The Safety 7 unites against Sunoco’s highly volatile pipeline

By Dylan Francis

The Safety 7 with their lawyer Michael Bomstein in February. Rosemary Fuller stands second to last on right. Photo by Dylan Francis

“A lovely young woman showed up at our door one day,” said Rosemary Fuller, a resident of  Middletown Township, Delaware County, who lives on Valley Road. “We invited her in and she told us that Sunoco was interested in purchasing an easement of the first few feet of our property. My husband Gordon and I told her that we would need to think about it.”

What the female Sunoco representative said next stunned Fuller and her husband. “By asking you, we’re really just being good neighbors,” the woman said. “If you don’t sign, we’ll use eminent domain and take the land anyway. Plus, there’s absolutely no risk; you won’t even know that we’re here.” 

This was Fuller’s introduction to Sunoco’s 20-inch Mariner East II and 16-inch Mariner East IIX natural gas liquid (NGL) pipelines soon to be installed in her front yard. Sunoco’s status as a public utility allowed them to take the Fuller property in exchange for financial compensation. 

A drone shot of the Mariner East II construction in Sleighton Park, Delaware County in 2019. Photo submitted anonymously

Now, four years later, Fuller is involved in two separate legal battles with Sunoco due to current and potential damages from the pipeline. 

The pipeline

Both MEII pipelines, as well as the adjacent ME1 and GRE are now technically owned by Energy Transfer Partners, a parent company of Sonoco. 

The MEII project will run from Eastern Ohio to Marcus hook, Delaware County, mostly following the 1930’s MEI easement. 

The MEI used to carry gasoline West, but has since been refitted and had its flow reversed to carry NGL’s to the Marcus Hook processing facility. Sonoco announced in 2019 a $200 million upgrade to the plants NGL processing facility in preparation for the completion of the MEII project. 

The 20-inch MEII is excepted to transfer 275,000 barrels per day when complete.

Living in a blast zone

The Fullers, who moved from the United Kingdom, have been in their home on Valley Road since 2003. They live nine miles from DCCC and six miles from the town center of Media. Their home now lies within the blast zone of four natural gas liquid pipelines: The GRE, The ME1, The MEII, And the MEIIX.

Two independent risk assessments state that the product running through the pipes is very dangerous, and considered a highly volatile liquid.

As construction on the new pipes began in 2016, Fuller started hearing reports of sinkholes appearing and wells being polluted in association with horizontal directional drilling, or HDD, which is part of the process of pipeline installation. 

A sinkhole along the horizontal directional drilling of the Mariner East II near the state police barracks in Middletown township, Delaware County, 2019. Photo submitted anonymously

Eventually, she came to learn that the GRE, a 1937 gasoline pipeline, which was refitted in 2017, was now carrying NGL just in front of her property on the shoulder of Valley Road, adjacent to where the MEII and the MEIIX were to be installed. She also learned of the ME1 lines’ recent conversion, which lies 1100 feet behind her.   

Eric Friedman, who also lives on the pipeline’s right of way, exercised his Right-To-Know (a law concerning public information and hazardous materials,) and found that in Sunoco’s hazard assessments, they reported “the potential for mass causalities within a half mile of the pipeline in the case of a terrorist attack.”      

The Safety 7

Fuller began her activism in 2017, not long after she and six other Delaware and Chester County residents affected by the pipeline decided to form what they call the Safety 7.

The Safety 7 are currently in a lawsuit with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission to stop the construction of the pipeline until there is a viable safety plan in action in case of an emergency. 

The current emergency protocol in Sunoco’s 2016 brochure “Important Safety Message For Your Neighbor” advises residents to “Leave the area by foot immediately. Try to direct any other bystanders to leave the area. Attempt to stay upwind.”   

“Have you never put your finger in your mouth then held it up into the air?” asked a Sunoco attorney during the pre-hearing of the Safety 7 case in 2019, when someone inquired how to determine which way the wind was blowing. 

Meanwhile, a risk assessment done by G2 Integrated Solutions reported that an explosive vapor cloud could travel up to 6,800 feet from the pipeline in the event of a leak.

Any ordinary vehicle, such as a car, is capable of igniting such a vapor cloud. 

Poisoned well water 

In early July, 2019, Fuller’s daughter, Stephanie, was hospitalized for gastrointestinal distress. Shortly after, two Sunoco contracted laboratories, which tested the Fuller’s well water, declared their well polluted with the following contaminates: bentonite, quartz, feldspar, chlorite group, E-coli and fecal coliform.

There is one substance in the well water Sunoco has yet to identify, according to Fuller. 

Sunoco now supplies the Fuller home with bottled water. Nevertheless, Fuller believes Sunoco is still in violation of the DEP permit conditions (Ch.102 and 105) which state that the issue is supposed to be resolved “to the satisfaction of the landowner.” 

According to Fuller, Sunoco has offered to connect the Fuller residence to the public water supply; however, Fuller, through legal action, is asking for a reverse-osmosis water filtration system to be installed in her home and to be connected to the public sewer, so that her septic tank isn’t overburdened by the large amount of water used in the reverse osmosis process. The water purification method forces water through a semipermeable membrane, filtering all contaminates.

