‘Mama Bears’ arrests signal new frustration of Delco pipeline protesters
Two Middletown Township residents were arrested last week during a sit-in at the Mariner East 2 pipeline.
Allyson Galloway remembers the first time she heard about the pipeline running across the street from her home in Middletown Township.
It was at the house settlement table seven years ago, a short paragraph mentioning the old petroleum line buried deep in a stack of closing paperwork. At the time, some cursory research told Galloway and her husband that they had little to worry about.
"To me, it seemed akin to living close to a gas station," she said. "At least, that's what we thought at the time."
That was before she and her neighbors caught wind of Mariner East 2, another planned pipeline along the same route that would carry 675,000 barrels a day of propane and other highly volatile gas liquids. Before they became amateur experts in pipeline safety. Before their organization into the Middletown Coalition for Community Safety. Before more than two years of attending meetings with politicians locally and in Harrisburg.
And before two members of the coalition, part of a subset of mothers and grandmothers calling themselves "Mama Bear Brigade," were arrested July 10 during a sit-in at a pipeline construction site a few yards from her front door.
Members of the group, frustrated with what they call a lack of transparency from Gov. Wolf and Sunoco Logistics, the pipeline's operator, say the demonstration is a turning point for their activism, one borne out of frustration. It represents a shift for them, they say, to a more active approach to having their voices heard.
Sunoco Logistics continues to tout a stellar safety record, amid forced construction shutdowns by state officials and the appearance of sinkholes at some drilling sites.
"We're dismissed as crazy environmentalists, but we've done our homework," said Galloway, who didn't take part in the sit-in itself, but stood in solidarity with the women and other people protesting. "The coalition is a group of concerned residents and neighbors. It's not like some environmental group swooped in suddenly."
The women arrested, Frances Sheldon and Meghan Flynn, were charged with trespassing, a summary offense, and released, according to state police. Sheldon said she got involved with the protest – which took the form of a mock picnic – because her neighbors' "concerns about the hazards of this pipeline have never been adequately addressed."
"As a Quaker, I believe community is fundamental to human existence," she said in a statement. "It is my spiritual responsibility to help ensure that no one in my community has to question, as many currently are, whether they are safe in their own homes. To me, community means that their concerns are my concerns."
Flynn, who was party to a lawsuit challenging Sunoco and its pipeline last year, said that she feels she's done everything she could to stop the project: attend meetings, sign petitions, attend rallies, support the commission of a risk assessment.
"What else am I supposed to do? We've done everything we can, and there's still no response from Gov. Wolf," Flynn said. "We're still here, we're still concerned. We would do anything for our children, including literally put our bodies on the line for our kids. That's what mama bears do. We protect our cubs."
One of the group's main concerns developed only recently. Sunoco Logistics, behind schedule due to the state-mandated shutdowns and other delays, announced earlier this month that it plans on temporarily re-purposing an older, existing petroleum pipeline in Delaware County to help complete the Mariner East 2.
Lisa Dillinger, a spokeswoman for the company, said that the line underwent a $30 million upgrade in 2016 and meets all the safety standards required by state and federal authorities.
But public data show that the pipeline has had a history of accidents, including at least three ruptures in Edgmont Township.
Another rupture occurred in June along a different stretch of the pipeline, when an unknown amount of gasoline was leaked into the Darby Creek, according to a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Meanwhile, another Sunoco pipeline in the area ruptured in 1992 after an excavator accidentally dug into it, according to data from Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. It leaked 933 barrels of jet fuel into the nearby soil, close to 40,000 gallons.
A similar accident happened May 21 in Middletown Township, when a contractor hired to install water mains in the area scratched the coating of the inactive Mariner East 2 pipeline, according to officials there. That caused only superficial damage to the pipeline, but its similarity to the 1992 episode rankled residents.
"How many soccer moms need to get arrested so people take attention?" Galloway said. "These aren't 'silly college kids with lofty ideas,' or whatever people tend to think about protests.
"We didn't start by protesting in the street and entering the easement," she added. "We started reaching out to all appropriate outlets, the chain of command. And we didn't get results."
The Middletown Coalition has its origins in 2016, when its namesake township voted on giving seven easements of public property to Sunoco Logistics for the Mariner East 2 project.
"At that point, we all got together, determined to do something about this," Bibianna Dussling, one of the coalition's earliest members, said in a recent interview. "We became devoted to researching this, having discussions with each other, and finding out what the risks were and what we could do about them."
The group's membership is eclectic: health-care professionals, engineers, lawyers, teachers. They pored through publicly available documents, some difficult to request, others almost indecipherable through unwieldy terminology.
Much of the information they requested is not available publicly, protected, Sunoco Logistics has said, by the state's Public Utility Security Sensitive Information Act.
"In the end, we found out that we really didn't know much about what the risks from this pipeline were," Dussling said.
Initially, the group worked with the township to commission a risk-assessment study. When those plans fell through, it fund-raised enough for its own, hyperlocal study that centered on Glenwood Elementary School, where many of the group's children attend. It sits 600 feet from a section of the pipeline.
Critics and some pipeline safety experts have eviscerated the study, calling it unscientific and biased. But, still, it catalyzed some action: Recently elected Delaware County Council members are now pushing for a countywide version of the study. After six months of gridlock, the study is now moving forward.
Meanwhile, pipeline work has continued. In the neighborhood, trees were cleared by out-of-state crews, one of which left a pile of lumber in Galloway's backyard for weeks. She and her husband made a conscious effort to avoid talking about the pipeline in front of their two daughters, both of whom attend Glenwood.
"My kids are coming home, telling me their friends are asking what happens if the school explodes," Galloway said. "One of our neighbors moved as soon as Sunoco came knocking, and another forced a foreclosure. We're not in a position to do that — maybe we'll plant grass and wait for the next unsuspecting family."
Editor's note: This story has been updated with a few minor corrections.