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Just after 7:30 in the morning, a great rumbling sound reverberated through the rural hamlet of North Blenheim, N.Y. The ground shook. Then, what appeared to be a dense, white fog billowed into the air and descended on the small village below.
Seven minutes later, as a resident described the strange mist to a pipeline emergency operator, the line disconnected. The vapor cloud of liquid propane had ignited, engulfing half of North Blenheim in a fireball, with flames reaching up to 60 feet into the sky, like a geyser.
A school bus had passed through the apparent fog just minutes before, leaving its windshield slick but undamaged. Several elderly men fled uphill using a cane and crutches. The assistant fire chief was standing on the road, amid the plume, warning residents to evacuate when the explosion occurred and engulfed him. Robert Hitchcock and another man died from the burns.
The town still commemorates March 13, 1990, the day the pipeline exploded.
LISTEN to Rebecca Moss discuss her reporting with The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple
While severe accidents involving natural gas liquids pipelines are rare, they can pose a complex and deadly threat. A serious leak or rupture can turn into a massive explosion in minutes, not hours. Since the chemicals are usually odorless, colorless, and are heavier than air, they pool in low-lying areas, making it hard to identify the danger and evacuate.
That’s why many emergency managers and public safety experts contend natural gas liquids systems require specialized emergency planning, with blueprints for how all people can get to safety. But a Spotlight PA investigation found Pennsylvania falls well short of the mark.
As many as 345,000 people potentially live within harm’s way of Sunoco’s Mariner East pipelines, a more than $5.1 billion project to ferry natural gas liquids across the southern half of Pennsylvania from west to east. But a patchwork system of preparedness across all levels of government has left many unsure of what to do and in immediate danger should an accident occur. Plans largely fail to account for people with disabilities, the elderly, the ill, and children.
Nearly 14% of Pennsylvania’s 12 million residents are classified as disabled, among the highest percentages in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The state also has the one of the highest percentages of people over 65.
Among state, county, and local officials, there is broad disagreement about what information is needed and how much planning should be done to prepare for a natural gas liquids disaster. Pennsylvania emergency planners have considered the broad strokes of accidents involving fire and explosions, but rarely the specific harm involving a pipeline system like Mariner East.
Four years ago, a task force convened by Gov. Tom Wolf recommended, in part, that the state develop standardized pipeline emergency response plans, but that has not happened.
Sunoco advises the public to self-evacuate on foot, which does not account for vulnerable populations who need assistance. Pennsylvania’s more than 800-page emergency plan mentions people with disabilities twice, saying there is information for them and the elderly online.
Experts said failing to meaningfully consider vulnerable people is a violation of disability rights laws, and could leave governments or school districts liable.
“That is why we pay taxes,” said Sharona Hoffman, a professor at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Law in Ohio, who has written extensively about the regulatory and legal frameworks of emergency planning and vulnerable populations. “It is up to the governments, the experts, people who have legal authority to respond to these situations.”
“You don’t want to be litigating over dead people, and nobody, in the midst of an emergency, is going to be thinking about that,” Hoffman said. “You want that to have the correct plans and to be reacting appropriately.”
In response to this investigation, Sunoco said it follows all state and federal requirements, and has gone above and beyond many recommendations, in addition to training local emergency responders, awarding grants, and distributing safety brochures. Ultimately it is up to local townships and counties to develop emergency plans, not the company, it said.
“Regardless of the type of incident — house fire, flood, pipeline, or other — first responders are trained how to help people with different circumstances,” said Lisa Coleman, a spokesperson for Energy Transfer, Sunoco’s parent company.
Similarly, state officials said focused planning for people with disabilities is primarily the responsibility of local agencies, many of which are small towns or volunteer fire departments with limited resources to respond to a major accident, much less account for all of those involved. There is no oversight to determine if those local agencies are properly prepared, and across the state, more than 100 municipal emergency coordinator positions are vacant. Many local agencies, in turn, said they would need county and state help for large accidents.
