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Chester County commissioners slam Sunoco for ‘appalling’ lack of pipeline information

Letter urges PUC to uphold judge's order halting Mariner East construction

  • Jon Hurdle
Mariner East 2 pipeline construction in Chester County.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Mariner East 2 pipeline construction in Chester County.

Jon Hurdle

In March, residents of Chester County’s West Whiteland Township pressed pipeline regulators for answers on Sunoco’s Mariner East construction after it produced sink holes behind some local homes.

Chester County commissioners slammed Sunoco Pipeline on Tuesday, accusing it of withholding emergency planning information from officials of towns where the Mariner East 2 pipeline will run, prioritizing profit over safety, and creating mistrust among residents who fear for their safety if the pipeline leaks or explodes.

In a letter to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, the commissioners urged it to uphold a judge’s recent order that would suspend construction of the pipeline in Chester County’s West Whiteland Township while halting operation of an existing pipeline that runs along the same right-of-way.

The three commissioners said Sunoco’s reluctance to share emergency planning information with all appropriate local officials has created a “gravely dangerous situation” in which residents are left to find their own details on evacuation plans in the event of a pipeline emergency — information that is often misleading and incorrect.

“We are deeply troubled by Sunoco’s lack of transparent approach to this critical safety information, hampering our Department of Emergency Services and local first responders from doing their job,” the letter said.

It said the commissioners find it “appalling” that Sunoco has failed to proactively share its own risk assessment with the appropriate first responders.

The assessment has been seen by the county’s Department of Emergency Services only after a briefing was requested, and only after officials signed a non-disclosure agreement that stopped them from discussing the assessment with anyone outside the briefing, the letter said.

Sunoco has yet to share another document, its Integrity Management Plan, with the county’s Department of Emergency Services after two canceled briefings over more than three months, the commissioners said.

They said emergency officials have learned about pipeline issues mostly through local media reports and community members.

Emergency officials have tried to reassure the public that they are trained to respond to hazardous materials accidents, but many residents have taken little comfort from that, the commissioners said, because the officials are limited by the non-disclosure agreements about the information they can share with the public.

“Simply put, without more publicly accessible information about the pipelines and the products conveyed in them, the Department of Emergency Services and local first responders cannot dispel residents’ fears about being safe in their own homes,” the letter said.

Community groups opposing the pipeline have long argued that there will be a public safety risk when the pipeline starts carrying liquefied propane, ethane, and butane. Any leak could create a highly explosive vapor cloud that would not immediately disperse because it is heavier than air, and which could threaten widespread casualties in Philadelphia’s densely populated western suburbs, they say.

The commissioners’ letter sharply escalates public criticism of the Mariner East project in Chester County, where Sunoco hit an aquifer during drilling last summer, and where sinkholes appeared at Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township starting late last year. The PUC, citing the risk of a “catastrophic” event, halted the operation in March for a safety inspection, and allowed it to resume in early May.

But on May 24, Administrative Law Judge Elizabeth Barnes again suspended construction in West Whiteland Township, saying there was an imminent risk to public safety because the construction was taking place alongside the active Mariner East 1 pipeline, and that both were running through unstable geology.

The full PUC will decide whether to uphold the judge’s order, and is expected to announce its decision at a public meeting on June 14.

The commissioners said some Sunoco representatives and contractors had tried to address community concerns, but the issues raised should be addressed by Sunoco’s senior management, not their employees on the ground.

The letter was especially critical of Sunoco’s leadership, which it said “has shown no regard for the extensive and unreasonable impact pipeline construction is having throughout Chester County or for the fear Mariner East has sown in our communities about the risk of a pipeline accident.”

Sunoco responded to the letter by saying that it has conducted six sessions of its Mariner Emergency Responder Outreach program in Chester County since 2014. The company also said it hosted emergency preparedness meetings “with schools and municipalities near the ME2 right of way.”

Across Pennsylvania, the company has conducted 84 such sessions that have been attended by more than 1,950 first responders, the company said in a statement.


Chester County Commissioners’ letter to PUC opposing Mariner East pipeline project (Text)

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