The Dragonpipe (Mariner East pipeline system) was the focus of a recent article in The Caucus, a weekly publication about Pennsylvania politics. I’m reprinting the article here (with permission) because it does an excellent job of describing the effect this pipeline project is having in radically changing the face of politics in southeastern Pennsylvania.
There are great quotes from local resident (and Township Council candidate) Bibianna Dussling, from state representatives Stephen Barrar and Danielle Friel Otten, from Delaware County Emergency Director Tim Boyce, from Steamfitters Local 420 Business Manager Jim Snell, and many others.
The article explains how the pipeline has caused Democrats and Republicans to band together in opposition to the project, with the result that Democrats are sometimes joining with Republicans to oppose the policies of Governor Wolf, a fellow Democrat.
I think you’ll enjoy reading what The Caucus’ editorial team has to say about pipeline politics in our area. While an early section of the article cites union enthusiasm about jobs, the rest of it talks about the penalties ordinary residents will pay, and how that affects their representatives.
Reprinted, with permission, from The Caucus, edition of 6/11/2019.
Subscribe at: https://caucuspa.com/
TROUBLE DOWN THE LINE
The Mariner East II project has turned politics upside-down in southeast Pennsylvania
MEDIA — Bibianna Dussling is a Navy veteran who served nine years as a helicopter pilot. She was deployed twice to the Persian Gulf in times of war and twice for humanitarian efforts, to Indonesia following the 2004 tsunami and the U.S. Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.
As an emergency preparedness officer and aviation safety officer, she coordinated response plans covering threats such as natural disasters and leaks of hazardous materials.
She is comfortable with risk — to a degree.
But back home in Delaware County, there’s a level of risk with which she’s far from comfortable.
The Mariner East II pipeline, which would carry liquid natural gas across 350 miles of Ohio and Pennsylvania, is planned to run through her neighbors’ backyards. Its path would nearly cross her family’s neighborhood swim club, the local YMCA and the nearby Linvilla Orchards, right behind the petting zoo. Glenwood Elementary School, where Dussling’s twin boys will start kindergarten in the fall, is within its “blast zone.”
The liquids are considered hazardous and volatile. A similar methane pipeline caused an explosion last year in Beaver County that destroyed one house. In Delaware and Chester counties, spills, sinkholes and permit violations have racked up millions in fines for pipeline operator Sunoco.
“The idea that the unique hazards of Mariner East’s HVL (highly volatile liquids) pipelines … can be made safe through planning is simply a fallacy,” Dussling told a state House committee hearing at Delaware County Community College on May 30.
Proponents of the pipeline say it promises economic prosperity through thousands of well-paid union jobs and a boost to Pennsylvania’s booming energy industry. Unions have already seen the benefits of the billions that Energy Transfer Partners, which owns Sunoco, has spent on Pennsylvania pipes in the last five years.
Still, the missteps have led to a litany of lawsuits and criminal investigations conducted by two district attorneys and the state’s attorney general.
And public safety concerns, combined with what has been nearly universal dissatisfaction with Sunoco’s community engagement, have helped turn suburban Philadelphia politics on its head.
Southeastern Republicans and Democrats are rallying against the ongoing construction — pitting them against members of their own political parties. Incumbent public officials are taking steps to challenge the projects, and candidates for office at all levels are hoping to do even more.
‘GRAND SLAM’ FOR JOBS
The Mariner East projects are a “grand slam” in every way to Jim Snell and Steamfitters Local 420.
With 4,600 members, the union covers Philadelphia and 11 nearby counties, including the Lehigh Valley, said Snell, its business manager. More than 1,000 of its members worked on the first Mariner East pipeline between 2013 and 2017, and roughly 100 steamfitters and welders are working on Mariner East II on any given day right now, he said.
They’re not minimum-wage jobs, either. Snell said a journeyman steamfitter is paid an hourly rate of about $58, with total wages and benefits coming out to about $95 per hour.
