This article is shared with LebTown by content partner Spotlight PA.
By Rebecca Moss of Spotlight PA
Winding through green forested hills, the road to Meadowbrook Mobile Home Park in York County is nestled with brown-paneled trailers and potholes half-filled with jagged concrete. Sue Ritter has lived here for more than 40 years, before the pipes began to break, leaving faucets dry for days and causing sewage backups to soak the floors. Several trailers, constructed with cheap material and wood additions, have caught fire in recent years.
When workers in large trucks began barreling down these roads in 2017, hollowing out part of the forest for Sunoco’s Mariner East pipeline project, it seemed like another nuisance the now 73-year-old had little choice but to accept.
The only indication Ritter said she was given about the pipeline — designed to carry highly volatile natural gas liquids — was the sound of construction groaning late into the night.
She said she had no idea the project was unlike any other in the region.
Should a leak occur, she did not know it would be odorless and appear as a fog or frost, causing pools of water to bubble in low-lying areas. She did not know that dried grass or dead animals found near the yellow marker poles could be a sign to evacuate. She did not know that, in an emergency, she should leave on foot because turning a car ignition could cause an explosion.
“I don’t remember seeing anything about what would happen in case of emergency,” she said, adding it’s a struggle for her to walk more than two blocks. “Where are you supposed to go? … My first instinct would be to get in the car.”
“We can’t even say ignorance is bliss.”
As the Mariner East pipelines become a permanent underpinning of Pennsylvania, many communities are still in the dark about what to do in the rare case of a serious accident. That’s in large part because pipeline operators have withheld critical safety information from the public with little oversight by the state, a Spotlight PA investigation has found.
About Mariner East
Three pipelines are part of the 350-mile Mariner East system, which runs across the lower half of Pennsylvania from Ohio and West Virginia to a storage and processing facility in Marcus Hook, just outside Philadelphia. The system includes an 8-inch pipeline, first built in the 1930s to transport products like heating oil, which has since been repurposed. Sunoco placed the Mariner East 1 pipeline back into service in 2014, and in 2017, began construction on the larger pipes — 16 and 20 inches in diameter. The company is temporarily using a “hybrid” structure — a combination of 12-inch, 16-inch, and 20-inch pipes — to run gas through Chester and Delaware Counties until the entire 20-inch line is complete. Read previous LebTown coverage here.
For decades, federal regulators have identified failures in public education as directly contributing to fatalities in natural gas liquids pipeline accidents. In separate incidents involving pipelines in Texas and Mississippi — operated by Koch Pipeline Co. and Dixie Pipeline Co., respectively — residents in 50 homes should have received informational mailers but did not, and four people burned to death, according to federal reports.
Sunoco and its parent company, Energy Transfer Partners, have withheld information in Pennsylvania in part by citing a state law enacted in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks intended to prevent key infrastructure, like water systems, from being compromised. But residents, school officials, and some local emergency planners said it is now preventing them from understanding the scope of harm associated with Mariner East and creating adequate response plans.
Court documents, county and state planning reports, hearing testimony, risk assessments, accident reports, and more than 80 interviews with residents, firefighters, school officials, emergency managers, and others reveal a fractured system of emergency preparedness with significant gaps in the knowledge residents and emergency responders have about the pipelines, the chemicals flowing through them, and what to do if something goes wrong.
Both state and federal regulators have criticized the company for not providing enough information to the public — and, at times, to first responders — about the potential hazards. As recently as June, a federal agency ordered Sunoco to change its public communications to better reflect the unique hazards of the Mariner East system.
A history violations
Sunoco’s Mariner East pipeline project has been marked by a litany of federal and state violations related to construction problems and environmental harm.
April 2017: A small hole in Mariner East 1 — an 8-inch pipeline constructed in the 1930s — leaks 840 gallons of natural gas liquids in Berks County. As part of a settlement with the state, Sunoco agrees to pay $200,000 and study the remaining viability of the pipeline.
May 2017: The state Department of Environmental Protection issues its first notices of violation against Sunoco for the Mariner East 2 construction project. As of August 2020, the agency has issued 115 notices of violation for breaching permits related to environmental degradation, soil disruption, and clean water, among other issues.
January 2018: The state orders Sunoco to temporarily suspend work on all pipeline construction following numerous violations.
