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Sunoco failed to disclose some Mariner East pipeline risks, was ‘negligent,’ judge rules

Natural gas liquids are uniquely hazardous. They are colorless, odorless, and heavier than air. When the chemicals leak, they expand rapidly, pooling low to the ground in a flammable mist that can be difficult to detect.

“In both mailers, only the hazard of possible ignition of (highly volatile liquid) is lightly touched upon and that the product in the line can be a skin irritant,” Barnes wrote.

The judge’s findings were consistent with those of a year-long Spotlight PA investigation of emergency preparedness along the Mariner East system, which spans 350 miles under 17 southern Pennsylvania counties. The investigation found secrecy and a patchwork of emergency plans have left communities in the dark about what to do in case of an accident.

Barnes ordered Sunoco to update its public information pamphlets to reflect the significant ramifications of an accident, update emergency notifications to include police departments and school districts, as well as share non-confidential inspection and testing reports with local officials.

The company was also ordered to meet with local stakeholders to develop additional emergency training, to share emergency planning documents, and to ensure all of its pipelines are spaced far enough from other underground pipelines or utilities and buried at a safe depth.

Barnes also issued a $2,000 administrative fine.

Mixed reactions

The ruling was far from a total victory for residents. Barnes noted in the decision that Sunoco had “implemented a public awareness program mostly consistent with its plan.” She also said there was not enough evidence or legal jurisdiction to grant key actions residents had sought, including to move pipeline valve sites, which control the flow of gas, or to shut down pipeline operations altogether.

The judge also did not address many of their safety concerns, like adding scent to the pipeline chemicals or mass emergency notification systems. Instead, Barnes suggested these problems could be addressed through an ongoing utility commission rule-making, in federal court, or by the state legislature.

Lisa Coleman, a spokesperson for Energy Transfer, Sunoco’s parent company, said they are pleased the judge ruled in favor of the pipeline’s continued operation in Delaware and Chester Counties. She said the ruling affirmed the safety of transporting natural gas liquids by pipeline, compared to railway or truck transport, but did not comment on the violations.

The ruling was the latest in a long line of violations and fines levied against Sunoco for its construction and operation of the Mariner East system. The state has already fined Sunoco roughly $16 million for environmental violations, including numerous issues with water contamination and sinkholes that occurred during construction.

Sunoco has long contended that local governments, under state law, are in charge of planning for emergencies, but Barnes found that its representatives had been unwilling to meet with schools and first responders in the face of reasonable requests for help.

The ruling came after several weeks of hearings in 2019 and 2020, in which residents of Chester and Delaware Counties showed pictures of exposed pipes, some carrying chemicals, visible in the dirt of shallow river beds. School leaders and county emergency planners testified the company withheld valuable information that could help keep children or the public safe.

Some of the plaintiffs, commonly referred to as the “Safety Seven,” said they felt a muted victory, seeing many of their concerns affirmed by the judge after years of lobbying for transparency.

“It took three years, but we got there,” said Laura Obenski, who lives 700 feet from the Mariner East route in Chester County and has two children in nearby schools.

She, along with attorneys and community advocates, said the ruling was disappointing because it still places much of the burden to enforce the order on local communities, and it only applies to the two counties. In Pennsylvania, there is no centralized, statewide blueprint for communities to follow for potential accidents with such a pipeline system, creating inconsistent and uneven levels of preparedness from one county to the next.

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