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Spotlight PA

Along Mariner East pipelines, secrecy and a patchwork of emergency plans leave many at risk and in the dark

  • 13 min to read
Lisa Jones

Lisa Jones, a mother of eight, lives at Meadowbrook Mobile Home Park in York County. Many residents of the community live less than 100 feet from the Mariner East pipeline system. STEVEN M. FALK / Philadelphia Inquirer

The road to Meadowbrook Mobile Home Park in York County is nestled with brown-paneled trailers and potholes half-filled with jagged concrete. Sue Ritter has lived here for more than 40 years, before the pipes began to break, leaving faucets dry for days and causing sewage backups to soak the floors. Several trailers, constructed with cheap material and wood additions, have caught fire in recent years. 

When workers began barreling down these roads in large trucks in 2017, hollowing out part of the forest for Sunoco’s Mariner East pipeline project, it seemed like another nuisance the now 73-year-old had little choice but to accept. 

The only indication Ritter had about the pipeline — designed to carry highly volatile natural gas liquids — was the sound of construction groaning late into the night. 

Should a leak occur, she did not know it would be odorless and appear as a fog or frost, causing pools of water to bubble in low-lying areas. She did not know that dried grass or dead animals found near the yellow marker poles could be a sign to evacuate. She did not know that, in an emergency, she should leave on foot because turning a car ignition could cause an explosion. 

“I don’t remember seeing anything about what would happen in case of emergency,” she said, adding it’s a struggle for her to walk more than two blocks. “Where are you supposed to go? ... My first instinct would be to get in the car.” 

“We can’t even say ignorance is bliss.” 

As the Mariner East pipelines become a permanent underpinning of Pennsylvania, many communities are still in the dark about what to do in the rare case of a serious accident. Pipeline operators have withheld critical safety information from the public with little oversight by the state, a Spotlight PA investigation has found. 

Sunoco and its parent company, Energy Transfer, have withheld information on the pipelines in part by citing a state law enacted in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks intended to prevent key infrastructure systems from being compromised. But residents, school officials and some local emergency planners said it is now preventing them from assessing the risk and creating adequate response plans. 

Court documents, county and state planning reports, hearing testimony, risk assessments, accident reports, and more than 80 interviews with residents, firefighters, school officials, emergency managers, and others reveal a fractured system of emergency preparedness with significant gaps in the knowledge residents and emergency responders have about the pipelines, the chemicals flowing through them, and what to do if something goes wrong. 

Stretching through 17 southcentral Pennsylvania counties, the roughly 350-mile system pumps natural gas liquids from Ohio, West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania to a storage and processing facility just outside Philadelphia. 

The chemicals are pushed through several lines at high pressure — thousands of times the force typically used to send gas to a kitchen stove — as they weave through suburbs and farms alongside grocery stores, elementary schools, Little League fields, nursing homes, places of worship.  

A Spotlight PA analysis of U.S. Census data found that between 96,000 and 345,000 people live close enough to the Mariner East pipeline system that they could be affected by a leak or serious explosion. 

Experts said the likelihood of a fatal accident is low. Residents near the line are more likely to die in a car crash or house fire. But the pipelines and their proximity to highly populated areas pose a unique challenge in planning for a worst-case scenario. 

When released, the dense liquid chemicals — ethane, butane and propane — expand rapidly into a highly combustive vapor cloud that hangs close to the ground, appearing as a fog or mist. Identifying a leak and predicting the path of the cloud, or telling people precisely how to escape it, can be very difficult. 

If a large plume of the chemicals pooled and ignited, the explosion would start an exceptionally hot fire that could last for hours, leading to injuries, death and significant structure damage.  

“The products in the Mariner line being odorless, colorless, extremely flammable and able to asphyxiate people — the last thing I want is a first responder or member of the community walking into [that],” said Tim Boyce, the emergency manager in Delaware County, where the Mariner East pipelines cut through a population of roughly 3,000 people per square mile. 

Tim Boyce

Tim Boyce — the emergency manager in Delaware County, where the Mariner East pipelines cut through a population of roughly 3,000 people per square mile — said planners like himself need more information from Sunoco. “You can’t just keep telling people, ‘It’s OK, don’t worry about it.’ We owe it to them to have thought this through beforehand,” he said. MICHAEL BRYANT / Philadelphia Inquirer


Emergency preparedness 

Spotlight PA traveled the length of the pipeline to assess emergency preparedness. 

