Here’s a short anecdote. Many years ago, I served on a parents’ committee that our school district put together to help plan a new middle school. One of the things that the committee did was visit a beautiful new middle school in Shoreham, on Long Island. At a time when most schools had very little technology—maybe a special room with a couple of PCs—this school had computers everywhere.
As we toured the school, we asked how the technology, and the other expensive-looking features of the school, had been paid for. It turned out that the local utility, which had just completed a new nuclear generating plant nearby, had funded the new middle school. It was one of many projects the utility had funded in the surrounding communities, to show that it would be a good neighbor once its plant, the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant, was in operation.
I bring this up because that nuclear plant holds a lesson for us as we deal with the Dragonpipe (the Mariner East pipeline system). The Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant cost $6 billion to build, but it was never turned on. Let me repeat that: it never generated a single watt of electricity.
The reason? The plant was not permitted to operate because the utility couldn’t come up with a credible evacuation plan in case of an accident.
How the Shoreham plant was stopped. The utility’s timing turned out to be poor: the Three Mile Island accident had happened in 1979, less than a decade before the plant was completed; and the Chernobyl accident in 1986 occurred during the plant’s construction. Given these events, it isn’t surprising that residents opposed having a nuclear plant in their community.
A major concern was how to evacuate residents in case of an accident. Things came to a head when the legislature of Suffolk County (the county where the plant was located) determined that there was no credible plan for evacuating the County. Land-based evacuation would have required quickly getting hundreds of thousands of residents across the bridges that connect Long Island to New York City, an impossible task; and no water-based escape route was practical.
In 1981, early in the construction process, 43% of Long Island residents opposed the plant; by 1986, that number had risen to 74%. Ultimately, Governor Cuomo ordered state officials not to approve any utility-written evacuation plan, which doomed the project.
The plant was decommissioned in 1994, and the unused nuclear fuel was sent to Pennsylvania’s Limerick Nuclear Power Plant.
The lessons for the Dragonpipe. Here in Pennsylvania, we are faced with the same situation as the Long Island protesters were a generation ago. A company claiming to be a public utility (Sunoco) has put billions into a construction project that residents don’t want and that endangers their lives. The company emphasizes how close to completion the project is, in an attempt to demoralize those who question it. But the company can’t provide serious answers to the recurring questions about risk.
Like the residents of Long Island, Pennsylvania residents are increasingly opposed to the project. Our voices are getting louder across the state and in Harrisburg in particular. Like those Long Islanders, we know we need to stop this pipeline project—unless it can truly be made safe, which seems very unlikely.
The Shoreham story had a happy ending. Where the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant once stood, there is now a much smaller gas-fired generating plant and two huge wind turbines. Yes, billions of dollars were lost. But shouldn’t those who invested that money have considered the risks and the evacuation problem before construction even began?
Perhaps there is a lesson here for Sunoco’s management.