Ultimately, Spotlight PA’s investigation found, much of Pennsylvania’s plan for preparedness is one of passing the buck.
The first reports of an odor came in around 9 a.m. on Veterans Day last year. A nauseating, suffocating smell — gas or diesel or fuel — so thick it seemed to coat the tongue. By noon, there were more than 40 reports, but if one of the numerous industrial facilities in Marcus Hook had released the petroleum-like product, they weren’t telling.
Standing on the narrow shoulder of a busy overpass near the Delaware River, Delaware County emergency manager Tim Boyce was chasing a ghost.
“If it was leaking from the pipeline,” Boyce said of Mariner East, “there is no doubt it is going to go off.”
But when would be the right moment to sound the alarm? For months, he had worked to better understand how his team could plan for and respond to a natural gas liquids pipeline leak, in which there might be no smell and few visual cues of what was happening.
“I just watched three times that story of the Camp Fire in California … to the point I’m thinking of calling up and saying, ‘Can I meet with you guys?’” said Boyce, referring to the 2018 fire that killed dozens of people. “They were stuck with that: When do you panic, when do you [not], when do you issue the order. [There was] just absolutely no means to get people out. … They couldn’t alert the whole community. People with disabilities …”
He trailed off.
State law requires Pennsylvania to plan for and minimize the harm of likely hazards that could cause death or property damage. That includes identifying particularly vulnerable areas.
The state used to consider specific threat scenarios of potential disasters. Then, in 2003, two years after failing to meet federal standards, the state moved to adopt an “all-hazards” approach. The idea was that by building an underlying ability to handle general problems, like increasingly severe fires or storms, response teams would be better prepared for any incident.
Pennsylvania’s hazard mitigation plan provides a framework meant to assist county and local emergency planning. In 2018, for the first time and well after parts of Mariner East were already in operation, it acknowledged pipelines among the possible threats facing the state.
Those guidelines mention, but do not account for, the specific dangers associated with natural gas liquids. The plan estimates the range of harm below what independent experts and company reports indicate could result from a Mariner East rupture.
“We don’t necessarily need to know all of the specifics,” Randy Padfield, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, said in an interview.
Padfield said an overall understanding of the consequences related to hazardous materials incidents, like a train derailment, is sufficient. He said confidentiality provisions, which have prevented state and local agencies from accessing sensitive Sunoco documents about Mariner East, are unlikely to impede their work because they don’t need that level of detail.
Sunoco’s own training plan is centered on a roughly two-hour course that emphasizes an all-hazards philosophy.
“What we try to get across or emphasize to the student is it doesn’t matter what the products are that are involved, or its container,” Greg Noll, a hazardous response expert and contractor for Sunoco who has led Mariner East first-responder training, said at a recent hearing. “Here’s a process that can be applied across the board for a myriad of emergencies, not just looking at pipeline incidents.”
But when a state endorses general planning, it can minimize the potential harm of natural gas liquids and the need for more specialized training, said Richard Kuprewicz, a Washington state-based pipeline safety expert.
General hazardous materials, or “hazmat,” training does not cover what a first responder needs to know to be safe when highly volatile liquids are involved, Kuprewicz said. If first responders don’t have enough information, it could expose them to danger.
“The hazmat is a check,” Kuprewicz said. “It creates this illusion you are really trained to handle all of this material. This is a fallacy.”
A lack of practical training and planning contributed to the deaths of 12 first responders during a chemical explosion in West Texas in 2013. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board found the volunteer fire department did not have the resources to train for the unique chemical hazards at the plant.
In general, the state’s approach has influenced how most counties have prepared.
Some county emergency planners told Spotlight PA they had all the information needed to plan for a natural gas liquids pipeline emergency, and they touted a good relationship with Sunoco. Others said they didn’t need more information for Mariner East than for other pipeline or energy-related emergencies, because they used the all-hazards framework.
The “chances of something going awry with an underground pipe are very, very slim. If something goes wrong, you go out and assess the scene,” said Jeffrey Yates, director of public safety in Washington County. “You can’t sit there and plan for every potential scenario. You have to know what actions to take in any event.”
