On November 13, 2019, Tim Boyce, Director of Emergency Services for Delaware County, came to Delaware County Council to discuss recent incidents involving odors and leaks, and to ask for help in investigating their source. It was a very unusual step for Boyce to take, and it speaks to how bad things have gotten in the county over the last few months.
Boyce and his department are trying hard to deal with these problems, and his frustration with the difficulties was palpable. His office is ill-equipped to track down emissions sources. (Its function is primarily responding to emergencies, not investigating leaks or dumping.)
Is the Dragonpipe (Mariner East pipeline system) implicated in any of this? Boyce couldn’t say. But the sense of urgency he conveyed made it clear that the problems are serious, and I found them worth reporting here even if, in the end, Mariner East is not involved.
Boyce’s reports covered two different problems:
- There is an ongoing odor problem that came to a head with two major incidents on October 25 and November 11. Though the source is apparently near the Delaware River, it has affected locations all over the southern half of Delaware County.
- There was a separate leak in a gasoline pipeline on November 11. The pipeline that leaked was not part of the Dragonpipe, but it was a Sunoco pipeline, and it occurred at a valve station that also included valves for the Dragonpipe.
Boyce spoke and responded to Council’s questions for more than half an hour. It was clear that his office is not in a position to fully address some of the issues raised by either of these problems.
Boyce’s remarks can be found on the Delaware County Council video site at https://www.delcopa.gov/council/video.html. His segment begins at the 1 hr/6 min point and continues until 1 hr/40 min.
Here are some key extracts of what Boyce had to say. Except for the bold headings and the material in brackets, what follows are Boyce’s own words. I have transcribed most of his comments (to the best of my ability, given the sound quality).
More than two odor events. “Taking the [odors] first: unfortunately, it’s more than two incidents. The city of Chester has dealt most of this summer with gas leak days. … We’ve responded with our Hazmat team along with the city of Chester and have never been able to figure out the source of that local event.
We then had the two very significant releases. DEP is the responsible agency, their air quality division, to determine the source. Our first responders get the calls, and we’ve never been able to pinpoint where they’re coming from. We can trace back with wind speed and direction. We immediately contact our neighboring counties. We contact the Coast Guard and the port about this, but we’re not able to determine the source of the product release.”
A criminal investigation is needed. “To jump ahead in the story, I’m really at the point I think a criminal investigation needs to begin, because someone is willfully doing this. They must know. So this is something I would ask council to maybe pursue, the DEP. The county has no ability.”
No answers for Chester. [Question: What’s the result of the DEP investigation in the west end of Chester?] “The DEP, we work with the field person. They come out, but we’re all in the same boat, with handheld meters and the like, trying to chase it down. None of the events—though we can obviously smell it—are appearing on our meters….
In the most recent incident, we’re all standing on [Route] 291 and all the facilities—you know, the suspects are endless, including someone willfully coming in and committing an environmental crime, dumping a container or dumping something like that. … The DEP does have the authority to go back and check those regulated facilities, what they were doing, if their scrubbers, their testing devices are appropriate. That’s the normal course of business.…”
We need to get the DEP’s investigative help. “I’ve set something up with the DEP to come back and see what their enforcement role is, what the role of the county is. Is there a formal complaint with dozens of communities reporting this? I just want to be sure is there a formal complaint in this case….
Tell us where it starts and we’ll go after them. We just don’t know where it starts. I just don’t want to impugn any of these facilities to say that they’re doing it. … Frankly, I don’t know who the suspect is. It is coming from around [Route] 291 and the river. [It affects] our suburban counties. Gloucester and New Castle [counties in New Jersey and Delaware] have not reported these events.
Boeing, which is a great partner, their industrial fire brigade was ready to evacuate the campus. These are not people crying wolf. Again, asking the DEP to come in, maybe formally understand what their investigative process is. Is there anything the County can do to support that? We do have air monitoring devices…. I’m really asking council, with me, to bring in all the stakeholders and make sure they investigate this. No one is owning up to the emissions. …
The Title 3 facilities, usually the heaviest chemical places, they have about 24 hours, as a rule of thumb, to report a significant chemical release. … It’s a self-reporting system. No one is reporting this. … We contact all the remote monitors. We call them up, because … they may not know there’s a leak.”
Someone is releasing something and not reporting it. “There’s something going on. One [incident], that could have been a passing freight car. But two? Two is not an accident. … The calls are usually people reporting a smell of gas, of natural gas. As it drifts, it becomes more of a chemical smell, driveway coating smell, heating oil smell. That could be a condition of the product cooling. … I’m not an engineer, but when you think of a release down along [Route] 291, it’s traveling up to Marple—that’s a lot of product. … Boeing thought it was natural gas. Again, that’s a high-end secure facility and they know what they’re doing. They reported it as gas first.
We do have crude oil that comes into the county, we have people talk about the Mariner East product, that comes into the county, it’s colorless and odorless, but it is transformed into other products that do have those properties. So no one’s been excluded in this. … It could be that somebody’s just trying to dump chemicals.”
The County doesn’t have the instruments to monitor this. “None of our current detectors are hitting this. As I was telling the chairman the other day as we were driving by: one minute you’re standing there and its overwhelming, and then it’s gone. … If it’s coming from a higher source, a smoke stack or something like that, and it’s upward rising—we’re not going inside the gates of those facilities. We don’t have that authority unless there was an urgent situation. … We just don’t have a suspect by the time we get there. … The first one was detected at Bethel in Concordville, then went back to the city of Chester, and then drifted up to Broomall. … It’s just the sense of urgency that I shared with you. We need someone with more authority to investigate this. Maybe the DEP has permanent monitors they can put in.”
