At hearing on Mariner East safety, plaintiffs say Sunoco’s public awareness plan falls short

A Mariner East pipeline valve site on the edge of the Andover development, Thornbury Township, Delaware County, illustrates the pipeline's path through densely-populated southeastern Pennsylvania. (Jon Hurdle/StateImpact Pennsylvania)

A Mariner East pipeline valve site on the edge of the Andover development, Thornbury Township, Delaware County, illustrates the pipeline's path through densely-populated southeastern Pennsylvania. (Jon Hurdle/StateImpact Pennsylvania)

This article originally appeared on StateImpact Pennsylvania.

People who suspect that a natural gas liquids pipeline is leaking should use their own judgment about whether to evacuate their homes rather than expecting specific advice from the operator, an expert witness said at a Public Utility Commission hearing on the safety of the Mariner East pipelines.

John Zurcher, a pipeline expert appearing as a witness for the Mariner East operator, Sunoco, told the hearing on Wednesday that any pipeline company could not advise residents on whether to stay in their homes if they smell, hear or see a leak.

“I don’t know that they can speak to whether you should stay in your house or get out of your house,” Zurcher said on the last day of a two-week hearing on the concerns of seven residents of Chester and Delaware counties, who say that public safety is being put at risk by having the Mariner East pipelines run through densely populated suburbs west of Philadelphia.

The plaintiffs are asking the PUC to investigate whether Sunoco’s safety measures protect the public, and, if it finds safety is lacking, to close down the lines until the company meets regulatory requirements. Roughly two weeks of testimony ended Wednesday.

Zurcher, under cross-examination by Rich Raiders, an attorney for the plaintiffs, also played down concerns that devices such as cell phones and garage door openers are potential ignition sources in the event of a leak of the highly explosive natural gas liquids that are carried by the lines.

“I know of no accident that has ever been triggered by a cell phone,” Zurcher said, at the virtual hearing before Elizabeth Barnes, an administrative law judge for the PUC.

Rather than giving residents specific advice about whether to use particular items in the event of a suspected leak, pipeline operators just urge people not to use anything that might cause an explosion, he said. “Don’t operate anything that might cause a spark,” said Zurcher, who has worked in the pipeline industry for more than 40 years.

Critics say Sunoco has failed to give clear advice in public-awareness brochures on how residents should react to any suspected leak. They say the company has created confusion about whether to stay inside, whether to leave by car or on foot, how to avoid any cloud of escaped gas, and how they might evacuate the elderly or infirm.

“How would your average person know when she had reached a safe distance?” asked Michael Bomstein, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, who call themselves the “Safety Seven.”

Zurcher replied that there is no standard advice by pipeline operators on what is a safe distance in the event of a leak, because it depends on the nature and size of the leak. “There cannot be a standard that I can convey to the public,” he said.

Under direct questioning from Neil Witkes, an attorney for Sunoco, Zurcher said the public response to a leak of NGLs from the Mariner East 1 pipe near Morgantown in Berks County in 2017 showed that the company’s public-awareness program worked as it was designed to.

The fact that the incident was reported by a member of the public showed that the program had successfully educated residents in how to respond to a leak.

“The company spends a lot of time and effort to get that information out,” Zurcher said. “In this particular case, it was a member of the public who noticed the leak and called Sunoco to report it. So that public-awareness program, that tells you that it’s working, that individual knew what to do. This to me is about the program working exactly as it was supposed to.”

Parts of the project are still under construction after some 3 1/2 years of technical, environmental and legal problems for the lines that carry ethane, propane and butane from southwest Pennsylvania and Ohio to a terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia. Construction has been halted several times by regulators or the courts, and the Department of Environmental Protection has issued about 100 notices of violation for repeated leaks of drilling fluid into waterways and private wells.

Now that the hearings are finished, the parties will submit written briefs by the end of the year. Judge Barnes, who previously shut down a section of the troubled project while repairs were made, will then send her own recommendations to the full PUC which will decide whether to accept or reject them.

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