On May 21, a backhoe operator working under contract for Aqua (the local water utility) was installing a water pipe in Middletown, Delaware County, when he hit  and damaged a section of the recently-installed Dragonpipe (Mariner East 2 pipeline).

According to a report  by StateImpact Pennsylvania, the operator knew there were other lines around because he had checked with PA ONE CALL, the “call before you dig” utility-locating service.  That is standard procedure. But for some reason, he seems to have obtained the wrong depth for the pipeline. He expected the pipeline to be 9 feet below ground, but it was actually 6.2 feet down.

Sunoco reported that the pipe had been “scratched”, and we don’t know how bad the damage was. But since the Dragonpipe is not yet in operation, this particular incident could not cause a leak. The incident is being investigated by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, and I assume we will get a full report sometime in the future.

The site of the incident was close to Glenwood Elementary School in Middletown, Delaware County. School was in session at the time the pipe was damaged.

Learning from this incident. Meanwhile, there is a lesson we can learn from this. Pipeline problems will occur. Any pipeline can leak, either from external damage (as in this case) or from issues such as corrosion, subsidence of the earth, bad welds, or failure of a component. High-pressure pipelines (like the Dragonpipe) are especially vulnerable.

There are several possible reasons for this particular incident. Sunoco might have reported the wrong depth to PA ONE CALL. Or perhaps PA ONE CALL provided the wrong information by mistake. It is also possible that the backhoe operator was given the right information but wrote it down incorrectly or ignored it. We don’t yet know which of those errors occurred.

Whatever the error was, the lesson is that errors and failures do happen, and if a company is building a pipeline to transport extremely dangerous materials, it must choose a route that will minimize the danger to areas of dense population. Otherwise, a minor leak could become a major catastrophe.

That is exactly what Sunoco has failed to do. The company chose the Dragonpipe’s route for its own convenience. It followed the route of an existing line (now called Mariner East 1) that intentionally went near or through population centers. That made sense in the 1930s (when the original line was built) because it was designed to deliver gasoline and fuel oil to those centers. Today, however, that route is perhaps the worst possible choice for the Dragonpipe, which carries highly explosive materials that should be kept as far from people as possible.