On Tuesday night (August 28, 2018), Jeff Marx of Quest Consultants presented the initial results of the Citizens’ Risk Assessment concerning the Dragonpipe (Mariner East 2 pipeline) and its sibling pipelines. He presented so much data that it was difficult to digest it all. People who came expecting simple answers may have been disappointed.

In particular, people who came wondering “should I be more worried or should I be reassured?” might have left feeling they still didn’t know how to answer that question. They just came away with a fistful of difficult-to-assess probabilities.

Pipeline risk and lightning risk. To me, the most useful way to think about pipeline risks is by comparison with other risks we routinely face. One of those risks is death by lightning.

Death by lightning is not very common. In the US, your chance of dying by lightning in a given year is about 1 in 13 million. Your probability of dying from a pipeline leak from the Dragonpipe if you were living by it when in operation is about 150 times greater—1 chance in 81,000 each year– according to Quest’s calculations for the Citizen’s Risk Assessment.

Some people will find that comparison reassuring. Even if you live quite close to the pipeline, and live there for a decade or two, your odds are favorable. Others, though, will be troubled. After all, most people who die from lightning strikes have put themselves in a position to be struck. They are out golfing, or on a sailboat, with a thunderstorm in the area. To some extent, they have put themselves at risk. And, when they took the risk, they assessed the benefits: they considered the fun they would miss if they cut short their golfing or sailing, and they decided it was worth risking the unlikely event of a lightning strike.

It’s different with these pipelines. No one asked us to decide whether we wanted to live near them. And we can’t easily abandon our proximity to the pipeline, the way we could abandon a golf or sailboat outing. If you own a home near the pipeline, the only real choice is whether or not to sell and move—a choice with huge financial and personal implications.

Nor are we getting any benefit from the pipelines (unlike the fun we would get from golf or sailing). Almost all of the highly-dangerous material to be carried by these pipelines is destined for export, to be made into plastic in Europe.

In effect, what Sunoco is doing is the equivalent of placing us on high, exposed ground, with the possibility of lightning, and telling us not to worry because the chance of being killed is small.

Pipeline risk and drinking water risk. A better analogy than lightning risk is the risk that residents of Flint, Michigan were exposed to when their drinking water was polluted with lead. They weren’t given a choice about it. The people responsible kept telling them there was nothing to worry about, and they were believed—until residents (especially children) started getting sick.

The analogy isn’t perfect, because lead poisoning is a continuous, cumulative catastrophe and pipeline leaks are sudden catastrophes. But, like residents of Flint, we are facing a severe threat to our well-being, without our consent and with no benefit to us.

In Flint, steps are finally being taken to correct the situation. Those in charge here (regulators, most politicians, and the corporation that is directly responsible) are doing nothing.