WEST CHESTER, PA — As students and their families plan to return to school, state Senator Andy Dinniman stated that nearly a dozen schools and daycare facilities in Chester County are located dangerously close to or within the thermal impact or “blast zone” of the Mariner East pipeline project.
“We have Drug-Free School Zones. We take steps to keep crime, violence, and weapons out of our school. We have background checks of teachers, staff, and volunteers. We even have special speed limits. But when it comes to hazardous material pipelines, there are no rules whatsoever,” Dinniman said. “It’s definitely a major concern because there are pitifully lax laws and safety regulations regarding pipeline placement in Pennsylvania. And now we have both decades-old pipelines and new pipelines brushing up against our schools, playgrounds, and playing fields.”
The Chester County schools are part of a list of almost 40 total public and private schools and daycare facilities statewide located near the 350-mile path of Mariner East 2 pipeline, according to information compiled by the FracTracker Alliance, a nonprofit organization that studies the risks of oil and gas development.
In Chester County they include:
- Exton Elementary School
- Lionville Middle School
- Hildebrandt Learning Center in Exton.
- The Goddard School in Exton.
- Kindercare Learning Center in Exton
- East Goshen Elementary School
- Ss. Peter and Paul School
- Ss. Simon and Judge School
- Goshen Friends School
- The Kanner Learning Center
- Twin Valley Elementary School
Earlier this year, the superintendents of two Chester County school districts – Jim Scanlon of the West Chester Area School District (WCASD) and Emilie M. Lonardi of the Downingtown Area School District (DASD) separately wrote to Governor Tom Wolf requesting a comprehensive independent risk assessment of the Mariner East project in order to prepare the best possible emergency response and evacuation plans for their schools.
According to Scanlon, the WCASD has four buildings within 3,000 feet of the pipeline and more than 25,000 residents living on or near the pipeline.
According to Lonardi, the Mariner East 2 project is approximately 500 feet from one of their middle schools. Lionville Middle School (986 students) is located in a campus-like setting, next to Downingtown East High School (1,788 students), and nearby Lionville Elementary School (674 students).
Lonardi even wrote a second letter over the summer when Sunoco announced plans to repurpose an existing 12-inch decades-old petroleum pipeline to carry hazardous natural gas liquids – a pipeline that runs very close to five of its school buildings. She wrote that that pipeline presents an “even larger safety threat” to the district as it runs very near to five of its school buildings.
Wolf responded to the first letter, writing, “The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) alone has the authority to perform a risk assessment or safety study, and we have agreed with others’ calls for such a study to be undertaken. However, it should be noted that under state law, state employees are barred from releasing ‘confidential security information’ under penalty of criminal prosecution, information which includes these types of studies.”
While the governor has urged the PUC to conduct a risk assessment, it has refused to do so.
Meanwhile, Dinniman, who serves as minority chair of the Senate Education Committee and as a member of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, has already introduced a legislative package to address the concerns about the confidential nature of pipeline safety information.
Senate Bill 930 requires pipeline companies to meet with the county emergency coordinators and provide the necessary information. Similar measures are already in place in California. And in Texas, pipeline companies can meet with school officials to discuss safety concerns. Dinniman said he plans to introduce legislation based on the Texas model.
Senate Bill 931 calls for incorporating automatic or remote shutoff valves on pipelines in high consequence areas throughout Pennsylvania to better protect the public and prevent potential emergencies. In addition, this legislation calls for pipeline companies to test the reliability of shutoff valves annually, provide the results of these tests to the local municipality, and impose penalties for non-compliance.
In terms of the almost 40 schools near the blast zone, the PUC could have and should have required automatic shutoff valves since the pipeline comes so very close, Dinniman said.
Both Senate Bill 930 and Senate Bill 931 were overwhelmingly passed by the Senate Consumer Affairs and Professional Licensure Committee earlier this year.
“I understand that pipelines, by and large, represent the safest way to transport these materials. And I know that they have economic benefits for the entire state,” Dinniman said. “But that does not outweigh the need to ensure that they are installed and operated as safely as possible, especially when they’re within feet of parks, shopping centers, churches, libraries, rail lines, bus routes, and schools. For example, Mariner East runs directly next to the Chester County Library’s Exton Branch, which is visited by nearly 600,000 residents a year, many of them children.”
Sunoco’s Mariner East project includes an 87-year-old repurposed petroleum pipeline (Mariner East 1) and a newer, parallel pipeline (Mariner East 2) carrying ethane, butane, and propane to be exported to Europe for plastic manufacturing. In addition, Sunoco is planning a third pipeline, called “Mariner East 2x,” and seeking to activate and repurpose an existing 12-inch petroleum pipeline. All these pipelines either already are or soon will be carrying highly-volatile, odorless natural gas liquids. And if the 12-inch pipeline is activated, additional Chester County schools will be impacted, as indicated in Lonardi’s letter.
“When Mariner East 2 was constructed, Chester County was mostly farmland with a population that was only about a quarter of what it is today. Now, we don’t only have more pipelines carrying far more dangerous materials in a smaller space, but they’re also coming closer to our community centers,” Dinniman said. “We must do more to protect our residents, families, and kids. The bottom line is it would be foolhardy not to, especially considering the litany of safety issues, geologic problems, violations, and suspensions the Mariner East project has experienced and continues to experience on regular basis.”
According to federal statistics, Sunoco has one of the worst pipeline safety records of any pipeline company.
Even more troubling is that fact that the superintendents WCASD and DASD – Chester County’s two largest school districts and two of the largest in the state – have asked officials in Harrisburg for safety information and protocols and never received an adequate response, Dinniman said.
“If there is a leak of highly volatile, odorless gas, any spark can create a firewall. The question is: what should an emergency plan entail? And right now, with students returning to school in a matter of days, we still don’t have an answer,” Dinniman said. “Meanwhile, the PUC and DEP continue to grant permit after permit for Mariner East with seemingly little regard for public safety. The governor says the PUC is responsible for a risk assessment and issuing safety protocols when pipelines are located near schools and places of assembly, but the PUC continues to sit on its hands.
Since officials in Harrisburg fail to take their responsibility for our safety seriously, we need to stand up and make sure our schools and children are safe from potential pipeline emergencies. The bottom line is pipelines must be built with safety as the number one priority,” he added.
Source: Andrew E. Dinniman (D), Pennsylvania State Senate, Senate District 19
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