On November 20 in Harrisburg, the PUC held another Dragonpipe (Mariner East pipeline) hearing. It was an extra day tacked onto the “Safety 7 + 4” hearings that took place in West Chester on October 23 and 24. The background of the case and the testimony during the two days of hearings in West Chester is described here and here. Both the West Chester and Harrisburg hearings were for “lay witnesses” (that is, witnesses who do not claim pipeline expertise but who are impacted by the pipeline).
Although the October West Chester hearings stretched on into the evening, there was not enough time for some of the witnesses to be heard. In particular, the three “pro se” complainants (those not represented by lawyers) did not get their day in court. They got it on November 20. In addition, two of the witnesses scheduled to testify in the original Safety 7 case, Christi Marshall and Rosemary Fuller, also didn’t make it onto the stand on November 20. Rosemary Fuller opted to submit written testimony instead, and she will be cross-examined next July when the “expert witness” phase of the hearings occurs. Christi Marshall testified at the end of the day on November 20, after the pro se complainants were done.
The parties involved. The main focus of the day in Harrisburg was the three pro se complainants: Laura Obenski, Melissa DiBernardino, and Rebecca Britton. Two individual “intervenors”, Tom Casey and Virginia Kerslake, also asked questions; and Kerslake doubled as one of the two witnesses called by DiBernardino (the other was Margaret Egan, principal of the Saints Peter and Paul School, who testified by telephone).
There were lots of lawyers in the room. There was a cadre of Sunoco lawyers (plus one from intervenor Range Resources, Sunoco’s lead Mariner East customer), the Safety 7 lawyer (Michael Bomstein), and the lawyer for Andover Homeowners (Rich Raiders).
There were also lawyers representing various other intervenors (municipalities, school districts, Delaware County, and Chester County). These latter lawyers did not play an active role in the hearings. Nor did the Range Resources lawyer.
Three different approaches to the pipeline problem. It was interesting to watch how the proceedings unfolded. Although each of the three pro se complainants was trying to get the judge to shut down the pipelines, each took a somewhat different approach to the task of persuading the judge of the correctness and urgency of their case. Each received a different degree of pushback from Sunoco’s lawyers, who frequently challenged statements as “hearsay”, contested whether exhibits (such as documents and photos) were admissible as evidence, and tried to cast doubt during cross examination.
In this blog post, I will give readers a little of the flavor of the proceedings, including the testimony by Christi Marshall at the end of the day. My focus will be on facts and perspectives that got limited attention during the first two days. If you want more detail about what happened in the day’s hearings, you can read the blow-by-blow descriptions ably captured in real time by Eve Miari. She posted them to the “Halt Mariner Now” Facebook page, among others.
Laura Obenski’s testimony. The first of the pro se complainants was Laura Obenski. She didn’t call any witnesses, preferring to read her own statement. Obenski is a Uwchlan resident, and a mom. She finds Sunoco’s emergency evacuation advice (to walk uphill and upwind for a half mile) to be unworkable in her case. Uphill from her is the intersection of routes 100 and 113—the busiest intersection for miles around. Pedestrians aren’t even permitted to cross there.
Because she’s a former EMT and 911 operator and she’s married to a police officer, she knows a lot about first responders. Her husband, who might easily be the first person to arrive at a leak site, has never had any training related to Mariner East. And she’s skeptical that anyone will spot a leak. Sunoco suggests looking for dead animals or dead vegetation. Not only would that trigger many false alarms, it would be upsetting and inappropriate for her kids to undertake.
Obenski is particularly concerned about Shamona Creek Elementary School and the adjacent Sixth Grade Center. They are located very near a valve site—a particularly vulnerable part of the pipeline system. Since they are on top of a hill, walking uphill would be impossible. She is disturbed that “my school superintendent can’t assure me of the kids’ safety”.
She would like all construction work stopped until adequate detection systems and public awareness programs are in place. And she would like the valve station moved to a location that is not near schools.
