School officials seek answers on safety of Mariner East 2

  • Jon Hurdle
Workers cleared trees to make way for the Mariner East 2 pipeline in Delaware County, where school officials are seeking assurances on safety.

Emily Cohen / StateImpact PA

Workers cleared trees to make way for the Mariner East 2 pipeline in Delaware County, where school officials are seeking assurances on safety.

Pipeline advocates and emergency responders sought to allay continuing concerns about the safety of the planned Mariner East 2 line near schools during a recent meeting in Delaware County, calming some worries but failing to convince critics that their children will be safe when the pipeline is built.

As Sunoco Logistics presses on with construction of its cross-state natural gas liquids pipeline, officials at the Rose Tree Media School District held a “safety summit” on March 31 to discuss how to respond to different threats including the possibility of a leak or rupture in the line, which is planned to run about 650 feet from an elementary school in the district.

The event, organized by the district’s superintendent, Jim Wigo, was attended by about 40 people including representatives of Sunoco and two other nearby school districts plus emergency responders from municipal and county levels, township officials, representatives of local police and fire departments, council members, and representatives from the Delaware County homeland security department.

Wigo said he called the meeting to discuss safety and security issues at the 450-student Glenwood Elementary School in Middletown, and wanted to learn how the school’s emergency-response plan, now being rewritten, would be affected by the pipeline.

Parents were not invited because of the need to keep emergency-response plans confidential, Wigo said.

“The emergency plans that we have on file today are not made public because we don’t want anyone to come to any harm,” he said. “Someone may find out about a strategy that we use or an evacuation route that we may use. It’s not to shut out parents, it is because we have a certain responsibility to those plans, and maintaining their confidentiality.”

Wigo said a consensus emerged from the meeting that first responders are capable of dealing with emergencies such as a pipeline leak or an attack by a shooter in a way that will protect students.

“I was extraordinarily satisfied,” he told StateImpact. “We believe that we have input from experts who are going to help us as we reformulate our emergency-response plans, and as always keep the safety and well-being of our kids as the number-one priority.”

Timothy Boyce, Delaware County’s director of emergency services, who attended the meeting, also declined to disclose details of the school district’s emergency plan but said the procedure would begin with Sunoco notifying his department of some malfunction in the line. County officials would then alert local police, fire and emergency medical services, and then schools would be notified, he said.

Depending on the nature of the problem with the line, and weather conditions, officials would then decide whether to evacuate a school or to have students and staff shelter in place, Boyce said.

While every precaution would be taken to protect students, some level of risk will always exist, whether from a pipeline, an intruder, or any other emergency, Boyce said. “It’s very difficult to reduce the risk to zero,” he said.

The meeting took place after an independent analysis of risk from the pipeline concluded that a leak of highly pressurized propane, butane or ethane from the line could result in a flammable vapor cloud that could spread up to 1,800 feet within three minutes, and burn anyone within 700 feet of the leak.

The analysis, commissioned by the Middletown Coalition for Community Safety, a citizens’ group, reinforced members’ fears that residents including school children could be exposed to burns and asphyxiation if there was a leak.

Eve Miari, a spokeswoman for the coalition, said its members remain concerned about safety at Glenwood despite assurances from first responders and school district officials. The same risk applies to 40 other schools that are near the pipeline route elsewhere in Pennsylvania, she said, citing data from Fractracker, a nonprofit that maps and monitors the risks of oil and gas development.

The Fractracker report, issued last December, uses a federal government formula to calculate the “potential impact radius” of any explosion resulting from a leak in the new line. It concludes that for a 20-inch diameter pipe operating at maximum pressure of 1,440 psi, as planned for Mariner East 2, the “blast radius” for the natural gas liquids would be between 1,171 feet and 1,416 feet, depending on what type of liquid was in the pipeline.

“Mariner East 2 has no place next to Glenwood or any of the other 40 public and private schools across Pennsylvania that lie within the blast zone,” Miari said. “Even the best emergency plans cannot mitigate the risk to those in an immediate blast zone.”

She said the only “true mitigation” of the risk would be to build the pipeline farther away from homes and schools than currently planned.

Sunoco has repeatedly assured residents of Delaware County and elsewhere along the 350-mile pipeline route that it is equipped with shutoff devices that would be automatically activated if any leak occurs. It also cites another independent report, commissioned by Chester County’s West Goshen Township, which concluded that Mariner East 2 meets or exceeds federal requirements for pipeline safety.

Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields did not respond to a question on whether the company agreed with Fractracker’s calculations on the impact of any leak, but noted that the report was co-authored by Seth Kovnat, a member of the Middletown coalition who is an outspoken opponent of the pipeline.

“This study does not represent an independent analysis, and in fact is co-authored by the same individual who compares pipelines to nuclear bombs,” Shields said.

He said the project is regulated by the federal government and the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, and he pledged that Sunoco will continue to work with local first responders and school district officials to incorporate pipelines into their emergency plans.

Gas pipeline explosions are rare but can be devastating, said Thomas Miller, a certified hazardous materials technician and a fire instructor at West Virginia University. He cited the explosion of a natural gas line in Sissonville, WV, in 2012 which destroyed several houses and charred a section of interstate highway.

Although such incidents are “high consequence,” they are much less likely to happen than road accidents or explosions of distribution natural gas lines that supply private homes, he said. “The school is probably more in danger of what goes up and down the road in front of it. More people are killed from low-pressure natural gas explosions than they are from pipeline incidents,” he said.

The best preparation for any emergency in a pipeline like Mariner East 2 is to ensure there are clear channels of communication established between the pipeline operator, the school district, and the local emergency services, Miller said.

Public concern over the safety of Mariner East 2 is based in part on its route through densely populated areas like Delaware and Chester Counties, said Lynda Farrell, executive director of the Pennsylvania-based Pipeline Safety Coalition, a nonprofit. Although residents have lived with pipelines for decades, some, like the Mariner East 1, were built on land that was predominantly rural at the time of construction.

Now that development has sharply increased the population along the route, energy companies like Sunoco are faced with many more questions about safety, Farrell said.

“Now, the right of way is 20 feet from homes,” she said. “Is that a good idea? We told Sunoco three years ago that it’s a really bad idea, and we continue to think it’s a really bad idea to continue to build out infrastructure in high-consequence areas.”

Meanwhile, school district officials are using information acquired at the summit to update their emergency plans.

Wigo of the Rose Tree Media School District said the updated emergency plan will allow the district to respond to “any and all emergencies.”

Asked whether the safety summit had eased his concerns about the pipeline, Wigo said: “I think there was a consensus within the group after hearing concerns and posing questions that our community response groups have the training and the wherewithal to direct the school or anyone else toward safety.”

Jim Scanlon, superintendent of the nearby West Chester Area School District, who attended last week’s meeting, said school officials need to know all critical information within five to 10 minutes of any leak.

“Do we need to lock down and keep kids in the building and close off ventilation units, or if it’s close to the building, do we need to get out, and which direction do we need to go?” he said. “We need all that data right away, on the initial call, so we are trying to tighten up our communications.”

Scanlon said his district has three schools that are between 1,609 feet and 3,105 feet from the pipeline route. The line would be between 50 feet and 132 feet underground when it passes near the schools, sufficient that depth is not a concern, he said.

But he has more questions for Sunoco and first responders about communications in the event of any leak. “I want to know what the communications piece is if something happens in the line and there is a shutdown,” Scanlon said.

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