Pennell Elementary, in Aston, is one of at least 40 schools that are threatened by the Mariner East pipeline system. It is not threatened by the Dragonpipe (Mariner East 2) but by Mariner East 1 (ME1), a smaller pipeline that is already in operation. I haven’t said much in this blog about ME1, but it is time to remedy that. ME1 runs along Pennell Road, right in front of Pennell Elementary School.

ME1 is an old pipeline from the 1930s that used to carry gasoline, heating oil, and similar refined products from the Sunoco refinery in Marcus Hook out to a location near Reading for transfer to pipelines serving the rest of the state. It was classified at the time as a public utility, and it did provide a public service.

But during the past few years, Sunoco has converted it into a pipeline carrying “natural gas liquids” (NGLs) which are actually highly-compressed, explosive gases destined for export to European petrochemical plants. Shipments from Marcus Hook to Scotland and Norway began in 2014 and continue to this day.

This pipeline should never have been used for NGLs. For one thing, it is leaky. It has leaked at least three times since it began carrying NGLs. Fortunately, these leaks were caught by residents before they could cause a major problem. But if there were a serious leak, or a total rupture of the pipeline, and if it occurred in a densely-populated area like Aston, it would lead to a catastrophe.

I don’t use the word “catastrophe” lightly. Hundreds of lives are potentially at risk. Let me explain why I am so sure about that.

As part of the group that commissioned the Citizens’ Risk Assessment, I got trained on the “Canary” software package that was used by the company that performed the assessment. They used it to assess the potential danger from leaks and ruptures in the Dragonpipe. But, with appropriate inputs, it can also be used to assess other pipelines, including ME1. I used the Canary software to assess the risks associated with ME1 in the vicinity of Pennell Elementary School. (I previously did a similar assessment for Shamona Creek School, in Chester County, and one for Glenwood Elementary School in Middletown Township, Delaware County).

Modeling the risk to Pennell Elementary. If the pipeline ruptured where it goes by Pennell Elementary, the Canary model tells me that the consequences of the release would depend primarily on two factors: the wind, and how long it took for the gas to find an ignition source.

The most dangerous situation for the school would be if there was a gentle wind blowing toward the school and the gas did not immediately ignite. In that situation it would form a large, explosive vapor cloud, enveloping the entire school within a few minutes. The worst-case scenario is shown in the image below. In modeling this scenario, I assumed a total rupture of the pipeline, a gentle wind (2 mph) blowing toward the school, and a period of 10 minutes before the gas found an ignition source.

Pennell Elementary cloud area 11-24-18
If ME1 ruptured near Pennell Elementary, it could envelope the entire school in a flammable vapor cloud, shown here as the light area. See the text for details.

If the vapor cloud ignited, everyone outdoors would be killed, and many of those inside the school would also be killed or injured, depending on the degree to which the flammable vapor had penetrated the building. Any flammable structures within the cloud would be set on fire.

Sunoco will tell you this scenario is very unlikely, and that is true. But worst cases do sometimes occur, and safety plans must take them into account. Is there a plan that can actually cope with this scenario?

In this post, I haven’t said much about how this modeling was done. However, the process was nearly the same as the analysis I did at Glenwood Elementary School, so please refer to that blog post if you are interested in learning more of the details.

This pipeline is different. One final thing: people may say to you, “we have lots of pipelines around here, what’s one more?” My response to them is to say that the material in this pipeline is unlike anything in any other pipeline in our area. It is a highly explosive gas, and it is heavier than air, so (unlike natural gas) it hugs the ground like a fog and is slow to disperse. If you’re skeptical, please read “Yes, this pipeline is much more dangerous. Here’s exactly why.”

Pennell School is just one example. In much of Aston, and along the entire route of ME1 and the Dragonpipe, the issues are the same. The unfortunate truth is that we here are guinea pigs in a Sunoco pipeline experiment. There is no comparable NGL pipeline anywhere in the United Sates that runs through such a densely-populated area. Can we afford the risk?