Should We Be Afraid of the Mariner East Pipeline?
The ongoing battle over the project is taking place in the backyards of Chester and Delaware county residents, who live in fear of a catastrophe.
It was dark outside, around 5 a.m., when the flames took over the sky. Neighbors described it like this: a loud hissing noise. A massive ball of fire. A jet, or a meteor, crashing into the earth. Night turning into day.
On September 10, 2018, a section of the Revolution Pipeline — which had begun carrying natural gas just a week earlier — leaked and ignited in rural Beaver County, Pennsylvania, northwest of Pittsburgh. The rupture shot flames 150 feet into the air, destroying one house, collapsing several overhead power lines, and forcing the evacuation of nearly 50 residents.
Fortunately, no one was injured; the couple who lost their home had fled in the nick of time.
But for residents living along the thousands of miles of natural gas pipelines in Pennsylvania — second only to Texas as the nation’s largest producer of the fossil fuel and home to the newly booming, energy-rich Marcellus Shale region — the fire and the charred earth it left behind serve as a haunting reminder: Something like this could happen in our backyards.
That dread is perhaps nowhere more evident than 300 miles southeast of Beaver County, in the dense suburban neighborhoods west of Philadelphia, a city that energy industry leaders have, in the past decade, eyed as a global processing and trading hub. Here, tensions surrounding the cross-state Mariner East pipelines — a project much larger than Revolution and owned by the same parent company, Dallas-based Energy Transfer — are only intensifying.
The pipelines (Mariner East 1 and 2 and the not-yet-completed 2x) carry highly compressed natural gas liquids. Once they are fully operational along a 350-mile route from their Marcellus Shale source to a revitalized former oil refinery in Marcus Hook, they promise to be vastly lucrative for Energy Transfer — and for the state, which, the company boasts, could see an economic impact of more than $9 billion from the project. But since work began in February 2017, Mariner East has been plagued by nearly 100 state Department of Environmental Protection violations, multiple sinkholes, service shutdowns and construction chaos. Glaring gaps in state regulatory oversight have been exposed, and opposition has grown into significant pushback from neighbors and a bipartisan group of lawmakers who say Pennsylvania communities are at risk of — and unprepared for — a potential pipeline disaster.
Mariner East is headed for an inflection point: Construction could continue despite opponents’ pitched efforts, or officials could take steps to pause, end or remedy a project that’s been embattled since its inception. In the meantime, those at the heart of the Mariner East conflict zone live in fear of an incident like Beaver County’s — or worse.
In April, a fortress-like metal barricade was erected across the center of Paula Brandl’s quiet, grassy backyard in Exton, Chester County. The scene outside her kitchen window is almost dystopian.
Brandl says land agents connected with Sunoco Pipeline LP, the Energy Transfer subsidiary that’s building the lines, told her the wall was installed as a noise barrier. For roughly two weeks after it went up, she says, she and her family members were “in shock.” Brandl contacted the agents and various state agencies to inquire about vibrations caused by the hidden construction as well as diesel exhaust in the air in and around her home, but she says no one she spoke with was helpful or informative.
“I have every right to know what is going on back there,” Brandl says at her dining room table one late-April day. “It’s just as if I don’t even own that land anymore.”
Energy Transfer is able to occupy Brandl’s backyard (and yards in 17 Pennsylvania counties) through what a recent New Yorker story termed a “legal loophole” linking the Mariner East project to the route of a 1930s pipeline that formerly transported heating oil. The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, the main state agency tasked with overseeing oil and gas projects, has deemed the project a public utility, stressing that state code “recognizes the intrastate transportation by pipeline of petroleum products.” Doing so grants the pipelines right-of-way, which is typically reserved for utilities offering some sort of benefit to the general public, like schools or highways.
Energy Transfer spokesperson Lisa Dillinger says that putting additional pipelines into an existing right-of-way is a common practice that “helps to reduce our environmental footprint.” But the pipelines’ public utility status enrages Brandl and other residents, especially since a significant quantity of the product the lines carry is to be shipped overseas to make plastics.
“The PUC failed us,” Brandl says. “This is not a utility. This is not a gas line that’s serving the benefit of Pennsylvanians. And that’s basically the root of this entire issue.”
In Pennsylvania, there’s no state agency responsible for approving the routes of intrastate hazardous-liquid pipelines — nor does federal law require that oversight. David Hess, who served as Pennsylvania’s DEP secretary under Republican governors Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker from 2001 to 2003, says the lack of any such authority puts Pennsylvania “in a very disadvantageous position … because the pipeline route is critical. If the law was different, I don’t think you’d ever approve a route through populated areas like these, given the risks with some of these materials being carried.”
