The Sunoco Logistics Mariner East 2 pipeline is a 300 mile long high pressure pipeline that will transport ‘natural gas liquids” across the state of Pennsylvania. This 12 inch in diameter pipe will carry 275,000 barrels of petrochemicals — including propane and butane — from feeder lines in western Pa., to the Marcus Hook facility in the southeastern corner of the state. The route of the Mariner East 2 pipeline completely bisects the southern half of the state, cutting through 17 counties and crossing numerous suburban areas.
While passing through Delaware County, the Mariner 2 pipeline cuts through the small suburb of Media, Pa. (pop. 5,327 as of 2010 census), passing by its Glenwood Elementary School. The school’s playground is a scant 650 feet away from one of the pipeline’s valve stations, and the classrooms are only slightly farther away.
This decision to route a high pressure pipeline next to a school has forced the school district to put into place disaster response drills. In addition to the standard fire drills that every school must deal with, Glenwood Elementary is now conducting pipeline rupture drills, where all students are taught how to (hopefully) avoid harm in case of a chemical spill or explosion.
These drills have two forms — sheltering and evacuation. A shelter drill requires students to leave their classes and congregate in the auditorium, where they will shelter in place until the threat has passed. Similarly, an evacuation drill involves the entire school quickly (3 minutes is the goal) and orderly getting into the busses and driving to a safe distance in case of an explosion or catastrophic leak.
These drills are not simply examples of parents and teachers being paranoid. According to a risk assessment for the project, a full rupture of this pipeline could result in a 1,800 foot fireball enveloping the area around the leak (the “incineration zone”) in as little as three minutes in a worst case scenario. Anybody left in this area would be immediately killed, while people on the edges could suffer a variety of injuries, ranging from amputations to blindness and severe burns.
It may be hard to conceptualize what a pipeline rupture explosion actually looks like. Here is a picture from a 2009 pipeline rupture in Moscow — this was a 16 inch pipe instead of a 12 inch, but the difference in explosive capacity isn’t all that significant.
Look at the size of the buildings in relation to the fireball … then imagine that fireball next to a small suburban elementary school and consider the level of greed that would be necessary for a human being to consider such an incident an “acceptable risk.”
America has let its need for natural gas create a set of extremely perverse priorities. We tolerate the massive risks produced by pipelines and continue to elect politicians who take money from the extraction industry. The risks of transporting these dangerous chemicals are offloaded on the American public, while the gains are privatized to the extraction companies. As a kicker, humanity as a whole also ends up paying a price for this arrangement, as the chemicals that are being transported are eventually burned and end up contributing to global climate change.
The Glenwood Elementary school is just one example of a sensitive area next to a pipeline that could rupture at any time. The United States is absolutely spider-webbed with pipelines, many of which have even greater capacities for destruction than the one in this case.
While the most spectacular failures of these pipelines result in explosions, the more common type of leak is slow and results in toxic chemicals being leached into the surrounding area. This is also the case with the Mariner East 2 pipeline, and there is a significant risk that it starts leaking sometime during its lifetime, slowly filling the area around Glenwood Elementary (or any locale it passes by) with toxic petrochemicals that people absorb into their bodies.
In totality, this situation represents an astonishing lack of care and a serious flaw in the priorities of those making these decisions. The short-term gains for a few private interests are being put over the long-term health of those living in these areas, and there is little chance of interceding — the pipeline is built and the school is just trying to best adapt to its terrifying new reality.