Some residents, like Ritter, said they were not given information, though Sunoco said it sent brochures to her neighborhood. Those who did receive the mailers said they didn’t provide enough detail on how to react in an emergency. 

Nursing home residents living feet from the pipeline route said they were unaware of how to evacuate. They worried many would be stuck. Principals of dozens of schools said they didn’t have enough information to guarantee children’s safety. 

First responders and emergency officials say they, too, have struggled to get information. 

There is no centralized, statewide blueprint for communities to follow. Officials in many areas said they were relying on existing “all-hazards” emergency plans, which experts said do not account for the uniqueness of a potential accident. Immediate disaster response would fall to local first responders, primarily volunteer fire departments that have been overburdened, understaffed and poorly funded for decades, leaving little time for specialized training.  

“If the public could get more of the baseline information, I think we could move forward,” Boyce said. "They are banging their head on the wall to try to get an answer to what should be a simple question. 

“You can’t just keep telling people, ‘It’s OK; don’t worry about it.’ We owe it to them to have thought this through beforehand.” 


What is enough public information? 

Federal law requires companies to provide emergency responders, local officials and people who might be impacted by pipelines with information on their location and how to recognize and respond to problems. Sunoco said in a statement it fulfills that obligation without fail. 

Texas-based Sunoco is spending more than $5.1 billion on Mariner East. About $900,000 — or about .02% — has gone to local emergency responders for supplies and training through a grant program. 

The company said it has employed more than 11,000 people to date in construction on the pipelines and at the Marcus Hook Industrial Complex. The pipeline enables continued fracking in western Pennsylvania, parent company Energy Transfer has said, and provides critical access to the port in Marcus Hook, where the liquids can be shipped overseas to make plastics and other products. 

Every two years, Sunoco said, it mails colorful brochures to residents along the Mariner East pipeline route. One features an illustration of a fuchsia-winged butterfly perched serenely on a small yellow flag indicating the pipeline infrastructure below the grass. It includes emergency phone numbers and instructions that visual cues — such as ice, mist or soil blowing on the ground — could indicate a leak, as could a “hissing” sound. 

Deborah Basham

Deborah Basham, a resident of Meadowbrook Mobile Home Park, said, “Nobody really informed us or sent any letters” about Mariner East. Many residents of the community live less than 100 feet from the pipeline system. STEVEN M. FALK / Philadelphia Inquirer

Sunoco has sent more than 324,000 public awareness brochures, the company said, and trained just over 2,000 first responders in Pennsylvania.  

Lisa Coleman, a spokesperson for Energy Transfer, said emergency response is ultimately not Sunoco’s responsibility. Planning for difficulties that could arise in evacuating children, the elderly or people with disabilities is a local job, she said. The company’s role, Coleman said, “is to provide emergency response departments with the proper training and information that will allow them to develop these plans, which we have done.”  

Sunoco has provided a detailed “facility response plan” to the state Public Utility Commission, which oversees pipeline safety. Parts of these documents — which should detail how a company would respond to and prevent various emergency situations, including possible threats and worst-case scenarios — are considered confidential and are not publicly available.  

And there have been problems. 

In late June, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said Energy Transfer, through Sunoco, violated public awareness requirements regarding Mariner East. Sunoco failed to consider the unique scope of harm posed by natural gas liquids when informing the public about risk, the agency said. It must also explain how it determined the potential impact of a pipeline accident, the order said. 

The company did not contest the findings but said at a hearing this month it did not agree with the agency. Sunoco said it had already updated its plan — beginning in 2018, and with additional mailings last year — and does not intend to do anything further in response. An agency spokesperson said the case is still open. 

The agency also found the company did not distribute information to all “areas of consequence recognized in pertinent risk assessment reports” and neglected “to identify and educate the affected public whose safety could potentially be compromised” by a pipeline release. 

Inadequate public information is also at the heart of a pending case, referred to as the “Safety Seven,” before the state Public Utility Commission. The case was brought by residents in Chester and Delaware Counties and later joined by the counties, several townships and school districts. They are seeking a better public safety plan and argue the project should be shut down until then. The company in late July asked the Public Utility Commission to dismiss complaints related to safety and corrosion risk, alleging the Safety Seven parties had failed to prove the pipeline was unsafe within current regulatory and legal standards. Hearings in the case began Sept. 29. 

Separately, an administrative law judge found problems late last year with Sunoco’s public awareness plan and emergency training efforts in Cumberland County, just west of Harrisburg. Sunoco said it had met its legal obligations and didn’t owe local governments additional outreach. In September, the commission ordered the company to hold a meeting in the county to provide more information on pipeline safety, and noted other issues are pending as part of the Safety Seven case. 


