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Mariner East startup renews safety fears for some residents in Delaware County

Homeowners focus on integrity of repurposed 12-inch pipeline first built in 1930s

  • Jon Hurdle
The Andover estate in Thornbury Township, Delaware County, along the route of the Mariner East 2 pipeline which began operating on Dec. 29. A valve site for the pipeline is in the center of the picture.

Eric Friedman/Submitted

The Andover estate in Thornbury Township, Delaware County, along the route of the Mariner East 2 pipeline which began operating on Dec. 29. A valve site for the pipeline is in the center of the picture.

Jon Hurdle/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Lora Snyder and Jim McGinn live near the Mariner East 2 pipeline in Delaware County.

Lora Snyder was already worried about plans for a natural gas liquids pipeline going past her Delaware County property, but now that the pipeline has started operating, she’s thinking it’s time to sell and move away.

Snyder, a resident of Edgmont Township, fears that the segment of Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 pipeline — which, on Saturday, began carrying NGLs a few hundred yards from her house — threatens the safety of herself and her husband because of the highly explosive nature of the material, and the leaky history of the pipe itself.

The 12-inch pipe, a repurposed gasoline line originally built in the 1930s, has leaked at least twice before, and Snyder predicts that it will do so again – despite a $30 million upgrade in 2016, according to Sunoco – with potentially catastrophic consequences.

“Our real concern here is that the 12-inch has leaked at least two times that we know of in Edgmont,” said Snyder, 50, in an interview at her home. “I’m fearful. I don’t know how I will sleep at night, truthfully, because of the history of the pipe. The chances are pretty good that we will see another leak soon. Now we have to worry about being blown up.”

Critics’ concerns were renewed over the weekend of Dec. 29-30 when the whole cross-state pipeline finally began pumping ethane, propane and butane after many delays caused by regulatory shutdowns and technical problems during its almost two-year construction.

Sunoco said in a statement on Saturday that the pipeline “is in service” effective that day. The startup meets the company’s latest target of beginning operation by the end of 2018.

After hoping that the project would hit yet another roadblock, critics began to focus on the reality of living with a pipeline that they say could cause mass casualties if it leaks and explodes highly volatile liquids in a densely populated area like Delaware County.

An independent assessment for Delaware County Council said in December that a worst-case rupture of the pipe would kill anyone within about a mile, but that the chance of that happening were less than that of someone dying in a car crash.

Snyder’s husband, Jim McGinn, 55, said he might have felt more comfortable if Mariner East 2 had consisted of a 20-inch pipe, as originally planned, for all of its 350-mile route from western Pennsylvania to Marcus Hook near Philadelphia. But his confidence was knocked when Sunoco said it would use the 12-inch pipe to fill in for about 25 miles of the route in Delaware and Chester counties until the new line could be completed.

And then the recent explosion of a natural gas gathering line, operated by Sunoco’s parent, Energy Transfer, in Beaver County made him wonder if even a newly constructed pipe would be safe. That pipe, the Revolution pipeline, had been operating for a week when it exploded on Sept. 10.

Snyder said the startup is causing them to think about moving away from the home and its four-acre property where they have lived for 15 years.

“I think it’s time to look at moving,” Snyder said. “We love our home. It’s depressing and upsetting, and it makes me angry that an oil company, for their profits, can ruin your environment, your water and now your home, and make you have to move.”

In response to the complaints from Snyder and other residents, Sunoco said Mariner East 2 meets or exceeds federal safety requirements. It noted that the 12-inch line’s integrity has recently been confirmed by the Public Utility Commission’s head of pipeline safety; by Accufacts, a consultant that concluded in a study for West Goshen Township that ME2 complies with federal standards; and by the analysis for Delaware County Council.

“We have said since the start of the project that the safety of the communities and the environments through which we pass is our first priority, not only in the construction of the pipeline, but throughout its operation,” said Vicki Granado, a spokeswoman for Energy Transfer.

