This article originally appeared on StateImpact Pennsylvania.
Seven residents of Chester and Delaware counties took their long-running fight against the Mariner East pipelines to a West Chester court on Wednesday, saying the Public Utility Commission should shut down the lines on the grounds that they are a danger to public safety.
They are urging a PUC administrative law judge to halt the operation and remaining construction of Sunoco’s still-unfinished pipeline project, on the grounds that any leak or explosion of natural gas liquids from the pipelines in densely populated suburbs like the two counties could result in mass casualties.
The plaintiffs are also seeking a court order that would require Sunoco to clarify its instructions on how residents should protect themselves in the event of a pipeline accident.
The hearing, taking place almost a year after Sunoco started operating a hybrid version of the new line, was the latest opportunity for the plaintiffs to argue their case in a judicial setting, and may represent their last chance to halt the project.
During 3 1/2 hours of hearing on Wednesday morning, Judge Elizabeth Barnes rejected a request by Sunoco attorneys to limit the testimony of lay witnesses on the grounds that they were not qualified to offer expert opinions on issues like the impacts of a pipeline explosion.
“In general, my ruling is a layperson can testify on their opinion,” the judge said. But she said those witnesses would not be allowed to use hearsay reports on matters that they are not experts on.
Lawyers for Sunoco repeatedly accused Eric Friedman, a witness for the plaintiffs, of offering expert evidence that he was not qualified to give, but Barnes overruled several of their objections.
Under questioning from the plaintiffs’ attorney, Michael Bomstein, Friedman said a consultant’s projection on the impact of an explosion of NGLs showed that there would be fatalities within a radius of 800 feet.
Under that scenario, all 39 houses in his Andover subdivision in Delaware County would be affected by any leak of natural gas liquids, Friedman said. Using proprietary software, the consultant, Quest, showed that there would be fatalities caused by a shock wave and thermal radiation, Friedman said.
Robert Fox, an attorney for Sunoco, argued unsuccessfully that Friedman’s comments on the modeling amounted to expert testimony. “We’ve been clear from the beginning, this is lay witness testimony. He can’t get in the Quest report as a means of getting around the fact that this is a lay witness testimony,” Fox said.
Gerald McMullen, a West Whiteland resident who was the only plaintiff to testify on Wednesday, said he had reluctantly agreed to allow Sunoco a permanent easement to build the pipeline on his property, but only after the company had told him that it had the right to take the land as a public utility under Pennsylvania’s eminent domain law.
“Everybody said because they are a public utility, we were in a no-win situation,” he said.
McMullen, who said his bedroom is 35 feet from Mariner East 1, a repurposed 1930s-era pipeline, said he would have to cross the path of four Mariner East pipelines to walk upwind if there was a leak, but doubted that some of his disabled neighbors would be capable of doing so.
Under questioning from Diana Silver, an attorney for Sunoco, McMullen acknowledged that he had not alerted his neighbors to another nearby natural gas liquids line, Enterprise Products Pipeline, but has been a “vocal opponent” of Mariner East.
Dr. Emilie Lonardi, superintendent of the 13,000-student Downingtown School District, told the court that five of her schools are between 300 and 1,425 feet of the pipeline route and that despite many attempts to get detailed evacuation information from Sunoco, she remains worried about whether her students would be safe in a pipeline emergency.
She said she’s unable to assure parents at one elementary school that their children are safe.
“The hard thing for me is that I cannot look them in the eye and say yes,” she said.
The plaintiffs — Meghan Flynn and Rosemary Fuller of Middletown Township; Michael Walsh of Thornbury Township; Nancy Harkins of Westtown Township; McMullen; Caroline Hughes of East Goshen Township; and Melissa Haines of Aston Township — are pressing a case that has resulted in 11 months of legal filings and more than three years of public meetings, protests and court battles that have also involved the Department of Environmental Protection, local officials, the federal pipeline regulator PHMSA, state lawmakers, school districts, townships, and several environmental nonprofits.
The seven residents say that an escape of the highly pressurized propane, butane, and ethane that are already being carried by the two operational Mariner East lines would represent a significantly greater threat to the public than the natural gas, gasoline or other fuels that have been carried by the previous generation of pipelines.
Sunoco says it has prepared some 2,000 first responders in Pennsylvania to deal with any pipeline emergency through its Mariner Emergency Response Outreach Program. It has also distributed printed flyers to residents near the pipeline route advising them on emergency procedures.
Although the troubled project has been temporarily stopped several times by regulators or the courts since it started construction in February 2017, it has always restarted. The company began operations of the hybrid line in December 2018, and now says it expects to complete Mariner East 2X, the first of the new lines, by the end of 2019.
Sunoco admitted in February 2019 that it made mistakes during construction, and pledged to put them right, but has insisted throughout that the project meets all state and federal regulatory requirements.
The Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, which advocates for pipeline construction, called the hearings a “last-ditch effort” by pipeline opponents to derail the project, and argued that it meets all regulatory requirements.
Testimony is scheduled to continue on Thursday. Judge Barnes won’t rule until a hearing for expert witnesses next July, and the full PUC’s final determination on the case may not come until the end of 2020.