its right to local control, the council issued a proclamation after the vote, expressing “great concern” about the safety of the pipeline — which is due to run within about 800 feet of an elementary school and beneath a public park — and calling for a series of safety measures designed to protect the public in the event of a leak or spill.
Despite repeated assurances by Sunoco officials that the pipeline will have numerous mechanisms to ensure safe operation running through the residential area, the proclamation said the project “has the potential to jeopardize public safety” by leaks or explosions.
It called for an incident response plan that would include evacuation routes, more safety equipment, and safety training for first responders.
The document said the project’s status as a utility, recently upheld by the Commonwealth Court, exempts it from local land-use law and “severely weakens” its ability to protect public safety. It called for state legislation that would give the township more control over public utility facilities.
Critics continue to argue that the project should not have the status of a public utility because it does not serve a public good. Public utility status, granted by the PUC, allows the company to seize land through eminent domain, and is an ongoing subject of litigation.
The Middletown proclamation follows a similar document from nearby Thornbury Township which also expressed concerns that the pipeline project will undermine safety and local self determination, adding that private water wells could also be impacted by the development.
In Middletown, Sunoco will pay the township $1.8 million which Kirchgasser said would be used for capital projects rather than operations; will provide $200 million in liability coverage, and will install two “hypersensitive” hydrocarbon sensors – one of which will be located near the elementary school — to detect any leak of the colorless, odorless gas from the pipeline.
The company has also agreed to pay for the training of two local firefighters on how to deal with any leaks of natural gas liquids, and will pay up to $100,000 for a risk-assessment study of the line’s placement near the school, Kirchgasser said.
Jeff Shields, a spokesman for Sunoco, rejected accusations that the company had bullied its way into obtaining the easements. “Really, it was quite the opposite,” he said after the meeting. “We hold additional line rights through existing easements that allow us to go through and build the pipeline.
“Instead of just doing that without consulting the township, we consulted the township, asking what their needs are, what their concerns are, and we were able to write up a new agreement that includes compensation for them. We specifically did that so that we gave the township a say.”
Some residents welcomed the compensation package but said they still have deep concerns about the safety of the pipeline; predicted that local real estate prices will fall now that the project has been approved, and accused the council of caving in to corporate demands.
“Council’s stance that this is going through no matter what, and accepting Sunoco’s stance on that is very disturbing,” said Bibianna Dussling, a member of the recently formed Middletown Coalition for Community Safety, and the mother of a six-year-old attending the Glenwood Elementary School. “I think they have weakened themselves.”
Dussling said she was “somewhat encouraged” by the council’s concerns about safety and by its invitation to members of the coalition to participate in a safety panel.
“But what that says to me is acknowledgement of the risk,” she said. “They admitted the risks as far as asphyxiation and combustion.” She said the $1.8 million to be paid by Sunoco is “dwarfed” by the value of human lives that could be endangered by the pipeline.
A trade union official sought to calm safety concerns by saying the pipeline would be built to high standards using skilled labor.
“I would ask residents to take comfort in knowing the pipeline will be constructed by the best craftsmen in the industry and built to the highest industry standards using the most advanced technology available,” said Martin Williams, business manager of Boilermakers Local 13 in Philadelphia.
But Sunoco’s safety record was called into question by a Sept. 23 Reuters report that it had more than 200 crude oil leaks since 2010, more than any of its competitors. Shields, the Sunoco spokesman, acknowledged the statistics but said that a new management team since 2012 had taken steps to improve performance.
Charles Williams, a 40-year resident of Middletown, said he was disappointed by the council’s decision but welcomed the concessions that it had won from Sunoco.
“I understand that they had to say yes to get concessions rather than to be punched in the mouth,” he said.
But Williams, carrying a “Shut it Down in Middletown” sign, said he may now work for the closure of Glenwood School because of continuing worries about whether children there will be safe when the pipeline is built in approximately two years.
The $2.5 billion Mariner East 2 project is due to pump ethane, propane and butane some 350 miles from the Marcellus Shale of southwest Pennsylvania to a processing and exporting facility at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia.
Sunoco has negotiated easements with many private landowners along the 17-county route across the state but is seeking to obtain land via eminent domain actions with some people who have refused its offers of compensation. The issue of whether or not Sunoco has eminent domain authority is expected to reach the state Supreme Court. The project is also awaiting permits from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection.