Desperate for answers, suburban groups bankroll two-county study of Sunoco pipeline
The study, being handled by Quest Consultants, is expected to be completed by summer's end.
Fed up with what they call a lack of progress from their local political leaders, residents and community activists in Chester and Delaware Counties have banded together to commission a study of the risks presented by the Mariner East 2 pipeline.
Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety, working with East Goshen Safety and Environmental Advocates, has hired Quest Consultants to complete a risk assessment along three sections of the pipeline as it runs through the two counties. The groups' efforts have been bankrolled by crowdfunded donations, with their goal of nearly $50,000 recently met with help from some municipalities and even a few elected officials.
"There's no question that residents, parents, families, and community members deserve clear answers about the risks associated with this pipeline project and what to do in the event of an emergency," said State Sen. Andy Dinniman, a Chester County Democrat and a longtime critic of the pipeline. "So far, our state government agencies have failed to answer those questions or to get the necessary information from Sunoco [Logistics] to sufficiently answer them. As a result, we have no choice but to move forward on our own."
The deal between Quest, a national engineering firm based in Oklahoma, and the citizen groups was signed in late June, according to Eric Friedman, a spokesman for Del-Chesco United. It's modeled after a similar study Quest outlined for the Delaware County Office of Emergency Services in response to a request for proposals in May.
That proposal, and the concept of conducting a risk assessment in the county, has been notably gridlocked at the County Council level for six months, with progress made only recently.
The firm will rely on publicly available data from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and other sources to quantify the risk to residents. Using safety records from Sunoco Logistics, the pipeline's operator, and its proprietary modeling software, Quest will estimate how likely there is to be an accidental release of the pipeline's contents, and how wind speed, the size of the rupture in the pipeline, and other factors would affect the surrounding area.
Friedman said Quest is hoping to have a version of the study ready by the start of the school year.
Mariner East 2, designed to carry propane and other highly volatile gas liquids to a refinery at Marcus Hook, is nearing completion, despite state-mandated shutdowns and safety violations. It's been a lightning rod for controversy and dissension for Sunoco Logistics, which has weathered more than two years of protests, rallies, and lawsuits.
Sunoco has repeatedly said that it maintains its own risk assessment as required by federal regulations, and a spokesperson said the company has worked closely with first responders along the pipeline route. That information shared among local officials remains barred from public distribution through the state's Public Utility Security Sensitive Information Act, she said.
David Hixson, the deputy press secretary for the state's Public Utility Commission, said he was unable to comment at length about the Mariner East 2 pipeline because of pending litigation. But generally, he said, pipeline operators are required to file annual "integrity management reports" with both state and federal officials, and to conduct public awareness campaigns about pipeline safety.
Those assurances haven't stopped residents from demanding more answers.
"I said six weeks ago that I had lost faith in the council's ability to ever complete a risk assessment," said Brian Zidek, a Delaware County councilman who donated $1,500 toward Del-Chesco United's fund-raiser. "And in the absence of the government acting on its duties, it's up to the citizens to do what they should've done."
Zidek, one of two Democrats on the County Council, has been pushing for a countywide risk assessment since he took office in January. Despite voting for the study to be put out for bid, his Republican colleagues initially delayed its commission, unwilling to work with Quest because it had produced a risk assessment for a local group, the Middletown Coalition for Community Safety, in 2017.
Council members accused Quest of being biased because of that study, which focused on the section of the pipeline near Glenwood Elementary School. They recently voted to rebid the contract for the risk assessment and are expected to select a vendor later this month.