What happens when something goes wrong? 

In 1996, a teen and her boyfriend died trying to warn neighbors of a leak, according to a federal investigation and news reports. The Texas home she lived in had been left off a pipeline mailing list. They drove into a cloud of butane, igniting the invisible plume.  

A decade later, in Carmichael, Miss., 10 houses excluded from a pipeline company’s mailing list were damaged when a line ruptured. Two died. 

Residents of Meadowbrook Mobile Home Park in York County, many of whom live less than 100 feet from the pipeline, said they, too, have been overlooked. Sunoco said it sent mailers to the community in 2018, but a dozen residents there said they never saw them. 

“Nobody really informed us or sent any letters,” Deborah Basham, 63, said. “Nobody came and said anything. No ‘if you see this or smell this in your water, please let us know.’” 

Mike Cattuti is a volunteer firefighter and emergency management coordinator for Fairview Township, where Meadowbrook is located. He said if something goes wrong with Mariner East, the township would rely on the general training it has done to prepare for large incidents, like a potential nuclear accident at nearby Three Mile Island. The township doesn’t have a specific plan for natural gas liquids. 

“If they see a problem in one area,” he said of Meadowbrook residents, “they are going to have to go the other way.” 

The sole exit from the Meadowbrook community is a dirt road, forking precipitously at the bottom of a steep hill. In an emergency, the only way to leave would be downhill, into the area where leaking chemicals, which are heavier than air, would most likely pool. 


Slow violence 

On an early morning, sun-filtered mist clung in the air between bare-limbed trees in Christina Morley’s backyard. 

“I once enjoyed looking out the window on a crisp morning like today & seeing fog rolling across the fences,” she wrote on Twitter. “Now I wonder is it fog or a vapor cloud …” 

Mariner East lies roughly 700 feet from her back door in Chester County and has altered the fabric of her life. She combs the Department of Environmental Protection’s website regularly, reading about Sunoco’s permit violations, some occurring down the street from her home. 

Morley no longer shops at the grocery store nearest to her house because the pipelines run alongside it. Some nights, when she can’t sleep, she has stayed up listening online to the preserved 911 calls after a pipeline explosion tore through San Bruno, Calif., in 2010. 

There is a term for gradual environmental deterioration that turns into a disaster: slow violence. Those living most intimately with energy infrastructure are the first to see it, and their resilience is gradually worn away, Gwen Ottinger, a professor at Drexel University, said. 

Since Sunoco began work on the Mariner East pipelines in 2014, it has been fined at least $15.9 million for more than 100 environmental and other violations, an analysis of state records shows. 

Over the last two years, the state has cited the company for allowing drilling chemicals to rise to the soil surface in a dozen counties across the state, at times contaminating private water systems but failing to notify landowners or the state as required. Ponds of murky liquid pooled outside one residential community, ringed with caution tape. Sinkholes, some 10 feet deep, have opened up dozens of times, as recently as August, forcing the company to buy condemned houses and reroute traffic. 

Sunoco

Since Sunoco began work on the Mariner East pipelines, it has been fined at least $15.9 million for more than 100 environmental and other violations, an analysis of state records shows. MICHAEL BRYANT / Philadelphia Inquirer

After the company released 8,000 gallons of drilling fluid into Chester County’s Marsh Creek Lake during construction in August, the Department of Environmental Protection ordered Sunoco to halt construction and reroute part of the pipeline, saying the company had acted carelessly and “blatantly disregarded the citizens and resources.” 

The Clean Air Council said in early October that it intends to file suit against Sunoco, alleging the company altered reporting practices this year and falsified information to minimize “potentially dangerous conditions,” including sinkholes and other ground movement, to avoid notifying the state and continue construction. 

A spokesperson for Sunoco called the claims baseless, founded on “slanderous information” from a disgruntled employee. 

Amid these environmental and public health concerns, the FBI is investigating whether Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration erred in issuing construction permits to Sunoco for the Mariner East project. State Attorney General Josh Shapiro, in conjunction with the Delaware County district attorney, has convened a grand jury to investigate allegations of criminal misconduct involving the pipeline. 


The risk with risk assessments 

Determining actual danger is complicated. Risk assessments are often based on historical accident data involving natural gas liquids, not a company’s individual track record. The number of miles of pipeline shipping highly volatile liquids has increased nearly 25% over the past decade, and the number of serious accidents has also steadily gone up, according to an analysis of federal data by the Pipeline Safety Trust. 

