Safety7 logo (Annette) 10-19-19
Graphic courtesy of Annette Murray

This post covers most of the testimony on the second day (10/24/19) of the “Safety 7 Plus” hearings before a PUC judge in West Chester, PA. For the preceding day’s testimony, see my previous post; for the context of the hearings, see the post before that. At the end of this post, I have a few comments about what comes next.

The second day of testimony moved somewhat faster than the first, although it was still marked by constant objections from Sunoco that the “lay witnesses” were giving “expert testimony”. Once again, the judge was somewhat flexible on this point, in many instances allowing testimony that Sunoco objected to.

Although the process moved faster than the previous day and the hearing was extended until after 8 p.m., there was not nearly enough time to get through all the testimony. By the end of the day, all the witnesses involved in the Safety 7 complaint were heard, but there was not time to hear those called by the “pro se” complainants (not represented by lawyers). As a result, there will be another day of hearings specifically for those complainants. It will be in Harrisburg on November 20.

I was not able to stay to the end: I had to leave at 4:30 because of a family obligation. As a result, this blog post does not reflect the testimony that occurred after 4:30.

It will be several weeks before the transcript of the testimony becomes available, but I would love to publish a summary of the remaining testimony right now. If there is a reader who stayed on and took notes and who would like to submit a guest blog post, I would be glad to publish it.

Caroline Hughes’ testimony. Hughes was the first witness of the day. She is a physical therapist whose home is in the blast zone, whose son attends a school in the blast zone, and who works at a medical facility, the Main Line Health medical center at Exton Mall, that is in the blast zone.

Hughes described the patient population at the medical facility, many of whom have restricted mobility. That means evacuation would be a long process.

Hughes served on the safety committee for her son’s school. The committee sent Sunoco a letter requesting information about possible responses to an emergency, but got only vague answers which mostly related to petroleum products generally, not to the highly volatile liquids carried by Mariner East.

The committee was able to arrange for the installation of a gate in the fence at the back of the school property, allowing for students to evacuate in the opposite direction from the pipeline. The gate is always locked, but the school office has the key. On the other side of the fence is a residential neighborhood of Hershey’s Mill, a 55+ gated community, and it’s not clear what 400 grade-schoolers would do once they get there. Evacuation would involve getting 400 students, ages 3 to 14, out through the gate (estimated to be 7 or 8 feet wide). Some students are disabled and need wheelchairs.

The school’s kindergarten playground is the most vulnerable spot: it is immediately adjacent to the pipeline right-of-way. Children on that playground are at high risk of being killed or severely injured if there were a major leak. But the entire facility is well within the blast zone.

Hughes was driving near the Boot Road pumping station on August 1st, when an explosion occurred within the flare tower there. Her husband, who was at home a mile away, felt the house shake. She immediately began getting calls and texts from friends wondering what was happening and what they should do.  She called the Sunoco emergency line and was told not to worry, it was “routine maintenance”, but she was not reassured. No one really knew what had happened at the point. Should she leave the area on foot? Should she move the family to her mother’s house for the night? No one had answers.

Although it turned out that the explosion had not harmed the pumping station, and there was minimal property damage, the situation was representative of the fundamental problem that could occur if there were a real emergency: no one knew what to do.

Hughes also spoke about the issues surrounding the sinkholes at Lisa Drive, near Exton. She goes by Lisa Drive daily on her commute, and she was there the night the first sinkhole opened up. In addition to the threat to the residents, Hughes discussed the threat to the Amtrak and SEPTA train lines. Some of the spikes holding the rails in place were loosened, apparently by ground subsidence at the time of the sinkhole. Hughes notified Amtrak; but Sunoco never did notify them, as they are required to do. (The DEP confirmed this in a report detailing numerous violations.)

There are also questions about the stability of the ground underneath Boot Road. Sunoco has been drilling under it, and there have been frac-outs (“inadvertent returns of drilling fluid”) coming up through the pavement of the road, and through the pavement of Wilson Drive near its intersection with Boot Road. Sunoco has been directed to conduct an engineering study of the stability of the road, but two initial efforts have been rejected as inadequate by the Department of Transportation.

During cross examination, Hughes discussed the work of the East Goshen Pipeline Task Force, a local government body of which she is chair. In its work with first reponders, the Task Force settled on the lack of leak detection as a key issue.

The key points from Hughes’ testimony:

  • It would be impossible to rapidly evacuate the patients at the Main Line Health medical center where she works
  • There are no good options for Saints Peter & Paul School, where her son attends
  • The explosion at the Boot Road pump station showed that no one knew how to respond in an emergency.
  • Detection systems are needed: “If we can’t detect it, how can we respond to it?”

