Mechanicsburg, with its population of about 9,000 people, has the dubious distinction of having almost half its area threatened by the Dragonpipe (the Mariner East pipeline system). In this blog post, I will show you why large areas of the town are vulnerable in the event of a pipeline rupture. I’ll focus on Mechanicsburg schools, but virtually everything south of Main Street is potentially in harm’s way.
Many of the Mechanicsburg-area schools are located too close to the pipeline to be considered safe. That’s unfortunate, given their particularly vulnerable population. But how many parents understand the risk to their children from this project if there were to be a serious accident? Do they understand that in the event of a total pipeline rupture (admittedly unlikely, but such things happen) their child’s school could be surrounded by a lethal, flammable cloud?
The recent Mariner East risk assessment commissioned by Delaware County Council showed that, if there were to be a total rupture, the cloud of flammable gas could extend well over a mile.
The image below shows the area that could be covered by a flammable cloud if a rupture of the 20-inch pipeline occurred where Eppley Road crosses the Turnpike. Under the right conditions, it could envelope the High School as well as Elmwood and Broad Street Elementary. (A smaller leak or the rupture of a smaller pipeline would cover less area, but it could still reach the schools. Right now, two pipelines are in operation, and a third is planned.) If a cloud like this caught fire, it would put all the students, teachers, and staff at risk, as well as everyone else in the area.
The worst-case scenario. The cloud shown here is a worst-case event: a total rupture of the 20-inch pipeline on a relatively calm day with a gentle wind blowing toward the schools. The exact boundaries of the cloud would shift with the shifting wind. The size of the cloud is taken directly from the risk assessment commissioned by Delaware County. If the gas were to escape for about 10 minutes before finding an ignition source, it would be the size shown here. Once ignited, the entire area of the cloud would burn in a few seconds in what is called a “flash fire”. Anyone outdoors at the time would be killed by the fire, and many of those indoors would be killed by the force of the explosion.
After the flash fire, even if the pipeline operator shut the valves to isolate the damaged stretch, the gas would continue to exit the pipeline until it had all emptied, a process that would take many hours. As it left the pipeline, the heat would be so intense that the gas would catch fire immediately. The resulting fire (called a “jet fire”) would be like an enormous blowtorch. While smaller than the flash fire, it would be much hotter; and for many hours, it would be too intense to approach. The only way to extinguish a jet fire is to let it burn itself out. In the case of a rupture at the location shown, the Turnpike would be closed down immediately, buildings in the vicinity would be destroyed, and the intense heat (great enough to weaken steel) could cause structural damage to the Turnpike overpass, potentially causing it to collapse.
Could this really happen? I know some readers will be skeptical about the possibility of this type of accident. It is certainly unlikely, but not impossible. There have been comparable accidents before (although fortunately none were near a school or a population center). The size of the cloud shown above (and the consequences of igniting it) is based on information from the risk assessment that Delaware County Council recently commissioned. You can read about the details of the process that went into the creation of the image in my blog post about “How I model a local pipeline accident”.
It’s not just those schools. For this blog post, I made an arbitrary choice to show a particular rupture location and the ensuing cloud moving in a particular direction. The flammable cloud from the rupture shown here would envelope much of downtown Mechanicsburg. But if the wind were blowing toward the east, downtown would be spared but the Middle School would be threatened. If the rupture happened a little to the east, the Kindergarten Academy could be in the cloud. Farther east still, and Rossmoyne Elementary could be involved. And of course, many public buildings and whole residential neighborhoods are at risk in all these cases.
This is not like other pipelines. Perhaps someone has said to you, “We have lots of natural gas pipelines around here. What’s one more?” Let’s be clear. First of all, this is not a natural gas pipeline. It will carry “natural gas liquids” which are actually highly-compressed flammable gases that are byproducts of fracking. The only connection they have with natural gas is that they emerge from wells that also produce natural gas. They are far more dangerous than natural gas, because they are much more concentrated and because they are heavier than air and form a flammable cloud along the ground. The details are in my blog post called “Yes, this pipeline is much more dangerous. Here’s exactly why.” I encourage you to read it, and give the link to your skeptical friends.
As a final insult, almost none of this dangerous material is for US consumption. Almost all of it is being shipped to Europe to make plastic. Can we afford to risk our children’s lives for this?
Contact your school district officials and tell them this project needs to be stopped. Governor Wolf has emergency powers that would let him stop it immediately. The Public Utility Commission can also stop it. Let them hear from you and from your school board! Tell them this pipeline is too dangerous to be operating so close to a densely-populated area like Mechanicsburg.
Get your local officials to intervene with the PUC. In particular, it is important to get your school board and your town to intervene in one of the complaints concerning this pipeline currently before the Public Utility Commission.
Intervening is a legal step that shows your support for a PUC complaint. It will allow your town or school district to present evidence and cross-examine witnesses. It isn’t difficult or expensive. Among the school districts that have already filed to intervene are Rose Tree-Media School District (Delaware County), Downingtown School District (Chester County), and Twin Valley School District (Berks County). They all have schools that are threatened by these pipelines, just as Mechanicsburg’s schools are. Intervention doesn’t obligate your district or your town to take an active role in the case (although they can), but it does add important weight to the public opposition.
You should also let your elected representatives in Harrisburg know how you feel about this. If you’re not sure who they are and how to reach them, use this website to find out: https://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/legis/home/findyourlegislator/
Let’s make sure steps are taken now to avoid a major catastrophe.