Bill James, deputy director of the York County Office of Emergency Management, said his county uses a hazardous materials response plan to cover all types of incidents. The hazmat team attends an annual pipeline training but has never had to request additional information from Sunoco.
“You can’t plan on every single thing that could happen,” James said. “We have a basic framework.”
Boyce, in Delaware County, disagrees with this approach and said the complexity of a natural gas liquids incident requires more targeted planning. The version of Sunoco’s contingency plan he reviewed without signing a nondisclosure agreement — and most all-hazards plans — doesn’t account for how to evacuate and keep people safe in the first 15 to 30 minutes after an incident. It could take the company and other agencies more time than that to respond, Boyce said.
“It doesn’t tell you, ‘Here is the secret to evacuate the school.’ It’s not there,” he said.
Boyce said he struggles to explain to first responders that there is a significant difference between the conventional oil and gas accidents they have been trained for, like oil spills — which cause slower environmental destruction but not necessarily an immediate explosion — and accidents involving highly volatile liquids.
“Some people [have] been slow to realize the product is different,” he said. “The challenge isn’t going to be an environmental remediation. It is going to be an immediate public-at-risk issue. When you are talking about [highly volatile liquids], you are talking about lives potentially lost.”
In 2015, the governor convened a task force to address the implications of Pennsylvania’s significantly increasing pipeline infrastructure. The following year, the group made numerous recommendations, including for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Environmental Protection to draw up standardized pipeline emergency response plans for use across the state. But to date, there are no such plans.
Delaware County is in the process of developing specialized emergency guidelines to account for the distinct hazard of the chemicals. Boyce still hopes the legislature will make this a requirement statewide, rather than the patchwork approach of leaving life-and-death safety decisions in the hands of every individual county.
‘Fire and EMS are in a crisis’
If the worst were to happen, it would be under-resourced, overburdened, and primarily volunteer local fire departments that would be called on to respond first. In the commonwealth, the smallest level of government holds the primary responsibility in an accident. Pennsylvania is heavily dependent on volunteer fire departments, more so than all but two other states. Yet staffing has declined drastically, from roughly 300,000 in the 1970s to just 38,000 in 2018.
Several fire departments told Spotlight PA the number of volunteers was below what was needed, and just a fraction of people are properly trained or available to respond to the majority of calls. Many volunteers simply don’t have time for specialized pipeline training outside their day jobs.
Pennsylvania lacks data to assess the quality of training and whether preparedness efforts are adequate. The state and many counties do not track whether municipalities or local first responders are undergoing the training needed to respond to local disasters. There is no state or national standardized training requirement for volunteer fire companies.
“Fire and EMS are in a crisis — right now,” the chairmen of the state Senate and House Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness committees wrote in a 2018 report.
Tim Butters, acting administrator for the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration under President Barack Obama, said he made efforts at the agency to put more emphasis on emergency response, in part because he was once a firefighter himself.
“One of the things I observed was a lot of emergency responders were not aware of the pipeline infrastructure in their own community,” Butters said.
The state fire commissioner, Bruce Trego, said at a legislative budget hearing in February that more training, and improving access to it, is among the highest priorities for the state.
Sunoco has given a handful of local fire departments money through donations and grants — totaling $900,000 from 2016 to May 2020 — to replace expired equipment, purchase handheld gas meters, or to pay for specialized training programs.
Townships and state representatives have also secured money for some firehouses to do out-of-state pipeline training and, in one case, help pay for a new fire truck.
“We are dealing with a large number of municipal governments that don’t really have the resources at the local level to do what they need to do,” said Thomas Stutzman, director of emergency management for Indiana County.
“We are trying to fill that void” at the county level, he said, “but because we are not mandated to do things, we can only do so much.”
Stutzman said this has left several municipal emergency planning documents out of date or incomplete, a problem other counties also identified. At least 106 municipal emergency coordinator positions — the person in charge of handling accident response at the local level — are vacant statewide.
