Lenni Road 2-14-20
Work on the Mariner East pipeline off Lenni Road in Middletown. (Photo submitted to the Delaware County Times by a reader.)

This is an editorial by Phil Heron, Editor of the Delaware County Times, reprinted by permission. The original version can be read here.

They are the two words that nobody wants to think about when it comes to the discussion surrounding the Mariner East pipeline.

Energy Transfer, the Texas-based company and parent company of the old Delco Sunoco icon that is building this multi-billion dollar project to transport hundreds of thousands of barrels of highly volatile liquid natural gases to a facility Marcus Hook, consistently contends that Mariner East is being built and will be operated to the highest industry standards.

But there are two words they avoid like the plague. Two words that haunt every public official who has signed off on this project, every citizen who has protested against it, every home owner who has seen this unwanted visitor invade their backyards.

What if?

What if, God forbid, there is a leak, or worse, an explosion along the line as it snakes 350 miles, across the full width of Pennsylvania, from the state’s Marcellus Shale region here to Delaware County? Along the way, Mariner East cuts through densely developed neighborhoods, in close proximity to schools and senior centers.

Delaware County Emergency Services boss Tim Boyce, who would direct the response to any such incident here in Delaware County, recently offered written testimony to just such a scenario to the Public Utility Commission in Harrisburg.

It wasn’t pretty.

In short, Boyce said there is little the county or first responders could do to help people enveloped inside the cloud that would form after such a leak in the event of a delayed ignition event.

The HVLs – highly volatile liquids – are not like other material that rises in the air and quickly dissipates. Instead, since it’s heavier than air, it stays close to the ground, moved by the wind. Should it encounter what is termed a delayed ignition event, the result would be catastrophic. Boyce estimates it would likely encompass “a large amount of people.”

Boyce admitted little can be done for people inside the danger zone. In effect, in this kind of worse-case scenario, those inside the zone would act as their own first responders and attempt to self-evacuate. Literally evacuating on foot in the opposite direction the wind is blowing – if they are able to do so. And Boyce added he was “confident that a large release of HVLs in Delaware County will find an ignition source, so any self-evacuation must be rapid to have any hope of success.”

Even at that, Boyce downplayed the chances of such a self-evacuation being successful, especially at night or in inclement weather. He wrote that it is “virtually impossible for the public to accurately assess the size, shape and extreme hazard associated with an unignited combustible vapor cloud.”

Pretty sobering stuff.

At this point we would remind residents of the risk evaluation study done on the Mariner East project for Delaware County Council by Texas-based G2 Integrated Solutions. The study concluded the risk of being killed in a pipeline incident are about the same as other common risk sources, such as a car accident, house fire or fall down the steps. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the study also noted that if there were to be such an incident, it likely would be catastrophic.

No one is arguing that moving these materials by pipeline is much safer than having them rolling along the roads in trucks, or even by rail.

But that “what if” factor has not gone away.

Sen. Tom Killion, R-9 of Middletown, which is crisscrossed by the Mariner East project, also has offered testimony to the PUC. He hit on another sore point with residents and officials. That would be his assertion of Sunoco’s failure to adequately detail to both officials and citizens an emergency response plan.

Killion has proposed legislation that would mandate that pipeline operators provide emergency response plans to the PUC for sharing with county emergency services agencies in confidentiality in order to coordinate a response plan for a pipeline incident.

Mariner East has been plagued with delays and work stoppages, some ordered by the state, and encountered any number of runoffs, spills and sinkholes along the way as it traverses 11 miles of western Delaware County and another 23 miles through the heart of Chester County.

Despite the fact that completion of the project now is not predicted for perhaps another year, materials are flowing through the system now. Energy Transfer is utilizing an existing, smaller, older pipe in sections where Mariner East 2 has not been completed.

Once finished, production on Mariner East 2 and 2x will carry a much higher volume of materials than is currently flowing through it.

The project has sparked intense opposition in the community, where residents have complained long and hard about the lack of communication on the part of the company, little in the way of an emergency response plan, reduced property values, and a scarred landscape during construction. And that is nothing compared to the outrage at the decision to run the pipeline through densely populated neighborhoods.

Proponents maintain the pipeline is safe, necessary and a potential economic juggernaut for the region. They point out the region already is dotted with pipelines. In five years, they are fond of saying, no one will even know Mariner East is there.

But there are two words they – and everyone else connected with this project – don’t like to think about, let alone say out loud.

What if?