Local DEP investigators are also frustrated. [Question: Do we need a formal letter to the DEP stating the county’s concerns?] “I don’t think that would hurt. As we work with the local responders, they come out; the woman lives here in Media. The other woman lives in Collingdale. [She smelled it at home.] So there’s a professional living in Delaware County, walking out of her own home, who’s just as frustrated as we are right now….”
Response to the gasoline leak on November 11. “That afternoon about 5:30 a civilian reported a heavy odor of gasoline around Pennell Road. It was confirmed by a police officer within a minute or two, and the fire departments responded. They went to the Tunbridge Apartments, and at the valve station there—which is a valve station for many products that come through the county, some of the larger ones—there were contractors working already. The [Sunoco] contractors reported that they had a product release on the campus that they were attempting to control. So that’s how that one unfolded.
[Question: It was a spray of gasoline, correct?] The contractors didn’t want us at the site. No first responders went up, and I believe this may be a matter for dispute at some point, I was told by first responders that they saw pooling of product on the ground—a significant pooling of product. As it was reported in the press statement, which I didn’t really read that well, but it would be up to the DEP or PHMSA, the federal agency that regulates pipelines, they may take ownership for the investigation of the accident, but the DEP has responsibility for the cleanup response.”
Notification and reporting. [Question: Was the County notified?] “No.” [Question: who got there first?] “The police may have been on Pennell Road—and again, this is all anecdotal—the fire department went to Tunbridge, and at the rear of Tunbridge you can physically see the plant. That’s where they met the contractors, I’m being told. They were already on site.
[Question: Are there both state and federal reporting requirements?] The one that we’re most dealing with on the pipeline issue is the national reporting center, the 24-hour reporting for significant release. … I just want to say clearly that no one called 911 from the facility.
[Question: What did Energy Transfer tell you?} The general relationship is strained, to say the least. I tried to contact them myself, to get an idea of what the product was and what was going on, and that system did not work well. They have a government liaison that will give the official briefing to us.
[Question: Did they make the required 24-hour report?] I’m not sure on that. We reported—our practice has changed over the years since I’ve been here. We report everything to the state “Watch Center”… [Question: Is that the DEP?] That’s a one-stop. If you report it to the Pennsylvania Emergency Watch Center, it goes to all the local agencies, it goes back to your county Emergency Management, the PUC, the state police…So they’ll put it into the national reporting system for a state event. So the national reporting system is a system the fixed facilities put in. [Question: Will you find out if they reported? If not, what actions can be taken?] Again, it comes back to reportable quantities, which I think is being disputed.
[Question: Could the leak have just as easily occurred with NGL such as ethane? Wouldn’t that have been more serious? Wouldn’t a 24-hour deadline for reporting be inadequate?] I have no idea why the leak occurred. It’s not uncommon for us to have any type of leak like this. I’ve heard two ways that this was reported from the contractors working in this field. But I’m also just concerned how they knew about it and we didn’t. I don’t think that’s what the public expects, nor do I expect it. I don’t want first responders going into harm’s way. You know, two first responders actually became nauseous going into that, walking up to the field.”
Procedure for notifying residents. “But I wanted to speak to the public notification on this. I was on scene relatively quickly. The location of the valve is a little bit of a distance. There’s a street that runs behind this, Martins Lane, with houses that are pretty close. The first responders set up what they call a hot zone and warm zone and cold zone, that’s a best practice, and they determined which homes were in which zone, where the smell was very strong, they didn’t wait to determine the level of danger.
At some point the county has to respond with independent air monitoring, and there was a discussion with the incident commander about issuing a “shelter in place” for the community. The incident commander had assured me that every home within the hot and warm zone had been physically contacted and they’d been to it. They believed that the situation was controlled and was improving. We were prepared to issue what’s called an “IFALT”[?-phonetic spelling] warning. Our department had it actually populated and ready to go for about a half mile from where this was taking place. At that time the incident commander and my team agreed that the affected area, other than smell, was probably under 100 feet and there was no one we needed to give that warning to.
So we were prepared to do it, but again, that is something we don’t do lightly. … They felt they had sufficiently physically warned everyone who might be in immediate danger of what the problem was. …
Farther down-range, this needs to be looked at: why people were already on site and we didn’t know.”
Conclusion: Boyce needs investigative help, and Sunoco needs to start cooperating. Watching Boyce’s comments to the County Council, it was striking how frustrated all of them were with this situation. The Emergency Management Department is doing its best. The local DEP investigators are doing their best. It’s not clear what more the County can do on its own. And yet, problems keep happening—they are apparently even increasing.
And Sunoco’s lack of cooperation is not helping. They are not reporting problems to the County, and they are keeping first responders at bay. Sunoco is apparently trying to claim that the amount of gasoline that leaked at the Tunbridge valve site was too small to be “reportable”. They say it was just a “spray”. But first responders reported a “significant pooling of product on the ground”. Who should we trust?
And of course, we don’t know if Sunoco’s Marcus Hook refinery was involved in the odor events. There are other potential sources, including the nearby Monroe refinery, the Braskem processing plant, several “Superfund” cleanup sites, or perhaps someone bringing something noxious in by truck and just dumping it. But given Sunoco’s long history as a bad actor, I’d be inclined to put them near the top of the list of suspects.