Sunoco and the state have declined to disclose the “blast radius” -- the area in which people could be harmed if the pipeline were to rupture.  

Advocates and emergency planners in Pennsylvania have tried to piece together the puzzle. They have looked north to a smaller ethane pipeline in Canada, where Sunoco has estimated a blast radius at just under half a mile. (Energy Transfer said it would not apply a smaller pipeline’s measurements to the Mariner East network.) 

An analysis funded by municipalities in Chester County found a hazard zone could extend at least 0.4 miles. Another, commissioned by Delaware County, found a flammable vapor cloud could extend 1.3 miles from a full breach of the pipeline. 

Up to 340 schools, child care centers, places of worship and mobile-home parks are in that radius, Spotlight PA’s analysis found. 

One expert on emergency response said there’s been “a bit of an overreaction” by the energy industry on what information is kept secret. 

“You have security people who are in the mindset that any information out there will be exploited for negative purposes, when in reality, having that information is useful for people to do emergency preparedness,” said Charles Jennings, director of the City University of New York’s Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies. 

“If you tell people, ‘Yes, if this thing ignites, there could be a fireball this diameter,’ certainly the companies don’t want to get anywhere near that and raise a lot of concern,” Jennings said. “But people should have some kind of informed risk that there is a pipeline where they live or where they work.” 


‘Are my kids safe?’ 

Emilie Lonardi, superintendent of the Downingtown Area School District in Chester County, first learned about a new pipeline already pumping volatile chemicals close to many of her schools in July 2017. 

Five schools, with more than 5,000 children, are within the estimated blast radius. 

She wanted an early detection system that would tell school administrators that students needed to evacuate, but there was no warning in place. She said Sunoco and the county told her conflicting information about whether it was safer to evacuate children on foot or to shelter in place, sealing off the school’s windows and doors from potential vapors. 

In October 2018, Lonardi and two other superintendents asked the PUC a series of questions about how the state was ensuring safety. 

Paul Metro, the PUC’s former pipeline safety manager, advised the schools to have an emergency plan specific to natural gas liquids, writing, “I strongly urge that the above-mentioned schools actively partner with the county emergency manager to ensure that your ‘all hazards’ plan and evacuation plans are up to date and incorporate all pipeline hazards.” 

In December 2018, the school district sent a list of 24 questions to Sunoco, asking for more information about Mariner East so it could plan accordingly. Nearly a third of the questions — about how the company identifies leaks, how long it would take Sunoco to respond to a leak or rupture near the schools, and the depth of the pipeline — went unanswered. The company said the district’s questions sought confidential information, “highly protected” under Pennsylvania state law. 

“Parents ask me all the time, ‘Are my kids safe?’ ” Lonardi said at a pipeline-related hearing in October 2019. “I cannot look them in the eye and say with certainty the answer is yes.” 

Sunoco said school officials could sign a nondisclosure agreement to get more information. But after consultation with county officials who had signed the agreement, they decided this “would be of limited use to the district,” a school spokesperson said. 

“Because the information is confidential, it would not be possible to add to or update our emergency plans appropriately,” said Jennifer Shealy, director of communication for the district. “We would not be able to communicate procedures to our staff, nor run any type of emergency drills that would adequately prepare the district given a pipeline-related event.” 

Across the country from Pennsylvania, in Washington state, better public disclosure has only improved preparedness, said Sean Mayo, the pipeline safety director for the state’s Utilities and Transportation Commission. 

Pipeline companies there were required to share maps with first responders and improve emergency plans after a 1999 pipeline explosion killed two children and caused an 18-year-old to suffocate and drown. The legislature also directed the state to create specific training for hazardous liquid pipeline accidents, “so that the differences between pipelines may be recognized and appropriate accident responses provided.” 

Mayo said his state’s improved pipeline safety record is due to increased reporting and inspection requirements that go well beyond federal law, as well as a “very robust” sunshine act. He said there was nothing in place that would block his commission from sharing sensitive information with local government or first responders. 

Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety expert and consultant, also based in Washington, said he has often seen state and federal confidentiality laws misapplied by utility companies to conceal information that should be public. 

“There obviously is an issue here,” said Kuprewicz, who is representing a Chester County township as an expert in a pipeline safety case before the state. “There oughta be some appropriate balance where the need to keep things secret is valid, but the public is ensured that such a procedure is not abused — and that the public is given checks and balances.”