March 2018: Deep sinkholes develop in the backyards of homes in the Lisa Drive neighborhood of West Whiteland Township in Chester County. The state temporarily shuts down the existing pipeline. The damage ultimately compels the company to buy the homes from landowners.
December 2018: The Chester County district attorney launches an investigation into the pipeline system.
January 2019: New sinkholes develop in the Lisa Drive neighborhood. The Public Utility Commission temporarily shuts down the pipeline.
March 2019: Attorney General Josh Shaprio and Delaware County’s district attorney announce a joint criminal investigation into the pipeline; a grand jury is empanelled.
May 2019: A federal regulator issues a notice of violation against Sunoco alleging the company failed to properly notify the public about the pipelines.
November 2019: An ongoing FBI investigation into the Wolf administration’s handling and permitting of the Mariner East pipeline project becomes public.
July and August 2020: Amid construction, new sinkholes emerge in Chester County, and the company releases 8,000 gallons of drilling fluid into Marsh Creek Lake. The state orders Sunoco to reroute part of the pipeline.
While there are other pipeline systems in Pennsylvania that carry natural gas liquids, Mariner East is by far the largest in scale. Stretching through 17 south-central Pennsylvania counties, the roughly 350-mile system pumps natural gas liquids from Ohio, West Virginia, and Southwestern Pennsylvania to a storage and processing facility just outside Philadelphia.
The chemicals are pushed through several lines at high pressure — thousands of times the force typically used to send gas to a kitchen stove — as they weave through suburban neighborhoods, rural farms, mobile-home parks, and alongside grocery stores, elementary schools, Little League fields, nursing homes, and places of worship. A Spotlight PA analysis of U.S. Census data found as many as 345,000 people live close enough to the Mariner East pipeline system that they could be affected by a leak or serious explosion.
Experts said the likelihood of a fatal accident is low. Residents near the line are more likely to die in a car crash or house fire. But the nature and amount of the chemicals running through these lines, and their proximity to some highly populated areas, pose a unique challenge for the state and those in charge of planning for a worst-case scenario.
When released, the dense liquid chemicals — which can include ethane, butane, and propane — expand rapidly into a highly combustive vapor cloud that hangs close to the ground rather than dispersing into the air, appearing as a fog or mist. Identifying a leak and predicting the path of the cloud, or telling people precisely how to escape it, can be very difficult, especially for children, the elderly, or people with disabilities.
If a large plume of the chemicals pooled and ignited, the resulting explosion would burn exceptionally hot in a fire that could last for hours, likely injuring or killing people through the force of the explosion or flames, and causing significant damage to structures.
“The products in the Mariner line being odorless, colorless, extremely flammable, and able to asphyxiate people — the last thing I want is a first responder or member of the community walking into [that],” said Tim Boyce, the emergency manager in Delaware County, where the Mariner East pipelines cut through a population of roughly 3,000 people per square mile.
As part of its investigation, Spotlight PA traveled the length of the pipelines to assess emergency preparedness in different communities, and find out how much people know about the chemicals, how to identify a problem, and how to get to safety.
Some, like Ritter, said they were not given information about Mariner East, though Sunoco said it sent brochures to her neighborhood. Those who did receive the mailers said they didn’t provide enough detail on how to react in an emergency.
Nursing home residents living feet from the pipeline route said they were unaware of how to evacuate. They worried many would be stuck if they could not use elevators or other transportation that might ignite the vapors. And some principals of the dozens of schools near Mariner East said they didn’t have enough information to guarantee children’s safety.
Residents along the route have been pressing first responders and emergency officials for answers, but they, too, have struggled to get information to put together a robust response plan.
There is no centralized, statewide blueprint for communities to follow. State emergency planning documents are vague, addressing the risks of pipelines in general, but not specifically accidents involving natural gas liquids. Officials in many areas said they were relying on existing “all hazards” emergency plans, which experts said do not account for the uniqueness of a potential accident.
Should one occur, the immediate responsibility would fall to local first responders, primarily volunteer fire departments that have been overburdened, understaffed, and poorly funded for decades, leaving little time for specialized training. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, these resources are even more taxed, and some local pipeline safety planning efforts have stalled.
Emergency managers and school officials attempting to draft more specific response plans said they have been stymied by Sunoco’s refusal to release certain information, such as the “blast radius” in the case of an explosion, or detailed evacuation plans. As a result, those officials and others along the pipeline route said they still cannot confidently answer one of the most pressing questions:
Are we prepared?