Dillinger says that Energy Transfer goes “above and beyond what is required to ensure the safety of our lines.” But it’s clear that the state agencies left to regulate the massive Mariner East project — the Pennsylvania DEP and the PUC — have an unprecedented situation on their hands, with what Hess calls “unanticipated impacts” in areas “overgrown with development.” Chief among those impacts are sinkholes that have opened in yards along the pipeline construction route in Chester County, twice exposing the buried pipe of the 1930s line (now repurposed as Mariner East 1) and prompting pipeline shutdowns to avert what the PUC called a potentially “catastrophic” risk to public safety.
The residents who owned those once-quaint yards — on Lisa Drive, just outside Exton — said they were terrified for their lives. Then, in April, Energy Transfer bought two of the homes, and the families moved out. Now, the properties sit eerily quiet and mostly empty, save for construction equipment and a small sign in one of the yards: notice: audio and video recording in progress. When I visited the area in early May, a man who identified himself as a relative of one of the former homeowners told me that in the neighborhood, “Everybody wants to get out.”
Paula Brandl and other residents who have endured the complications of hosting Mariner East construction on or near their properties — water contamination, spills of drilling mud, intimidating contractors — say those side effects pale in comparison to their biggest fear: a pipeline leak.
Natural gas liquids can rapidly change to an explosive gaseous state during a leak, and the gas can be ignited by sources as small as static discharge from using a cell phone, flicking a light switch or ringing a doorbell. Leaks, which can be caused by welding failures, material defects, pipeline corrosion, shifting land and other factors, have already happened along Mariner East 1 — three since 2014, though none resulted in an explosion. Energy Transfer’s Dillinger says the 88-year-old pipeline underwent “integrity testing and major upgrades” when it was repurposed for natural gas liquids service, and in April, two years after a high-profile leak in Berks County, the company said it would conduct a “remaining life study” of the line.
Energy Transfer’s safety record is, however, bleak in general. Between 2002 and the end of 2017, pipelines affiliated with the company across the country experienced a leak or an accident every 11 days on average, according to an analysis of federal pipeline data compiled by environmental advocacy organizations Greenpeace USA and Waterkeeper Alliance. In an evaluation by NPR affiliate StateImpact Pennsylvania, the same federal data showed that Sunoco Pipeline is responsible for the industry’s second-highest number of incidents reported to inspectors over the past 12 years.
“When it comes to number of accidents, Sunoco’s not just an outlier; they’re sort of an extreme outlier,” Eric Friedman, a Delaware County resident who lives steps from the Mariner East pipeline route, tells me.
Friedman, a former airline pilot who has worked for the FAA since 2006, sees Mariner East through a risk-management lens. (“Everything we do in commercial aviation is based on risk,” he says.) He learned of the pipelines in 2013 — a year after buying his home in an affluent Glen Mills neighborhood — and has been researching the project ever since. He’s in regular contact with the offices of lawmakers like U.S. Rep Mary Gay Scanlon and Chester County State Senator Andy Dinniman — the politician widely considered to be the pipelines’ most vocal opponent — and he’s one of the leaders of a nonpartisan residents group called the Middletown Coalition for Community Safety.
In November 2018, seven residents of Chester and Delaware counties filed a complaint with the PUC against Sunoco Pipeline LP, alleging that the subsidiary hasn’t provided the public with a sufficient emergency notification system or management plan in the event of a pipeline-related disaster. The petitioners (nicknamed by residents the “Safety 7”) argue that as a public utility operator, Sunoco is tasked by federal regulations enforced by the PUC with providing an emergency-preparedness plan for potential disasters, like a possible leak along the Mariner East route. The failure to release a satisfactory plan, they say, places residents in the pipelines’ blast zone “at imminent risk of catastrophic and irreparable loss, including loss of life, serious injury to life, and damage to their homes and property.”
Energy Transfer has disputed the residents’ claims, saying that its emergency-response professionals “work and train with local first responders” and that it has shared a written public-education program specific to the area with emergency-response professionals along the line. Still, residents say the company hasn’t sufficiently involved the public in its preventative plans; the complaint is scheduled for hearings before an administrative law judge in July.
Meanwhile, the PUC has said it won’t release information about the potential impact of a leak or an explosion for several reasons, including that the state’s Right to Know law prohibits the disclosure of records that are “reasonably likely to jeopardize or threaten public safety.” Sharing the hazard assessments, the PUC argues, could compromise pipeline security by revealing information “which could clearly be used by a terrorist to plan an attack … to cause the greatest possible harm and mass destruction to the public living near such facilities.”