On cross examination, Sunoco’s lawyers asked her (as they did the other witnesses) if she was aware of training programs for local first responders. (This suggests that an important part of Sunoco’s defense will be that they had done adequate safety training.) Obenski was aware of them. She was also aware of the TEPPCO pipeline, which also carries HVLs in the area.
On redirect questioning, Rich Raiders asked her if, given that she knows much more about Mariner East than she did a couple of years ago, does she feel any safer? “No, it makes me feel worse,” she replied.
Melissa DiBernardino’s testimony. DiBernardino took a different approach from Obenski. In addition to her own testimony, she invited two witnesses to testify in support of her position. The first was Margaret Egan, principal of the Saints Peter and Paul School, which DiBerarndino’s children attend. Egan testified by telephone.
Egan’s first face-to-face meeting with Sunoco was in January of 2019, after ME1 had already been in operation more than four years. Local first responders also attended, and Egan found that they had no real plan for a leak. “When we’re notified by Sunoco, we’ll come out and tell you what to do,” they told her. That was not reassuring. “We’re at the mercy of this company—are they going to tell us if there’s a leak?” she asked.
The pipeline runs right along the front of the school property. To be able to evacuate away from the pipeline, the school arranged for a gate to be installed in the fence that separates the school from the Hershey’s Mill retirement community. Last year, the students practiced evacuating in that direction for the first time.
DiBernardino herself testified next. She recalled going to a public meeting about ME2 in 2017. Sunoco didn’t even mention ME1. It rapidly became clear that local first responders weren’t getting enough information. And Sunoco didn’t have an understanding of the geology they were putting the pipelines through using horizontal directional drilling (HDD). There were many inadvertent returns (“frac-outs”) in which drilling mud found its way to the surface. In one case, Boot Road (a very busy road in the area) suffered frac-outs and then, when Sunoco tried to inject grout to seal the borehole, the grout itself surfaced on Boot Road too.
DiBernardino also worried about the anti-corrosion coating on the pipelines. When they were pulled through an HDD borehole, the leading end emerged all scratched up. (She introduced a photo of this as evidence.) Surely, the coating of the pipe underground was also damaged. Did Sunoco have a way of checking on this?
She worried, too, about “cathodic protection”, an anti-corrosion technique Sunoco uses that involves applying a small current between the soil and the pipeline. Was that working underground? How could Sunoco tell if it was? This was not idle speculation: the PUC’s own investigative arm had found that improper cathodic protection had led to a leak on ME1 a few miles to the northwest, near Morgantown.
And then there was ground subsidence, the sinking of the earth surrounding the pipeline that, in some cases, could result in a sinkhole. DiBernardino had observed subsidence of an area of Boot Road. It had just been repaired, but there was no telling whether the sinking would continue and indeed whether the road was safe for traffic. The area of subsidence was right over the 12-inch line that is currently part of what Sunoco is calling “ME2”, and other utilities have pipelines there as well.
Each day when she drops her kids at school, DiBernardino wonders “will they be there when I come to pick them up?”
DiBernardino rattled off a list of problem events related to the pipeline that had happened just in the three weeks since the hearings in West Chester. Sunoco tried to have them stricken from the record as “hearsay”, but the judge allowed them to stand. She will review them and will weigh how heavily to credit them.
DiBernardino then called Ginny Kerslake as a witness. Kerslake ran through the history of drilling at the Shoen Road site across from her house, and the seeps (small springs) that had showed up on the hillside of her property as a result. Her biggest concern is for safety. There is clearly water flowing along ME1 in the easement running down her hill. Is it undermining the earth supporting the pipeline? Is it corroding the pipeline? There is no plan for mitigating the seeps or related problems on Kerslake’s property.
In response to a question, Kerslake said she knew of two previous leaks in West Whiteland of the pipelines that are now part of Mariner East. One was directly across the road from her house. She also knew of geologic faults in West Whiteland. One of them was near her house; another was near the Lisa Drive sinkholes.