Ron Gravina’s testimony. Gravina is a Township Supervisor in Edgmont Township and a member of the local voluntary firefighters. He spoke of previous leaks on pipelines in the Township. These were always reported by the public, not the pipeline operator. Odor tends to be the main indicator of a leak. Often, it isn’t clear exactly where the source of the leak is.

With Mariner East, these problems are compounded, since a leak would emit an odorless gas. The fire department has no detection devices for the products carried by Mariner East. It is not clear how a leak would be detected, how its source would be located, where firefighters should go, or what they should do when they arrive. The pipeline operator should bear the responsibility to help the firefighters know how to respond.

Key points:

  • It is the public that has always reported leaks, not the pipeline operators
  • How would leak on this pipeline be detected? How would its location even be known?
  • Adding an odorant would help to identify a leak
  • Some type of detection system is needed (but Sunoco hasn’t offered that)

Bibianna Dussling’s testimony. Dussling is a former Navy helicopter pilot with kids at Glenwood Elementary School in Delaware County. Marnier East 2, 2X, and the 12-inch “workaround” pipeline run near Glenwood Elementary.

Dussling emphasized that, in her Navy deployment in the Persian Gulf and in emergency relief work she did after the Indonesian tsunami and in the southern US after hurricane Katrina, she had learned that you always need to prepare for the worst possible situation. Sunoco has not provided the information necessary to do that.

Dussling discussed what would be involved in evacuating Glenwood. There are no good options for getting the kids a half mile away, as Sunoco recommends.

In her neighborhood, the operating 12-inch line, the 20-inch line, and the 16-inch line all pass between two houses that are just 30 feet apart.

Key points:

  • Always prepare for worst possible case
  • There is no reasonable escape route from Glenwood

Nancy Harkins’ testimony. Harkins lives in Westtown, at the southern edge of
Chester County. She lives about 1100 feet from the pipeline right-of-way, which is well within the blast zone. The hilly topography in her neighborhood means that gas escaping the pipeline in the event of a leak would flow downhill and accumulate in the nearby valley, threatening her neighbors.

Harkins is familiar with the federal regulations requiring health warnings in pipeline public awareness programs. In a detailed question-and-answer session with her attorney, she showed how Sunoco’s flyers failed to mention death and injury (which the regulations require them to do). In fact, the most recent flyer doesn’t mention health hazards at all.

In her testimony about populations at risk, Harkins focused on the intersection of Route 3 and Route 352. According to the Department of Transportation, Route 3 carries 21,000 cars/day and Route 352 carries 15,000 cars/day. A large school (Saints Simon & Jude) and a commercial office campus is located there, and the intersection is surrounded by a very dense residential area, with apartments and townhomes.

She is concerned that there is no credible plan for the public to follow in case of a leak.

Main points:

  • Local topography would cause heavier-then-air gases to collect in the valley with many homes
  • Sunoco’s flyers don’t meet federal guidelines requiring health warnings
  • The pipeline passes through the intersection of Routes 3 and 252, with a school, lots of traffic and dense neighborhoods
  • There is no adequate plan in case of a pipeline incident

Testimony of school administrators. A series of school officials, from three of the school districts that have filed as interveners in the case, testified in the afternoon. The districts were West Chester Area School District (WCASD), Rose Tree Media School District (RTMSD), and Twin Valley School District (TVSD).

Dr. James Scanlon testified first. Scanlon is the Superintendent of WCASD.  The district has three schools that are in the blast zone (they are between 1700 and 3100 feet from the pipelines). Scanlon emphasized the need for immediate notification by the pipeline operator (rather than via the 911 system). That would save several precious minutes that could make a critical difference in an evacuation. He also asked for devices to detect a leak, and the addition of an odorant so that residents could detect a leak themselves.

He objected to the idea of a pipeline being repaired while in operation: a leaking line should be shut down until the leak is repaired.

Scanlon needs to know whether cell phones are a potential ignition source or not. Sunoco’s literature says they are a risk, but there have been suggestions that they are not. “Phones are a big part of our emergency plan,” he said. Confirmation of a cell phone risk “could put a damper on me in my decision on whether to send out a message”.

Current plans call for air-handling equipment to be shut down if there is a leak, so that flammable gas would not be brought inside a school. But might that shut-down process cause a spark? Scanlon isn’t sure. Staff would use walkie-talkies during an evacuation, but it is unclear whether they present the same hazard as phones (if any).

In all emergencies, the first step for WCASD schools is to shelter in place, shut off the flow of outside air, and prepare for evacuation. Whether evacuation is initiated would depend on outside conditions.