Inconsistent access to information, and the inability to share documents between agencies because of confidentiality laws, puts the responsibility to get data for planning on the shoulders of each individual township or fire station. Officials in some areas have been fighting Sunoco for years for more safety details, while others said they didn’t need anything outside the public domain.
Don Thoma, the volunteer fire chief for the last 40 years in Adamsburg, Westmoreland County, said Sunoco has been great about answering his calls and providing annual training, which it does statewide for affected counties.
Thoma said he appreciates that the company provides his team information he otherwise might not get from higher levels of state or municipal government. He even called the state Public Utility Commission to tell it how impressed he was by Sunoco.
“We have far more calls for accidents, medical calls, so, quite frankly, every day is getting trained for those,” he said. “But it is not that we take training for these pipelines lightly.”
He said he knows better than to take on too much in a serious emergency. His role is to isolate the incident, evacuate people, and call the pipeline company and the hazmat team for help.
“I’m not going to say that we are well-equipped to handle that emergency, but we know better than to try to do things that we are not supposed to,” Thoma said. “If you only have once-in-your-lifetime issues, we can’t be trained for that.”
“And I gotta tell ya,” he said, “if anybody tells you they are ready for the incident, so to speak, they are not.”
Despite the difficulty of planning for every possible scenario, legal experts and disability rights advocates said governments are obligated to account for people with disabilities. Major cities, as well as school districts and private companies, have been sued and required to reshape plans after failing to live up to that responsibility.
“It is not sufficient for a city to say, ‘Well, in an emergency we have to do so much on the fly, we cannot plan ahead.’ … You can’t say people with disabilities have to plan for themselves,” said Adrien Weibgen, a racial justice policy advocate in New York City who examined the questions of emergency planning and disaster while at Yale Law School. “Cities and states should not be waiting around to be sued and then waiting around for a court to tell them what to do.”
The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency website includes a section for people with disabilities and the elderly, giving instructions for how individuals should build support systems to help if disaster strikes and make their own emergency plans. This fails to consider the many people who may be on their own, or lack personal resources.
For individuals with intellectual disabilities and autism, the majority of planning falls on a family, but the state does outreach to try to help with planning, Kristin Ahrens, deputy secretary for the Office of Developmental Programs, said. She created a position for an emergency coordinator focused on intellectual disability for the first time in 2019, which she said has been crucial during the coronavirus pandemic. Pipelines have yet to rise to that level of concern.
State officials said they instead provide a framework for disability planning and outreach, with the details and implementation left up to local governments. There is no oversight by the state to check whether local officials properly account for vulnerable people in their planning.
In 2017, the state launched a disability task force to consider the needs of different populations that might not have access to emergency services. Its work has included connecting county officials with local stakeholders, providing translation services for press releases, and making coronavirus quarantine shelters accessible to people with physical limitations. County and local officials are invited to attend these meetings, but it is not required.
In a disaster, roughly 40 state workers are trained to help people with disabilities, officials said.
“I know nothing about pipelines, literally nothing,” said Christine Heyser, the mass care coordinator for the state Department of Human Services, who plays the lead role in coordinating sheltering, feeding, and disability needs in an emergency. “Our disaster planning is meant to be all hazards. We plan to be able to respond to any incident, any size, anywhere.”
“You don’t want to spend time planning for an incident that is unlikely to occur even if it is going to be high impact,” she said, pointing to the coronavirus pandemic and school shutdowns as beyond the scope of what the state or nation could have anticipated.
Still, most government entities “do not do a good enough job of taking the need of vulnerable populations into account,” said Hoffman, the law professor at Case Western Reserve University. “We see that with COVID-19 where we have had outbreaks in prisons, in long-term care facilities. That is all quite predictable.”
Courts have found approaches like Pennsylvania’s to be inadequate.
In separate cases brought against the cities of Los Angeles and New York, plaintiffs argued the cities’ emergency plans had failed to account for the needs of people with disabilities as required by provisions for access to public services under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. In both instances, judges found the cities’ preparedness efforts were inadequate.