Fuller also knows that Aqua Pennsylvania, the public water provider, states in their 2018 Main Source Report: “The sources of drinking water (tap water and bottled water) include rivers, lakes, streams, ponds, reservoirs, springs, and wells. As water travels over the surface of the land or through the ground, it dissolves naturally occurring minerals and radioactive material, and can pick up substances resulting from the presence of animals or from human activity.” 

The report also recommends that people who may be immunocompromised speak to their doctor about their source of water, as they could be more susceptible to water born illness. 

Therefore, Fuller said she is fighting for this because of multiple family members being immunocompromised. 

Sinkholes and other risks

Several sinkholes have appeared along the HDD sights in Delaware County. One of these was less than a quarter mile from Fuller’s front door, on the intersection of Valley and Forge Roads.

Past the intersection lies Sleighton Park, a place where Fuller used to walk her dogs, and where the MEII installment is currently underway. The construction zone boasts high walls, private security, loud machinery, and large amounts of industrial bentonite clay. A children’s playground and soccer field can be seen in the background, well within the potential blast radius.

Middletown township received 1.8 million for the pipeline easements, which have an entry/exit point in the park. 

The issue of pipelines, pollution, and taken land is not unique to Fuller’s family and her neighbors in Middletown township. 

According to the United States Energy Information Administration, there are about 3 million miles of natural gas pipeline and approximately 219,000 miles of highly volatile liquid pipeline across the United States. The MEII project alone crosses 17 Pennsylvania counties. 

Since the year 2000, there have been 734 combined documented pipeline incidents across the United States, resulting in 282 deaths and 1193 injuries.

In 2010, a liquid natural gas pipeline owned by PG&E exploded in San Bruno, Calif., killing eight people and injuring many others. A vehicle drove into the vapor cloud released by the leaking pipe, causing ignition.

Natural gas liquids

The U.S. Energy Information Administration explains that natural gas liquids contain a variety of hydrocarbons including ethane, butane, propane, isobutane, and pentane. Their most common uses are plastic creation, inputs for petrochemical plants, burning for heat or cooking, or for blending into vehicle fuel. 

Highly volatile liquids are defined by the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration as “a hazardous liquid which will form a vapor cloud when released into the atmosphere.” 

To be considered an HVL, the product must also be of a certain pressure within the pipeline. The vapor cloud released in the case of a leak is heavier than air and concentrates on the ground, instead of evaporating. It can spread over a mile and be triggered to ignite, as is what happened in the San Bruno incident. 

Natural gas liquids are a product of the controversial natural gas extraction method of fracking. Fracking uses a combination of water, sand, and chemicals pumped at high pressure into the earth to break up rock and sediment and release natural gas and NGLs from subterranean fissures. 

The gas and liquid are then extracted. Cooling natural gas to around -260 F will turn it into liquid natural gas, which is about 600 times more dense than the original natural gas, making it highly explosive.

In the case of the MEII and adjacent pipelines, the product is being extracted from the Marcellus Shale in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. From there it is transported via pipelines to Marcus Hook, where it is processed and sold. 

While some of the product is sold domestically, much is exported to Europe for plastic production. 

Eminent domain 

The origin of “eminent domain” is in the 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states, “…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” 

But the powers of eminent domain were expanded in 2005 following the Kelo vs. The City of New London case, wherein the Supreme Court ruled that taken land can be allocated for private use. 

The power of eminent domain is given to agencies or businesses granted the status of “public utility,” defined as “a businesses that provide the public with necessities, such as water, electricity, natural gas, and telephone and telegraph communication,”  according to West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2.

But many in opposition to the pipeline’s use of eminent domain claim that the export of much of the product to Europe, resulting in private financial gain, causes the company to be in violation of the public utility criteria “benefit to the public” which states: “The utility must use the eminent domain power to provide necessary services to its utility customers, not to advance its private business interests.”

Seeking justice      

Sunoco is currently under investigation in Chester County by D.A. Tom Hogan for having hired armed security who falsely claimed to be local law enforcement and for the development of sinkholes which are considered a form of “public endangerment.” 

Meanwhile, Fuller and the Safety 7 had a July court date scheduled in Harrisburg, which was originally planned to take up to 14 days, but this has been postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Safety 7 are being represented by local attorney Michael Bomstein at no charge. 

“I was never in this to make money,” Bomstein said. “I think we could really make a difference here. It’s just the right thing to do.”

Delaware County residents protest the pipeline due to the appearance of sinkholes in 2019. Photo courtesy of Rosemary Fuller

There are numerous organizations and people, including local schools, Middletown Township, and other activists like Eric Friedman supporting the Safety 7 and acting as occasional intervenors in the court case. 

Today, Fuller is also working closely with journalists and local organizations to tell the story of her community.

“The Safety 7 are working to protect our families and defend our homes,” Fuller said. “As these pipelines push in, people’s wells become compromised, their property values plummet and they become stuck living in a blast zone.”

Contact Dylan Francis at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu

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