Brandl and other residents stress that living next to a “mass destruction” target is terrifying, with or without a disaster plan. To make matters worse, a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found major weaknesses in how the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration — which is responsible for addressing terrorism risks along the nation’s 2.7 million miles of oil and gas pipelines — manages its pipeline security efforts.
“I don’t think I’d be living 25 feet away from that pipeline,” Hess, the former DEP secretary, says. “But again, the question is, why was someone allowed to live within 25 feet of this pipeline in the first place?”
In December, Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan announced a criminal investigation into conduct related to the Mariner East project, saying that potential charges against individual Energy Transfer employees or corporate officers could include causing or risking a catastrophe, criminal mischief and environmental crimes. More recently, Delaware County DA Katayoun Copeland and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro launched a joint investigation into Sunoco Pipeline LP and Energy Transfer over allegations of criminal misconduct related to the project, with Copeland stating that there “is no question that the pipeline poses certain concerns and risks to our residents.” (At press time, both investigations were ongoing.) Energy Transfer’s Dillinger says that the company remains “confident that we have not acted to violate any criminal laws in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and are committed to aggressively defending ourselves.”
After years of pressure, residents might finally be getting through to the state. At a Pennsylvania Senate committee meeting in June 2018 — before, even, a number of critical developments regarding Mariner East — former Republican State Senator Don White of Indiana County made a surprising statement: If issues raised at the committee’s meetings regarding pipeline safety consistently involve one project — referring to Mariner East — then “we have the ability in this state to find a way to deal with this company and put them out of business.”
David Hess, the former Republican DEP secretary — he was also executive director of the state Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee in the ’90s — says that for a “Republican senator to say that is astounding … [it] really underscores the problems this company is generating.”
As frustration and fear about Mariner East spread to constituents in red and blue districts alike, lawmakers who are typically supportive of the oil and gas industry (like north-central Pennsylvania State Senator Gene Yaw) are voicing concern. White’s proposition poses a question that residents are forcing officials — particularly Governor Tom Wolf, who has positioned himself as an ally to environmentalists and residents but has received tens of thousands of dollars in donations from oil and gas industry affiliates — to consider: How should they deal with the Mariner East pipelines?
Several months after the Revolution Pipeline incident in Beaver County, Wolf released a statement calling on state lawmakers to “address gaps in existing law which have tied the hands of the executive and independent agencies charged with protecting public health, safety and the environment.” His suggestions included giving the PUC authority over the routing of intrastate pipelines, ordering companies to work with local emergency coordinators, and requiring the installation of remote shutoff valves to contain leaks.
But the GOP-dominated legislature has yet to move any bills that would allow for those reforms. And none of that changes the fact that Mariner East has been unfolding on Wolf’s watch. The Governor has yet to visit Delaware or Chester counties to speak firsthand with residents living near the pipelines about their experiences. (Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman visited before the 2018 primary; a spokesman for Wolf’s office said the Governor has met with residents and lawmakers about the project in Harrisburg.) Constituents say Wolf is simply not doing enough to prevent a potential disaster. Whether his administration will adopt a firmer stance toward Mariner East — as residents and local lawmakers have requested — remains uncertain.
Meanwhile, the project continues to highlight the limitations of both the DEP and the PUC. After all, there were warning signs before the Beaver County leak, which Energy Transfer has said resulted from a landslide that followed heavy rains. (Both the company and the PUC are still investigating the incident.) The DEP had fined Energy Transfer three months before the Revolution Pipeline explosion for failing to mitigate erosion on a hillside about a mile from the site; the DEP says that at the time, it was “unaware of the issues associated with the blast site.” Critics have also questioned the agency’s decision to allow Sunoco Pipeline to use relatively new and potentially disruptive drilling methods that geologists say may have increased the risk of sinkholes along Lisa Drive in Chester County.
The PUC and state DEP have penalized Energy Transfer for many of the company’s missteps, at times (and increasingly) seriously. Revolution Pipeline remains out of service, and since February, the DEP has suspended all Energy Transfer permit applications (including for Mariner East) until the company reaches compliance in Beaver County. To Hess, the agencies are “working in the best way they can.” But, he argues, lawmakers need to consider more stringent regulation, especially of pipeline routes.
The question for residents is whether officials or Energy Transfer will act before an emergency. Until then, Eric Friedman says, they’ll continue to feel unprotected.
“I think at some level, the most important function of government is to reasonably provide for the public’s safety,” he says. “And how can you have a project like this, that could kill hundreds or thousands of people in the worst-case scenario, and hope for the best and not plan for the worst?”
Published as “What Lies Beneath” in the July 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.