The city “has deprived people with disabilities of what they are entitled to under the law, not to mention the peace of mind that people without disabilities can have when it comes to the city’s preparedness plans,” a New York judge ruled.
Several Pennsylvania counties have software that allows residents to register information about their medical needs online, which is then available to first responders. But county emergency managers said there are significant problems with online registries. People frequently move, and because the registries are voluntary, it doesn’t give first responders a complete picture of who might need extra help. They are also rarely used in actual emergencies, disability experts said.
Robert Greer, the director of health-care services at Wellington at Hershey’s Mill, a large senior and assisted living community that abuts Mariner East, said the facility has a robust emergency plan that accounts for everything from hurricanes to terrorists, but it still relies largely on the assumption first responders will ultimately tell them what to do, or rescue their residents.
Greer said they have worked with Sunoco and the township, but the training has been more general, for the type of hazmat incident involving a train wreck. If there was a pipeline incident in their area, they would most likely keep the residents inside and try to move them to the highest floor, he said.
Then, he said, the emergency response teams for the township or county would come in and take over.
Jeff Marx, an engineer with Quest Consultants, which was commissioned by residents and townships in Chester and Delaware Counties to develop a risk assessment study for Mariner East, said the assisted living facility might not have that much time. Pipeline accidents involving natural gas liquids “happen very quickly and expand to their maximum size within just a few minutes, and it is not possible for responders to even reach the site within that timeline,” Marx said.
“It is an unfortunate reality that that is the way things are,” he said.
Several Wellington residents said they had no idea the pipelines posed any risk.
“We have people who are not too mobile,” Pat Moran, 88, said.
She and her friends said many residents on the second floor would be stranded if the elevators stopped operating. Moran shook her head when asked what the community would do if there was a pipeline emergency. “No plan, not that I know of,” she said.
Mark Evanoka, 71, was napping in the early afternoon on a cool Thursday in November, recovering from open-heart surgery. His home is perched halfway up a steep hill in Washington County, surrounded by bright grassy slopes, farmland, and pipelines. Sunoco’s pipeline markers run two feet from the invisible line that divides his property from his neighbor’s.
Should something have happened that day, he would have struggled to get away.
“We are in Marcellus Shale central here,” Evanoka said, pointing from his front porch at the wells and pipeline markers in nearly every direction. “I mean you’ll hear about [an explosion] or you won’t,” he said. “If it’s that big of an explosion, maybe you’ll never hear it.”
His wife keeps a small informational magnet from Sunoco on the fridge, but otherwise he said there has been “no notice about any operating characteristic or what it carries, how much of it, [or] when.”
“Nothing, nothing,” he said.
“Course, I’m not the paranoid sort either,” he added. In Washington County, he said, “it’s pretty much normalcy.”
Other residents living as near to the pipelines as Evanoka share the reality of not being able to evacuate in the event of an accident because of an injury or disability.
Christi Marshall moved to Hershey’s Mill retirement community in Chester County several years ago to live down the street from her sister, Laura Lee Hervey. In 1986, a reckless driver crashed into a van Hervey was riding in, and the 23-year-old was thrown through a window.
For the last 34 years, Hervey, who now has soft white curls, has lived with partial use of one of her arms, and without the use of her other arm or her legs. Marshall serves as Hervey’s legal guardian, ensuring her sister has access to 24/7 nursing care — and an emergency plan that takes into account the nearby Mariner East pipelines.
Realistically, it could take an hour to evacuate Hervey: moving her from the bed to a wheelchair, collecting medicine and an oxygen tank, and getting her to safety.
As her sister’s guardian, Marshall has a legal obligation to plan for emergencies, and Mariner East has forced some difficult decisions. Marshall has nurses who have agreed to stay to help her sister evacuate. And Marshall has promised she would leave her husband, Jeremiah, who has Parkinson’s disease, behind at their home if Hervey needs help first.
“It was Sophie’s Choice: either my husband or my sister,” she said. “And I am legally obligated.”
Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/the Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for a free weekly newsletter.