“To say that the Mariner East projects are family-sustaining jobs, that’s an understatement,” he said. “These projects are helping put my members’ children through college and pay off mortgages.”
He touts the larger-scale and downstream effects: Thousands of other Philadelphia Building Trades union members have been employed by the pipelines, with a recent promise from Energy Transfer to invest another $200 million and 1,200 jobs in the Marcus Hook industrial complex, where the pipelines feed into. There, the natural gas liquids are processed and shipped elsewhere domestically and abroad to make plastics.
Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat whose top unrealized goal is a natural-gas severance tax, has consistently supported construction of the pipelines. They’re needed to get the gas to market and the potential severance tax revenue could add hundreds of millions of dollars to the state’s coffers, he has said.
As the project has dragged on, though, Wolf and his Department of Environmental Protection have felt the backlash. The department has issued about 100 notices of violations since May 2017; but the DEP has mostly granted permits.
Sunoco agreed to pay a $12.6 million penalty for what DEP called “egregious” violations in early 2018. Other fines issued just a few months later included $355,000 for discharging drilling liquids and $148,000 for polluting residential water wells.
“No company is above the law. Sunoco must comply with all conditions in its permits,” DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said at the time.
McDonnell has since come under scrutiny following reports that he and the governor’s office allegedly sped up the regulatory review process. The Guardian reported in April it had obtained emails and text messages showing McDonnell was prepared to send two “deficiency letters” to Sunoco in January 2017 but didn’t do so after a meeting with the governor.
Previous disclosure of texts between the governor’s staff and Mc-Donnell, published by StateImpact, led to an ethics investigation.
State Rep. Stephen Barrar opened the recent pipeline safety hearing of the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee in Delaware County with some scene-setting.
The committee, he said, had held similar meetings in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster and ensuing tsunami, and in preparation for crude-oil-carrying railcar derailments.
Preparing for the worst-case scenarios is paramount, Barrar said. And Sunoco is by all accounts only discussing what to do for minor mistakes, he said.
“They’re [Sunoco] convinced that there wouldn’t be a grand scale type of evacuation, which I’m not convinced of,” Barrar, a Delaware County Republican, said later in an interview.
Tim Boyce, director of Delaware County Department of Emergency Services and county Emergency Management Coordinator, repeatedly testified he believed the workers and managers building the pipeline were doing their jobs professionally and effectively. Safety plans have been established — though Sunoco’s plan wasn’t exactly to his liking — and his emergency responders have been trained.
But he also used the word “catastrophic” more than a few times.
“Whether that incident is from, most likely, a failure of a well, or a crazed person that goes after a valve, we’re looking at a pretty catastrophic situation,” Boyce said.
“With such a long history in Delaware County of the pipelines and people working there, and their fathers and their grandparents and their mothers working there — with very little experience with catastrophic failures — I think we (come to believe) that everything is the same,” Boyce said. “These liquid gasses are far different. And it’s been the community members that have really rallied the cries to bring that attention to us.”
Boyce’s office in Delaware County is one of two groups that commissioned and released comprehensive risk assessments of the pipeline in the last year. Sunoco has not conducted one itself.
His report found that individual fatality risk levels estimated for both Mariner East II and the Adelphia pipeline, another one in the works, have about the same amount of risk as a traffic accident, a house fire or a fall from stairs.
Boyce said that while the findings of risk “could be subjective” when considering such perceivably small odds, it’s the one worst scenario that worries him. “Whether it’s one in a million or one.”
Joe McGinn, vice president for public affairs and government relations for Energy Transfer, said the information the company actively sends to affected residents does not include information about how to evacuate in the case of an incident. It’s a “municipal responsibility,” he said.
When issues do occur, McGinn said Energy Transfer has an operation center that monitors pipeline qualities like temperature and pressure. If there’s a breach, a valve can be shut off remotely by an operator. Or in the case of an extreme incident, the “system locks itself in” automatically, he said.
