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A delayed ignition event associated with a leak of highly volatile compounds from the Mariner East 2 pipeline anywhere in Delaware County would likely encompass “a large amount of people,” according to written testimony provided to the state Public Utility Commission by Delaware County Emergency Services Director Tim Boyce.

Boyce’s comments came as part of an ongoing formal complaint filed with the PUC by seven Delaware County residents in November 2018 against Sunoco Pipeline L.P. alleging the company failed to give the public adequate notice of procedures to follow in the event of a leak, as required by federal regulations.

A Sunoco spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment by press time Tuesday.

The Mariner East 2 is a 306-mile pipeline that will carry 275,000 barrels per day of primarily propane, butane and ethane once fully implemented. About 11.4 miles of the 20-inch natural gas liquid pipeline is in Delaware County, stretching down through Thornbury, Edgmont, Middletown, Aston, Chester Township and Upper Chichester before arriving at its destination in Marcus Hook.

Texas-based G2 Integrated Solutions, which performed a risk evaluation for Delaware County last year, found that individual fatality risk levels estimated for ME2 fall within a range of other common risk sources, such as a traffic accident, house fire, or fall down the stairs.

But Michael Bomstein, the attorney representing the Delaware County residents in the PUC complaint, said Tuesday that there is an important distinction between whether the event occurs and what would likely happen if it does occur.

Bomstein said his clients concede that the likelihood of injury from rupture might fall below something like an automobile accident, but there are hundreds of examples of leaks that range from a few gallons to an amount powerful enough to level a house.

“There are just a lot of instances that show we’re not nuts here,” he said. “If it happens to occur and you happen to be close, the outcome could be catastrophic.”

Bomstein said Sunoco has not adequately informed the public about the risks of things like burning and death with its “public awareness program” safety flyers, which advise the public to “leave the area immediately on foot” if they “suspect a leak.”

Boyce said in his testimony that that is not a plausible plan “for anyone, at any time,” regardless of weather conditions or time of day.

“They do not adequately inform the public of the true dangers of a possible Mariner East pipeline accident, including the likelihood of burns and fatalities prior to the time first responders could arrive,” said Boyce. “With respect to emergency communications, our emergency notification system is very good but it takes time to operate. By the time our first responders arrive at the scene of an accident, it could easily be the case that burns and fatalities already have occurred.”

State Sen. Tom Killion, R-9 of Middletown, also recently decried Sunoco’s failure to disclose information to emergency management officials in his own testimony for a separate case involving the PUC and Sunoco.

Killion noted Sunoco provided an emergency management plan to Chester County last year that was approximately 95 percent redacted, which he called “effectively worthless.”

He is the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 284, which would mandate that pipeline operators provide emergency response plans to PUC for sharing with county emergency services agencies in confidentiality in order to coordinate pipeline incident responses.

Boyce noted in his testimony that unlike methane released from a natural gas line, which is lighter than air and would quickly disperse, the products moving through ME2 are heavier than air and tend to concentrate near the ground. As they are released, they would form essentially a low-lying cloud that would flow downwind and downhill into low-lying areas.

Due to their highly volatile nature, Boyce said the materials would continue to escape from the impacted pipeline segment until all of the material in the failed segment is released, even after emergency shutoff valves had been activated elsewhere.

“The cloud can move and flow along the ground for long distances while remaining in the combustible range,” said Boyce in his comments. “Any ignition source, of which there are many in densely populated Delaware County, can ignite the entire cloud and flash back to the point of release. An ignition event can occur explosively and with lethal overpressure, for which buildings do not provide protection. An unignited vapor cloud presents an extreme hazard to life and property for anyone in or near it.”

George Alexander, spokesman for Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety, told the PUC in May that this flammable cloud could be over a mile long and half a mile wide, as confirmed by the Delaware County risk assessment.

“The population density, combined with the size of the flammable cloud that would be produced, creates the potential for hundreds of buildings to be set on fire simultaneously and thousands of casualties, if the pipeline should rupture,” said Alexander. “There are no credible emergency response plans for such a situation.”

Under U.S. Census data, Delaware County has a population greater than 564,000 with an average density of more than 3,000 people per square mile. The county also has population densities in areas like schools, apartment complexes and nursing homes, Boyce said.

In the event of a large, unignited vapor cloud, Boyce said the public in harm’s way is its own “first responder.”

“The only option for them is on-foot, self-evacuation, in the correct direction, assuming they are able to do so,” he said. “I am confident that a large release of HVLs in Delaware County will find an ignition source, so any such self-evacuation must be rapid to have any hope of success.”

But rapid evacuation of a hospital or nursing home without injury or death is simply unrealistic even in the absence of a rupture, Boyce said, and those able-bodied members of the public who are able to flee on foot would not have any indication of which way to go or when they might be out of harm’s way without a portable combustible vapor detector.

“Most members of the public don’t see on-foot self-evacuation as something they can realistically accomplish, especially at night or during inclement weather,” said Boyce. “I believe people who are capable of doing so will run away from a fire. But it is virtually impossible for the public to accurately assess the size, shape, and extreme hazard associated with an unignited combustible vapor cloud.”

This article originally ran on delcotimes.com.

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