“If the public could get more of the baseline information I think we could move forward,” Boyce said. “They are banging their head on the wall to try to get an answer to what should be a simple question.
“You can’t just keep telling people, ‘It’s OK, don’t worry about it.’ We owe it to them to have thought this through beforehand.”
- Many residents who live near the Mariner East pipelines say they don’t know what to look for or how to escape safely should something go wrong. A fractured system of emergency preparedness, coupled with a state confidentiality law, has also left some first responders and community leaders without the information they need.
- Sunoco is supposed to provide nearby residents and local officials with information on how to recognize and respond to problems with the pipelines. But state and federal regulators say the company has at times failed to meet that basic obligation.
- A state law allows Sunoco and other utility companies to keep information about the potential consequences of a pipeline incident largely hidden from public view, with little state oversight or pushback.
- Residents have asked for a reliable reverse 911 system, alarms, and other public notice mechanisms to alert them of a pipeline incident, as well as designated evacuation locations. They also want Sunoco or the state to provide clearer information on hazards and ways to escape harm, and to fully account for people with disabilities.
- Experts say the state could require counties and townships with pipelines to create emergency plans that specifically address accidents involving natural gas liquids as well as create a more robust response framework for municipalities to follow.
- State lawmakers have introduced legislation to modify the confidentiality law and require companies to relay more information to emergency planners and schools, but these bills have languished with little action.
What is enough public information?
Federal law requires companies to provide emergency responders, local officials, and people who might be impacted by pipelines with information on their location and how to recognize and respond to problems. Sunoco said in a statement it fulfills that obligation without fail.
Based in Texas, Sunoco, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, is spending more than $5.1 billion on Mariner East, roughly $900,000 — or about .02% — of which has gone to local emergency responders for supplies and training through a grant program.
The company said it has employed more than 11,000 people to date in construction on the pipelines and at the Marcus Hook Industrial Complex. The pipeline enables continued fracking in Western Pennsylvania, Energy Transfer has said, and provides critical access to the port in Marcus Hook, where the liquids can be shipped overseas to make plastics and other products.
Every two years, Sunoco said it mails colorful brochures to residents along the Mariner East pipeline route. One features an illustration of a fuchsia-winged butterfly perched serenely on a small yellow flag indicating the pipeline infrastructure below the grass.
It includes emergency phone numbers and instructions that visual cues — such as ice, mist, or soil blowing on the ground — could indicate a leak, as could a “hissing” sound.
“Know, Recognize, Respond,” it says.
Sunoco has sent more than 324,000 public awareness brochures, the company said, and trained just over 2,000 first responders in Pennsylvania. Brochures are distributed to residents who live between 1,000 and 4,000 feet of the pipeline, according to the company.
Lisa Coleman, a spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners, said emergency response is ultimately not Sunoco’s responsibility. Planning for difficulties that could arise in evacuating children, the elderly, or people with disabilities is a local job, not a corporate one, she said.
The company’s role, Coleman said, “is to provide emergency response departments with the proper training and information that will allow them to develop these plans, which we have done.” Trainings include information about natural gas liquids, the location of pipeline infrastructure, and accident scenarios, she said.
Sunoco has provided detailed “facility response plans” to the state Public Utility Commission, which oversees pipeline safety. Parts of these documents — which should detail how a company would respond to and prevent various emergency situations, including possible threats and worst-case scenarios — are considered confidential and are not publicly available. Coleman said such secrecy is necessary, and does not impede safety efforts.
The commission also approved Sunoco’s plans for educating the public and training first responders, Coleman said. But because much of the plans are not made public, there is little independent scrutiny over whether they are adequate.
And there have been problems.
In late June, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said Energy Transfer, through Sunoco, violated public awareness requirements regarding Mariner East. Sunoco failed to consider the unique scope of harm posed by natural gas liquids when informing the public about risk, the agency said. It must also explain how it determined the potential impact of a pipeline accident, the order said.
The company did not contest the findings but said at a hearing this month it did not agree with the agency. Sunoco said it had already updated its plan — beginning in 2018, and with additional mailings last year — and does not intend to do anything further in response. An agency spokesperson said the case is still open.
“Sunoco’s Public Awareness Program should clearly state their buffer(s) and how they were determined and/or rational for selection,” Robert Burrough, director of the agency’s eastern region, wrote in an earlier violation notice. A buffer is another term for “blast radius,” or the area of harm should a pipeline rupture.