Some critics, such as Democratic Rep. Danielle Friel Otten of Chester County, questioned whether the quick reaction would even make a difference when shutoff valves are on-average 7 miles apart. McGinn said in rural areas that mileage might be more; in Chester and Delaware counties it could be less.
For Otten, the hearing was a moment of empowerment.
The last such meeting — a joint House and Senate pipeline safety hearing in November 2016 — Otten was sitting not in the front of the room but in the audience, an affected property owner and activist who came to hear from her elected officials.
Two years later, Otten unseated three-term Republican Rep. Becky Corbin. The pipeline, which runs through her neighbors’ yards, 50-feet from where her young children play every day, was by far the most prominent issue of her campaign.
To have that culminate in her posing questions directly to Energy Transfer and the Public Utility Commission “felt very powerful,” she said in an interview.
Otten said she was encouraged by her new colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, being more critical now than they were in November 2016. She gets the sense they really do care about the safety of their constituents, but the political reality is that there are also “seats at risk.”
In 2018, nine state House members and two senators lost their re-election bids in November. All of them were from the southeast, and eight of them were Chester or Delaware county districts.
A year earlier, Democrats swept the open row office seats in both Chester and Delaware counties — an unheard of situation in the GOP-majority areas — and in Delaware County also took the two open county council seats for the first time ever.
Years-long party registration trends and national politics weighed heavily on those outcomes. But there’s also no doubt the pipeline has played a role, observers say.
“There’s a spectrum of approaches, but everyone recognizes it’s a problem and a problem that needs to be solved,” said Dick Bingham, chairman of the Chester County Democratic Committee.
He said he believes the party has a good shot at flipping the two-to-one GOP-majority board of commissioners this fall, in part because the perception was the commissioners were slow to take a leadership role in challenging the pipeline.
In April, the commissioners ultimately filed a civil suit to stop the imminent construction by the Chester County Library and a nearby walking trail. But the lone Democrat, Kathy Cozzone, ended up losing a contested four-way primary to two other candidates.
“Mariner East was the issue of this election,” Otten said of the 2019 primaries.
Dussling, the former Navy officer, is running for Middletown Township Council. She comes from a conservative family but has a nonpolitical military background.
This is the first time she’s been involved in politics. She said she couldn’t have imagined this happening when she started attending council meetings three years ago for traffic issues and happened to learn about the pipeline.
Last year, she changed her registration from Republican to independent because of how she saw both parties trying to use the pipeline to their political advantage. Democrats, she said, sometimes tried to speak out against it but didn’t want to overly criticize the Democratic governor up for re-election. Republicans, on the other hand, saw it as an opportunity to criticize Wolf.
“It showed a lot of residents how counterproductive the political parties can be,” said Dussling, who is running her campaign independently but is endorsed by the local GOP and on the ballot as a Republican. “I think a lot of people are tired of both the parties in general at the national level. This issue has really driven it home for a lot of people.”
Otten, just six months into her term, has sometimes had strong words for her own party. In March, speaking at a rally in the Capitol Rotunda, she called the pipeline activists a “force to be reckoned with” and called out the governor from her own party in saying, “We’re coming for you.”
Last month, she drew ire from pro-pipeline groups and both the local Republican and Democratic committees when she responded to a tweet about the pipeline workers unable to do their jobs because of protests. Otten responded, “The Nazis were just doing their jobs too.”
Jim Snell heard about the comments on a Saturday and he was on the phone with Bingham, the Chester County Democratic Party chairman, on Monday.
“I was deeply offended by those comments and I let that be known,” Snell said. He said he told the chairman, “Until she apologizes and your party publicly rebukes those comments, then I’ll be a non-factor in Chester County when it comes to the Democratic Party. My organization will cut off all ties to the Democratic Party in Chester County, that much you can be assured of.”