Kevin Campbell, WCASD Director of Facilities and Operations, echoed many of the same points. He emphasized that Sunoco does not provide the same kind of information about what products are in the pipeline and the size of the blast zone as some other operators do.

Asked how soon he would expect a response from Sunoco if there were a small pipeline leak, he provoked a chuckle from the audience when he answered, “I would never expect a response.”

Under cross examination, Campbell was not sure if Enterprise (the operator of the TEPCO pipeline) provided the kind of information he was asking Sunoco to provide. TEPCO also carries highly volatile liquids and is fairly close to some schools in the district. (Note: It appeared to me that the TEPCO flyer displayed as an exhibit described the pipeline content as “Liquid Natural Gas”, not “Natural Gas Liquids”. The two terms describe entirely different products. Since liquid natural gas cannot be carried by an unrefrigerated pipeline, I assume the flyer was in error. This point was never mentioned in testimony, however.)

Next to testify was Dr. Eleanor DiMarino-Linnen, superintendent of RTMSD. She spoke primarily about Glenwood Elementary School, which is not only near the pipeline, but has an above-ground valve station, which represents additional risk. There are about 500 students at Glenwood.

She had asked Sunoco for specific information about different leak scenarios. Were there some circumstances under which sheltering in place would be the better alternative? What if evacuation upwind meant walking toward the pipeline? She wanted a decision tree or algorithm that would provide the right response in a given situation, but although she had brought up this need with a Sunoco contractor who was tasked with answering her questions, she was unable to get one.

Depending on the conditions, evacuation could mean crossing a busy street with hundreds of children, and that would mean waiting for first responders to shut down traffic.

She also wondered about concrete barriers or a cover, to protect the valve station from the possibility of intentional damage. And like many witnesses, she was worried about cell phones, which are used for emergency alerts. Could they be an ignition source?

Under cross examination, she was asked why she thought the valve station added to the risk. She said that an engineer had pointed out to her the many pipe connections, each a potential point of failure.

The final school administrator of this group was William Clements, Principal of Twin Valley High School and a member of the TVSD Safety Committee. He explained that, from his high school and the adjacent middle school, walking uphill wasn’t an option: it would mean walking toward the pipeline. The elementary school has a different problem: the evacuation distance is limited by the presence of the Pennsylvania Turnpike nearby.

Like the others, he wanted some sort of leak detection system, and he wanted better information about when to shelter in place and when to evacuate.

Main points raised by the school administrators:

  • Need early, direct notification from Sunoco (not just notification from 911 center)
  • Need detection devices
  • Need odorant
  • Need clarification about whether cell phones are a potential ignition source
  • Not enough information about the nature of the danger: product being carried at a given time, size of blast zone. Other operators provide detailed information of this kind.
  • Need to know when to shelter in place and what to do if the generic evacuation advice “walk uphill, upwind” can’t be followed.

I missed the later testimony. A family obligation required me to leave at 4:30, so I missed the remaining witnesses (the hearing continued until after 8 p.m.).

In particular, I am sorry to have missed the testimony of:

  • Christi Marshall, of Hershey’s Mill. She cares for her paralyzed sister, who would be nearly impossible to evacuate in case of a leak.
  • Rosemary Fuller, of Valley Road in Delaware County. Her property is surrounded by a deer fence with a gate operated by an electric motor. If there were a flammable cloud on her property, she would be faced with the impossible choice of operating the gate to escape (thereby potentially creating a spark that would ignite the cloud) or staying in place in the hope that the cloud would never find an ignition source.

[Update: After publishing, I learned that these two witnesses did not get to testify, and they will testify on November 20 instead.]

Looking ahead. When the pro se complainants get their day in court on November 20, I expect to attend and report on that. But even without that additional testimony, I think it is clear from the hearings so far that Sunoco’s evacuation plans are woefully inadequate, and that many lives are at risk.

As the case continues, Sunoco will presumably defend its plans by saying that they meet the regulatory requirements. If so, the key question for the judge will ultimately be whether the plans required by the regulations must be plans that can credibly be carried out. Sunoco will claim that the appropriate words on paper, even if they are completely unrealistic in practice, are enough to satisfy the requirements set out by the regulations.

I assume this argument will be continued during the “expert” testimony next July, and by the briefs submitted by the various parties after that. By this time next year, we may finally know the judge’s opinion on whether the plan is adequate or not, and whether the five PUC commissioners are willing to back her up.

The questions then become: If the PUC decides there is no credible plan, will Sunoco be required to shut the pipelines down? Can Sunoco come up with some different plan that the PUC is willing to accept as a credible? Over a million dollars a day in Sunoco revenue hangs on the answer to those questions; but so, potentially, do the lives of thousands of Pennsylvania residents.