The agency also found the company did not distribute information to all “areas of consequence recognized in pertinent risk assessment reports” and neglected “to identify and educate the affected public whose safety could potentially be compromised” by a pipeline release.
Inadequate public information is also at the heart of a pending case, referred to as the “Safety Seven,” before the state Public Utility Commission. The case was brought by residents in Chester and Delaware Counties, and later joined by the counties, as well as several townships and school districts. They are asking for a better public safety plan, and argue the project should be shut down until this can be ensured.
The company in late July asked the Public Utility Commission to dismiss complaints related to safety and corrosion risk, alleging the Safety Seven parties had failed to prove the pipeline was unsafe within current regulatory and legal standards. Hearings in the case began Sept. 29.
Separately, an administrative law judge found problems late last year with Sunoco’s public awareness plan and emergency training efforts in Cumberland County, just west of Harrisburg. Sunoco said it had met its legal obligations and didn’t owe local governments additional outreach.
In September, the commission ordered the company to hold a meeting in the county to provide more information on pipeline safety, and noted other issues are pending as part of the Safety Seven case.
Past accidents show what can happen when public awareness efforts fall short.
In 1996, a teenager who lived at a home left off a pipeline mailing list, as well as her boyfriend, were killed while attempting to warn neighbors of a leak, according to a federal investigation and news reports. Not knowing it could be risky to operate a vehicle, they drove into a cloud of butane, igniting the invisible plume. A decade later, in Carmichael, Miss., 10 houses accidentally excluded from a pipeline company’s mailing list were among those most damaged when a line ruptured. Two people in those homes were killed.
Residents of Meadowbrook Mobile Home Park, in York County, many of whom live less than 100 feet from the pipeline, said they, too, have been overlooked. Sunoco said it sent mailers to the community in 2018, but a dozen residents there said they never saw them.
“Nobody really informed us or sent any letters,” Deborah Basham, 63, said standing outside her single-wide mobile home. “Nobody came and said anything. No, ‘If you see this or smell this in your water, please let us know.’”
Mike Cattuti is a volunteer firefighter and emergency management coordinator for Fairview Township, where Meadowbrook is located. He said if something goes wrong with Mariner East, the township would rely on the general training it has done to prepare for large incidents, like a potential nuclear accident at nearby Three Mile Island. The township doesn’t have a specific plan for natural gas liquids.
Cattuti said he was not aware residents at Meadowbrook said they had no information about Mariner East, or that they lived so close to it.
“If they see a problem in one area,” he said, “they are going to have to go the other way.”
But Tyler McClucas said the steep road to his home doesn’t offer that option.
“I don’t mind the pipeline,” McClucas said. “But at least give something of a warning so people know. … With how close it is to the trailer park, oh, these people could lose their houses. They didn’t say s— to us.”
The sole exit from the Meadowbrook community is a dirt road, forking precipitously at the bottom of a steep hill. In an emergency, the only way to leave would be downhill, into the area where leaking chemicals, which are heavier than air, would most likely pool.
On an early morning, sun-filtered mist clung in the air between bare-limbed trees in Christina Morley’s backyard.
“I once enjoyed looking out the window on a crisp morning like today & seeing fog rolling across the fences,” she wrote on Twitter. “Now I wonder is it fog or a vapor cloud …”
Mariner East lies roughly 700 feet from her back door in Chester County and has altered the fabric of her life. She combs the Department of Environmental Protection’s website regularly, reading about Sunoco’s permit violations, some occurring down the street from her home.
Morley no longer shops at the grocery store nearest to her house, because the pipelines run alongside it. And some nights, when she can’t sleep, she has stayed up listening online to the preserved 911 calls that rolled in when a pipeline explosion tore through San Bruno, Calif., in September 2010.
“I can feel heat from it. … We just ran out with what we had on. …Where the hell is the fire department?” panicked residents told fire dispatch when the explosion occurred.
There is a term for gradual environmental deterioration that turns into a disaster: slow violence. Those living most intimately with energy infrastructure are the first to see it, and their resilience is gradually worn away, Gwen Ottinger, a professor at Drexel University, said.
For Morley, and other residents statewide, a litany of incidents involving Mariner East construction has similarly exacerbated public concern and degraded the presumption of safety.