Bingham confirmed Snell’s comments and said he also issued his own public apology and denouncement of Otten’s tweet. Otten apologized, though she insists her words are being taken out of context.
“I’ve moved on from it, but I won’t forget it,” said Snell.
He said he will support any Republican or Democrat as long as they’re “for jobs” and putting his members to work.
A review of Steamfitters Local 420’s political spending shows it indeed doesn’t discriminate by party. It has spent $5.8 million supporting Republicans and Democrats in local, state and federal races in the last five years.
Wolf was the biggest recipient with $570,000.
It gave $7,500 to Otten’s Republican opponent, state Rep. Becky Corbin, last year before the election, according to campaign finance reports.
LAWSUITS AND LEGISLATION
The pipeline’s political punch might also be evident as incumbents in both parties forcefully come out against Mariner East II.
“Anger, frustration, exasperation, disgust – these words don’t even begin to cover how we feel about this latest action by Sunoco,” Republican Chester County Commissioner Michelle Kichline said when the company provided the board with a long-awaited emergency management plan.
About 95 percent of it was redacted, Mike Murphy, the county’s emergency services director, said at the time.
“To call this a ‘plan’ is ridiculous, and to say that they are cooperating is an insult,” Kichline said.
In December, Republican Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan launched a criminal investigation into Sunoco while blaming Wolf and his administration for failing to account for public safety. The next month he announced the “criminal investigation is widening and deepening, much like the damage being caused by these pipelines.”
New sinkholes had opened up and his office discovered Sunoco had hired out-of-county constables to patrol the pipelines — or, as Hogan put it, to have “hired muscle showing up to intimidate our citizens.”
Hogan’s office declined to be interviewed about the investigation, which reportedly has impaneled a grand jury.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, and Delaware County District Attorney Katayoun Copeland, a Republican, announced their own joint investigation in March.
Separately, local governments and school boards all across the two counties have entered into legal action, and state Sen. Andy Dinniman started his own litigation last year. His complaint filed with the Public Utility Commission ultimately stopped the construction of Mariner East II last year between May and August, when the order was lifted. The Senate paid Dinniman’s legal bills totaling at least $15,550 in those months, according to documents obtained through a Right to Know Law Request.
Dinniman and Republican Sen. Tom Killion, whose district covers the Marcus Hook complex, have also joined together to sponsor several bills dealing with pipeline safety, regulations and landowners’ eminent domain rights. Republican Rep. Chris Quinn has many of these bills, and more, in the House.
Some believe giving the PUC or PEMA siting authority to determine the route of future pipelines is the most essential. Some are pushing for a pipeline impact fee, which would “essentially be a fee on the linear acreage, plus a property tax on the right-of-way,” Quinn said.
The idea hasn’t gained much traction. Most Democrats — starting with Wolf at the top — are focusing on the severance tax initiative, which would fund the governor’s Restore Pennsylvania infrastructure plan.
Quinn said his priorities are the bills to require mandatory inspections of an entire pipeline following a shutdown, and to require more shutoff valves in higher-density areas.
“More shutoff valves would mean a quicker response and less potential damage in the case of a leak,” he said.
Emergency response time, especially within the first 30 minutes of an incident, was the main concern at the recent House committee hearing in Delaware County.
The heavily redacted Sunoco emergency plan doesn’t begin to address it, said Boyce, the Delaware County emergency director who has read it.
“What’s behind the curtain?” he asked, before going on to say he believes the plan works in the sense that it describes the technical details of how to shut down the pipeline and “remediate the area.”
But he said it doesn’t answer the essential question of what to do in the first 30 minutes of an emergency, when his greatest concern is communicating with residents, particularly the disabled or other communities that would be difficult to reach and evacuate.
Otten, responding to Boyce during the hearing, brought up the Beaver County explosion last year.
“As a mother who has two small kids 50 feet from one of these pipelines, that first 30 minutes could mean my family’s life, could mean a lot of families lives,” Otten said.