In nearby Thornbury Township, Jennifer Degnan, her husband Steven, and five of their seven children live in a 4,000 square-foot suburban home about 30 feet from the 12-inch line, and look out of their back door on to a valve site, stacks of artificial paving sections, and lengths of red plastic fencing marking the boundary of the pipeline’s right-of-way.

After living with the pipeline construction on their doorstep for almost two years, its startup has intensified the Degnans’ worries about their family’s safety.

Jennifer Degnan said she did not see anyone at the site when Sunoco turned on the taps on Saturday, and that fueled her concerns about how the company would handle an emergency.

“It’s disconcerting because there’s no one up here at this valve site,” she said. “If there’s something of urgency, there’s no one here, so that means someone has to travel to get here to turn it off or alert us.”

Granado of Energy Transfer said the valve is automated but is also monitored around the clock from a control center.

Jennifer Degnan said she has received no information from Thornbury Township, the PUC, or Sunoco about what to do if there’s a leak of colorless, odorless and highly explosive NGLs a few yards from her home. “I really do feel like we’re sitting ducks,” she said.

Sunoco has warned residents such as the Degnans that if a leak occurs, not to use potential ignition sources including cell phones, and not to drive their cars but to walk upwind of any leak. Critics ask how residents can know about such an incident if they can’t even use their phones.

About 100 yards from the Degnans’ home is Duffers, a sports bar whose outdoor smoking area is just a few yards from the open-air valve site. Jennifer Degnan is worried that a cigarette end casually discarded toward the site could spark an explosion that would engulf her own home and others in the upmarket Andover estate.

They have considered moving from the house where they have lived for about five years, but have estimated that even if they could find a buyer, the property is worth about 20 percent less than it was when they refinanced in February 2017 before the local pipeline construction started. Other houses in the development typically sell for $900,000-$1 million, although their value is lower if they are on the street next to the pipeline, she said.

“Our financial security is jeopardized, our lives are jeopardized, our quality of life has been jeopardized since the first tree was cut down,” she said.

Jon Hurdle/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Norm McQueen lives near the Mariner East 2 pipeline in Delaware County.

Back in Edgmont Township, Norm McQueen lives about 75 yards from where the 12-inch pipeline is now carrying natural gas liquids, and that makes him uneasy because he discovered the same pipe leaking gasoline onto an adjoining lot only three years ago – an incident that led to the remediation of a patch of woodland.

McQueen, 76, a former pipe fitter at a Philadelphia oil refinery, said he isn’t against pipelines in general but argued that Sunoco didn’t consider the impacts on residents when it routed Mariner East 2 through densely populated areas like Delaware County.

He fears that a leak from Mariner East 2 – most likely from its 12-inch section — will get ignited by people’s home heaters, with catastrophic consequences.

McQueen said he was hoping to sell a 5.5-acre lot across the street to help fund his retirement, but has little hope of being able to do that now because part of the ground is occupied by a plywood enclosure erected by Sunoco for a section of the 20-inch Mariner East line that has not yet been built.

“As soon as they put that box up there, I don’t know who would even consider it,” he said. “Now, I’ve got to wait it out.”

McQueen called the fight against Mariner East a “lost cause” and said he didn’t know what else he could do to ensure the safety of the home where he has lived since 1969. But State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-Chester), a persistent critic of the project, vowed that the fight against it isn’t over even though the line is now operational.

In a statement, Dinniman noted that the project is now under criminal investigation by the Chester County District Attorney, and he called for state legislation to tighten rules on the gas industry.

“Our concerns regarding the safety of Sunoco/ETP’s Mariner East project and the lack of adequate emergency planning and response information are now more real than ever,” he said.

Jon Hurdle/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Jen Batchelder lives near the Mariner East 2 pipeline in Delaware County.

Jen Batchelder, another Edgmont resident who runs a plant nursery, predicted that the 12-inch line would rupture again, as it did in 1992 when she said it spilled 100,000 gallons of oil and jet fuel onto her property, contaminating land where trees will no longer grow.

“That pipeline, it will blow soon,” she said, after hearing about the startup. “It’s so old.”

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