Since Sunoco began work on the Mariner East pipelines in 2014, it has been fined at least $15.9 million for more than 100 environmental and other violations, an analysis of state records shows.
Over the last two years alone, the state has cited the company for allowing drilling chemicals to rise to the soil surface in a dozen counties across the state, at times contaminating private water systems but failing to notify landowners for days, or the state as required. Ponds of murky liquid could be seen pooled outside one residential community, ringed with caution tape. Sinkholes, some 10 feet deep, have opened up dozens of times, as recently as August, forcing the company to buy condemned houses and reroute traffic.
After the company released 8,000 gallons of drilling fluid into Marsh Creek Lake during construction in August, the Department of Environmental Protection ordered Sunoco to halt construction and reroute part of the pipeline, saying the company had acted carelessly and “blatantly disregarded the citizens and resources” of Chester County.
The Clean Air Council said in early October that it intends to file suit against Sunoco alleging the company altered reporting practices this year and falsified information to minimize “potentially dangerous conditions,” including sinkholes and other ground movement, to avoid notifying the state and continue construction.
A spokesperson for Sunoco called the claims baseless, founded on “slanderous information” from a disgruntled employee.
Amid these environmental and public health concerns, the FBI is investigating whether Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration erred in issuing construction permits to Sunoco for the Mariner East project. And state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, in conjunction with the Delaware County district attorney, has convened a grand jury to investigate allegations of criminal misconduct involving the pipeline.
Unknown hazard zone
Determining actual danger is complicated. Risk assessments are often based on historical accident data involving natural gas liquids, not necessarily a company’s individual track record. But the fracking boom means more highly volatile chemicals are being transported in the United States and exported overseas. Over the last decade, the number of miles of pipeline in the United States shipping highly volatile liquids has increased nearly 25%, and the number of serious accidents has also steadily gone up, according to an analysis of federal data by the Pipeline Safety Trust.
If an accident were to occur, however, residents and emergency managers want to know how many people might be at risk and how to keep them safe. It’s a basic question, but because of a lack of public information, it’s a hard one to answer. And that makes preparing for an incident and properly informing those along the pipeline route difficult.
Sunoco and the state have declined to disclose the “blast radius” for the pipeline system to the public — the area in which people could be harmed if the pipeline were to rupture.
But other incidents with highly volatile liquids like the ones flowing through Mariner East have shattered windows hundreds of feet away, decimated nearby structures, injured 37 people and killed at least 11 from 2000 through 2019, according to federal data and incident reports. More than a thousand accidents have occurred in that same period.
Advocates and emergency planners in Pennsylvania have tried to piece together the puzzle. They have looked north to a smaller ethane pipeline in Canada, where Sunoco has estimated a blast radius at just under half a mile. (Energy Transfer said it would not apply a smaller pipeline’s measurements to the Mariner East network.)
An analysis funded by municipalities in Chester County found a hazard zone could extend at least 0.4 miles. Another, commissioned by Delaware County, found a flammable vapor cloud could extend 1.3 miles from a full breach of the pipeline.
Between 96,000 and 345,000 people live within this harm radius in Pennsylvania, according to a Spotlight PA analysis of U.S. Census data. Up to 340 schools, child care centers, places of worship, and mobile-home parks could also be impacted by a worst-case scenario involving Mariner East.
One expert on emergency response said there’s been “a bit of an overreaction” by the energy industry on what information is kept secret.
“You have security people who are in the mind-set that any information out there will be exploited for negative purposes when in reality having that information is useful for people to do emergency preparedness,” said Charles Jennings, director of the City University of New York’s Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies.
“If you tell people, ‘Yes, if this thing ignites there could be a fireball this diameter,’ certainly the companies don’t want to get anywhere near that and raise a lot of concern,” Jennings said. “But people should have some kind of informed risk that there is a pipeline where they live or where they work.”
But records from a case filed with the Public Utility Commission against Sunoco suggest even the commission did not have detailed information about the pipeline risk as recently as 2018, when chemicals were already flowing through part of the system.
That includes a lack of information about which residents were at risk and the size of a potential blast zone.
On Feb. 16, 2018, Paul Metro, the commission’s then-pipeline safety manager, wrote to Sunoco’s compliance specialist that the commission was reviewing the company’s emergency response plans and needed more information.
