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What’s Sunoco’s worst nightmare? It is that they will actually be required to show that their emergency plans for the Dragonpipe (Mariner East pipeline system) are workable. Their lawyers are trying hard to derail the upcoming hearing in the “Safety 7” case concerning that issue.

On October 23 and 24, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) will hold a two-day public hearing in West Chester concerning the safety risks of the Dragonpipe. The hearing is one step in the PUC’s handling of a formal safety complaint filed against Sunoco by seven residents of Delaware and Chester Counties (the Safety 7) and three related complaints by other local residents.

During the October hearing, Judge Barnes will hear testimony from “lay witnesses” (so-called because they don’t claim credentials as pipeline experts), all of whom are local residents (including some of the complainants themselves). Sunoco’s lawyers will have a chance to cross-examine them.

The testimony of “expert” witnesses (those with professional credentials concerning pipelines) will not be taken until next summer, in a separate proceeding in Harrisburg.

Sunoco is anxious to prevent the weaknesses of its safety program from being exposed in this hearing, and, on October 9, its lawyers filed paperwork specifically to try to suppress safety information from being discussed.

Three reasons Sunoco claims witnesses can’t talk about pipeline safety. Sunoco’s lawyers are trying to block the bulk of the planned testimony in these hearings. In a legal maneuver called an “in limine filing”, Sunoco wants the judge to rule that most of the information to be discussed in the hearings is off limits, for three reasons:

  1. Only “experts” can talk about safety. Sunoco wants the judge to eliminate witnesses “giving unqualified opinions that can confuse if not incorrectly alarm the public”. Sunoco asserts that only qualified pipeline experts can discuss matters such as “adequacy of public awareness/emergency response, concerns over possible adverse pipeline events, and/or the integrity maintenance process”. In particular, the lawyers claim Eric Friedman, head of the Andover Homeowners Association, should not be allowed to speak about the “impacts of highly volatile liquid transportation, including pipeline and valve site issues…in the immediate vicinity of Association property and within the potential blast zone of any such incident”.
  2. Much of the testimony will be “overlapping”. Sunoco’s lawyers think a given topic should be discussed only once, in the interest of time. So, for example, if one witness mentions the lack of a warning system, then other witnesses planning to testify about that should be prevented from doing so.
  3. Much of the testimony will be “irrelevant”. Sunoco wants to eliminate testimony from a witness whose mother is in assisted living in the Wellington retirement facility, and another who cares for a quadriplegic sister in Hershey’s Mill, both adjacent to the pipeline route. Sunoco calls this “irrelevant testimony”. Similarly, Sunoco lawyers want testimony about Sunoco’s dismal safety record in operating other pipelines eliminated.

If the judge were to grant these requests, the hearing would be a farce. After all, the main contention of the Safety 7 and related complaints is that Sunoco has failed to provide a credible emergency plan in case of a pipeline leak. This motion by the Sunoco attorneys, if granted, would eliminate almost all discussion of the issues at the heart of the complaint.

One has to hope the judge will dismiss this argument out of hand. If the testimony about safety from witnesses that Sunoco considers “unqualified”, “overlapping”, or “irrelevant” were actually to be eliminated, the judge might as well never open these proceedings. (That, of course, is what Sunoco is fervently wishing for.)

You can read Sunoco’s motion in full here.

And, on October 23 and 24, please show your support by coming to the hearing. It will be held at West Chester’s historic courthouse, 2 North High Street, West Chester, PA, starting at 9 a.m. each day and running until 5 or 6 p.m.

I imagine there will be a protest gathering outside the courthouse ahead of time, but (based on the procedures encountered at previous PUC hearings) no signs will be allowed into the courtroom and observers will be required to remain silent.