Sunoco objected to her discussion of “faults” because she was not being questioned as a geology expert; Kerslake responded that the fault lines were shown on US Geological Survey maps that anyone could read. The judge allowed her testimony to stand. Similarly, Sunoco objected to the DEP reports that Kerslake quoted from to as “hearsay”, since she had not written them herself. The judge allowed them as well.
Asked if she could think of any examples of pipeline failure due to ground subsidence, Kerslake mentioned the explosion near Follansbee, WV.
Kerslake expressed concern that people don’t know what to do in the event of a leak. She had recently been at a Township meeting attended by the manager of a major local shopping center. He had no idea what Mariner East was.
Rich Raiders asked what made these pipelines worse than others in the area. Kerslake listed the content (HVLs), the high pressure, the lack of odorant, and the huge volume (740,000 barrels/day if completed as planned). Parts of the pipeline are 90 years old. It is hard to put trust in the operator.
Rebecca Britton’s testimony. Britton was the final pro se complainant. Britton is a Uwchlan resident and school board member with two children, ages 7 and 10. “My job is to keep them safe,” she said.
Britton said that her township had no real plan for dealing with a leak. She asked her local fire chief what he would do if there were a leak. He said, “I’m going to walk up to the pipeline and call the number on the warning pole.” Later, he claimed, “We’re going to smell it, and we’re going to knock on doors” to warn people. She told him she didn’t want him to follow that plan: firstly, the gas is odorless; and secondly, he might inadvertently provide an ignition source.
Britton read excerpts from various letters and government documents that highlighted the inadequacies of Sunoco’s approach to emergency planning. This made her testimony quite long, but it got many relevant documents onto the record. After the “expert” testimony next July, all the complainants and intervenors will have a chance to file briefs laying out their arguments. Only documents that have been accepted as evidence during the hearings can be used in the briefs, and Britton’s approach ensures that the ones she is interested in will be available.
Christi Marshall’s testimony. Christi Marshall is retired and lives in Hershey’s Mill. She takes care of her sister, who is paralyzed, and her husband, who has early-stage Parkinson’s Disease. She also took care of her legally-blind father until his recent death.
The concerns Marshall raised focused on those with disabilities. A majority of those in Wellington, the retirement and nursing care facility next to Hershey’s Mill, could not walk half a mile on their own. Around half of those in Hershey’s Mill wouldn’t be able to either. But that is Sunoco’s plan in case of a leak. Many have electric scooters or wheelchairs that couldn’t be used because they would be potential ignition sources. Even flashlights could be an ignition hazard.
Marshall’s sister requires a suction machine and an oxygen tank in order to breathe. To get her into a wheelchair requires a special apparatus called a “Hoyer lift”. It would take 20 minutes just to get her out the door, after which evacuation would require wheeling her down a paved but unilluminated golf-cart path. Her feeding bag and other medical supplies would need to be brought along. She has constant nursing care, but should a nurse with a family to support be asked to stay behind with a patient and thus endanger her own life?
Marshall recounted a visit to a first-responder training exercise. It involved putting out a fire in a sample length of pipeline into which propane was pumped. The firefighters turned off the valve supplying the propane and then put out the flames with either water or foam. They told Marshall evacuation would not be needed, because they would put out the fire immediately. Marshall responded that, in the case of a Mariner East leak, they would not be able to turn off the gas themselves (Sunoco would have to do that) and the pipeline would have to be left to burn for many hours until all the gas in the pipeline burned off. During that time, they would not be able to approach or cross the burning area. It would be different from the ordinary fires they generally dealt with.
A strong case against the pipelines. In listening to the evidence these women had marshalled about the dangers associated with the pipelines, I was impressed with what a strong case they presented. In contrast, Sunoco’s cross-examination seemed weak, and much of their focus seemed to be to try to keep the most damaging information out of the record of the hearing. The judge seemed inclined to side with the complainants in most cases.
Perhaps Sunoco’s long-term strategy is to recognize the possibility of a loss before the PUC and to attempt to build a case for a subsequent appeal to the state court system.