Metro asked for pipeline infrastructure maps, how long it would take to shut down the flow of chemicals in the pipeline, and modeling information about the “impact zone” of a pipeline accident. He also asked for a list of all schools, hospitals, and nursing homes in the impact zone, and how emergency responders had been trained.
The commission needed this information, Metro wrote, “due to the potential safety risks associated with” the Mariner East system.
Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, a spokesperson for the Public Utility Commission, declined to directly answer questions about this exchange, but said the state follows federal regulations for pipeline and public safety, and emergency response oversight. He did not say whether Sunoco had provided the information requested in Metro’s 2018 letter. Instead, he noted the commission began undertaking a rulemaking last year that will explore possible changes to the state’s safety regulations for pipelines. A draft has yet to be released.
“The Safety Division, along with the full Commission, have not hesitated to take action in [the] past to address public safety concerns related to pipelines and other utilities,” Hagen-Frederiksen said. “And will not hesitate to take action in the future, based on facts and evidence.”
In August 2019, Spotlight PA filed a public records request for emails in part related to Metro’s exchange, specifically about risk, impact zones, and emergency response plans. The Public Utility Commission denied the request, saying it was overly broad and would reveal confidential security information. The news organization appealed, and the state Office of Open Records ruled partially in its favor. Both the utility commission and Energy Transfer Partners have appealed the decision to Commonwealth Court seeking to block the release of any records.
A similar records request, made by Delaware County resident Eric Friedman, sought information about the pipeline “blast radius” and is also pending before Commonwealth Court.
Reached by phone on vacation in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Metro, who retired in August 2019, declined to comment on his former work or on safety planning involving Mariner East.
“I have nothing to talk about,” he said.
Confidential security information
Emilie Lonardi, superintendent of the Downingtown Area School District, first learned about a new pipeline already pumping volatile chemicals close to many of her schools in July 2017.
Five Downingtown district schools in Chester County, with more than 5,000 children between kindergarten and 12th grade, are within the county-estimated blast radius of the pipeline. At the time, there was no clear plan for how to evacuate them in an emergency, she said.
She wanted an early detection system that would tell school administrators that students needed to evacuate, before an accident was in full swing. But there wasn’t any such warning in place. She said Sunoco and the county told her conflicting information about whether it was safer to evacuate children on foot or to shelter in place, sealing off the school’s windows and doors from potential vapors.
In October 2018, Lonardi and two other school superintendents asked the Public Utility Commission a series of questions about how the state was ensuring the safety of the pipeline.
Metro, the former pipeline safety manager, advised the schools to have an emergency plan specific to natural gas liquids, writing, “I strongly urge that the above-mentioned schools actively partner with the county emergency manager to ensure that your ‘all hazards’ plan and evacuation plans are up to date and incorporate all pipeline hazards.”
In early 2019, the school district sent a list of 24 questions to Sunoco, asking for more information about Mariner East so it could plan accordingly. Nearly a third of the questions — about how the company identifies leaks, how long it would take Sunoco to respond to a leak or rupture near the schools, and the depth of the pipeline — went unanswered. The company said the district’s questions sought confidential information, “highly protected” under Pennsylvania state law.
“Parents ask me all the time, ‘Are my kids safe?’” Lonardi said at a pipeline-related hearing in October 2019. “I cannot look them in the eye and say with certainty the answer is yes.”
Sunoco said school officials could sign a nondisclosure agreement to get more information. But after consultation with county officials who had signed the agreement, they decided this “would be of limited use to the district,” a school spokesperson said.
“Because the information is confidential, it would not be possible to add to or update our emergency plans appropriately,” said Jennifer Shealy, director of communication for the district. “We would not be able to communicate procedures to our staff, nor run any type of emergency drills that would adequately prepare the district given a pipeline-related event.”
The law cited by Sunoco originated in the days and months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when state and federal authorities undertook efforts to protect critical utility infrastructure. That led to a nationwide clampdown on publicly available information about utilities.
Pennsylvania officials had already taken steps to secure energy infrastructure at the turn of the century, but the horror of that day sparked deeper concerns. Before the end of the year, a state House resolution directed the Public Utility Commission to study security policies and how they could be improved.
In 2006, Gov. Ed Rendell signed the Public Utility Confidential Security Information Disclosure Protection Act. It allows utilities and the state to keep “confidential security information” secret if, in a company’s estimation, it might be used for criminal or terrorist acts. Violating the law comes with criminal penalties and up to a $5,000 fine.
