A calculated risk? Delaware County Council makes slow progress after six months of debating pipeline study

Contractors work at a construction site for the Mariner East 2 pipeline near the Tunbridge Apartments in Media. The site has been prone to “frac-outs.” the accidental release of fluid from underground drilling.

After nearly six months of deliberation and discussion, officials in Delaware County are just now making progress on commissioning a study to determine how dangerous the Mariner East 2 pipeline could be for residents and businesses drafted into becoming its unwilling hosts.

At their June 20 meeting, the County Council voted to reissue a proposal for the risk assessment, a version that its members agree is appropriate to put out to bid.

It’s been a nuanced conversation for the council, battened by questions of the necessity of such analyses and of whether any firm in the massive energy industry is objective enough to produce a document free from bias. In the meantime, a growing chorus of activists have pushed for it in the name of transparency and public safety. They’ve been bolstered by residents who banded together to commission their own hyperlocal study, one bankrolled by grassroots fundraising.

“I think it’s incumbent on us to put something into the public domain that those who have the power to allow or not allow these pipelines can no longer ignore: an independently generated report that says what the risks are,” said Kevin Madden, one of the two council Democrats who first broached the idea of the study. “Right now, we’re living in the realm of the unknown. And we want to move into the realm of what is known.”

Camera icon ANDREW MAYKUTH / Staff
Sunoco Pipeline LP contractors work at a horizontal directional drilling location along Pennell Road in the Riddlewood section of Middletown Township.

In January, Madden and his colleague Brian Zidek started the conversation about performing the analysis on Mariner East 2, 11 miles of which run through their county. The pipeline constitutes one phase of the $5.1 billion Mariner East project, which aims to deliver 675,000 barrels a day of propane and other highly volatile gas liquids across Pennsylvania to Marcus Hook.

It’s a project that has been subjected to numerous delays and forced shutdowns for a variety of reasons, most recently the sudden appearance of sinkholes in Chester County. Despite those impediments, Sunoco and its parent company, Energy Transfer Partners, said earlier this month that Mariner East 2 is 98 percent complete.

That advanced level of completion has caused Zidek and Madden to push for expediency from their colleagues. Especially since the vote last week represents the second time the council approved a bid for the risk assessment.

Meanwhile, Sunoco has “performed the required safety analyses for our systems and shared information with our regulators and emergency services officials,” spokesperson Lisa Dillinger said. But that information is barred from public dissemination by the state’s Public Utility Security Sensitive Information Act, Dillinger said.

“It is information that, if it fell into the wrong hands, could be used in planning an attack on our nation’s energy infrastructure and is therefore protected from disclosure,” she said.

That hasn’t stopped the Delaware County Council members from seeking more information about the pipelines rumbling underneath their feet.

Camera icon JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Pipeline trucks are shown at the construction site near the Tunbridge Apartments in Media, Pa. The Mariner East 2 pipeline runs a few yards behind the 114-unit complex.

In an early show of bipartisanship, the Democrats and Republican Councilwoman Colleen Morrone voted in February to approve a study to be commissioned on “awareness, emergency preparedness and response to address the concerns and educate the general public” along pipeline routes in the county.

Ultimately, only two firms responded, and only one was deemed appropriate by county officials: Quest Consultants, a national engineering firm based in Oklahoma. But Quest’s selection immediately drew backlash from some members of council for a similar study it had completed for the Middletown Coalition on Community Safety in 2017.

Accusations of bias ran rampant, with some members of the council calling the Middletown Coalition an “anti-pipeline group,” and others criticizing Quest for revising the scope of its bid to focus solely on Mariner East 2, after its initial, countywide proposal was estimated to take several years and cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Morrone and her colleagues relented when the language of the bid was revised to focus solely on the Mariner East 2 and Adelphia pipelines, and after Tim Boyce, the county’s director of emergency services, agreed to widen his scope for potential vendors.

Others on the council say the risk assessment may not be entirely necessary. The county recently completed its “Pipeline Emergency Plan Guidance Document,” authored by a group that included representatives from Sunoco and Energy Transfer Partners, according to Adrienne Marofsky, a county spokesperson. It’s “not intended for general dissemination as it contains information that could be defined as sensitive in the critical infrastructure framework,” she added in a statement.

“I just think there’s a bit of a philosophical difference: I think Colleen [Morrone] and [Councilman Michael Culp] want a document that will be useful for first responders and residents to plan for emergency services around the pipeline,” said Council Chair John McBlain. “I think others want a document that will be used as an advocacy piece to shut the pipeline down.”

McBlain notably has been abstaining from voting on the risk assessment, and potentially breaking the political gridlock, since Zidek raised questions about the work his law firm has done for Sunoco.

“I think there can be a risk assessment study useful for the county, but the question becomes, what is it are you trying to do?” McBlain said. “If you’re really trying to assess risk, you should be producing a document that is useful to first responders: identifying what risks are, and how to respond to them.”

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Eric Friedman, a Middletown Township resident and a spokesperson for Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety, called concerns over a risk assessment, and of Quest’s objectivity, “absurd.”

“If council is trying to see how a risk assessment can lead to an emergency response plan, they’re right,” he said. “The purpose of the assessment is for the public to understand the level of risk it’s being subjected to, and that is the thing that Sunoco doesn’t want the public to know.

“In emergencies, the public are the first responders,” he said. “And how can you prepare for something if you don’t know the scope of it?”

The Middletown study was commissioned by residents, he said, during a time when their township council was “dragging its feet” in hiring someone to do an analysis.

Members of the coalition collectively raised $4,000 for a risk assessment of the section of the pipeline that sits 1,000 feet away from Glenwood Elementary School. Quest’s analysis revealed a range of possible scenarios if Mariner East 2 were to rupture and leak its contents.

On the more modest end, the vapor cloud could spread 200 feet before it ignited. A more extreme estimate warned that, after a 3-minute delay, it could spread to 1,800 feet.

But Richard Kuprewicz, an independent pipeline safety expert, warned that risk assessments like the one the coalition sought – and the County Council is seeking – are “unscientific and technically flawed.”

Instead, Kuprewicz advises his clients, which now include the Middletown Township Council, to develop plans for responding to incidents, saving valuable time in the event of an emergency by knowing in advance who to contact.

“I think, generically, this pipeline operator has demonstrated to me in other cities that they understand what these pipelines are capable of,” he said. “I’m not trying to take away from the residents’ perspective, but a 20-inch pipeline commands respect, not fear. And what Sunoco may need to be doing is determining how to communicate to these city fathers that they have this pipeline under control.”