More than a decade later, however, Lonardi and others question the extent to which the law is being used to keep information secret, and who is watching out for abuse.
Critics of the law said it gives companies nearly unabated power to conceal information they don’t want in the public domain. It is reminiscent, some said, of the oil and gas industry’s efforts in Pennsylvania to prevent doctors from telling patients if their blood results showed signs of fracking exposure, known as the “medical gag rule.”
The law also precludes local, state, and federal emergency planning agencies from sharing with each other or the public any information marked confidential when trying to understand the risk of an accident. Even in an active emergency this information can’t be shared with other state agencies, the Public Utility Commission has said.
Former Chester County Commissioner Kathi Cozzone said communication between various levels of government, the company, and the public has been awful. Cozzone said it took months to obtain safety information from Sunoco, which at first provided the county with heavily redacted documents. More information was released only after county officials signed nondisclosure agreements, and the information is still incomplete, she said.
At a state House committee hearing in summer 2019, Metro acknowledged the act is restrictive and said the agency does not have the resources to check if utility companies are appropriately designating information as confidential. There have been instances where information was improperly sealed, he said.
State law requires the utility commission to track documents marked as confidential. But when asked by Spotlight PA how many documents have been deemed secret since the law was enacted, the commission said it would be too burdensome for the agency to find out, and would require someone to count the documents by hand.
In one case involving a small leak of the Mariner East pipeline, all technical records — thousands of documents — had been marked confidential by the utility.
Rep. Carolyn Comitta (D., Chester) has proposed repealing the law, though her bill has stalled in committee.
“The goal was not to prevent good people from sharing information and trying to keep people safe,” she said in an interview. “The goal was not to prevent agencies from sharing information.”
Legislation that would keep the law intact but allow the Public Utility Commission to share more information with counties, introduced by Sen. Tom Killion (R., Chester), is awaiting consideration in the Senate.
The utility commission stands by the law but has said it could be “modernized.” Seth Mendelsohn, executive director of the commission, said at a legislative hearing in August 2019 that maintaining cyber and physical utility security is more important than ever.
“We believe the repeal of the CSI Act will result in less protection against public disclosure … and increased risk to the public from persons or entities seeking to harm the commonwealth’s infrastructure,” Mendelson said.
He added it might also make utilities less willing to give the state their confidential records.
But across the country from Pennsylvania, in Washington state, better public disclosure has only improved preparedness, said Sean Mayo, the pipeline safety director for the state’s Utilities and Transportation Commission.
Pipeline companies there were required to share maps with first responders and improve emergency plans after a 1999 pipeline explosion killed two children and caused an 18-year-old to suffocate and drown. The legislature also directed the state to create specific training for hazardous liquid pipeline accidents, “so that the differences between pipelines may be recognized and appropriate accident responses provided.”
Mayo said his state’s improved pipeline safety record is due to increased reporting and inspection requirements that go well beyond federal law, as well as a “very robust” sunshine act. He said there was nothing in place that would block his commission from sharing sensitive information with local government or first responders.
“In general terms I am not forbidden from sharing potential consequences along a pipeline,” he said.
Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety expert and consultant, also based in Washington, said he has often seen state and federal confidentiality laws misapplied by utility companies to conceal information that should be public.
“There obviously is an issue here,” said Kuprewicz, who is representing a Chester County township as an expert in a pipeline safety case before the state. “There oughta be some appropriate balance where the need to keep things secret is valid, but the public is ensured that such a procedure is not abused — and that the public is given checks and balances.”
How we reported this story
To report this story, Spotlight PA investigative reporter Rebecca Moss spent a year chronicling one of the most controversial infrastructure projects in Pennsylvania’s history. Moss traveled the length of the Mariner East pipeline system in Pennsylvania, from the rural edge of Washington County to the industrial hub of the Marcus Hook facility in Delaware County. Along the route, she interviewed dozens of people whose homes, schools, and communities of worship were feet from the pipeline to learn about what they knew and how they had been informed — or not informed — about how to handle a potential emergency. In total, Moss conducted more than 80 interviews with residents, emergency response officials, lawmakers, educators, as well as experts in emergency management, law, energy, and disability rights. She also observed court and legislative hearings, and reviewed hundreds of pages of documents from case records, state violation records, planning documents, federal data, and incident reports.
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