Fight Against Mariner East and PennEast Pipelines Continue as Public Hearing Approaches

*Map courtesy of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection

Bethlehem is not immune to the trouble that plagues many communities in Pennsylvania: fracked gas pipelines. Here, Southsider takes a look at the ongoing fights against the Mariner East II and the PennEast pipeline, which highlight a common concern that unites Pennsylvanians across counties. This article will highlight the urgency of communities acting now to raise their voices against these projects, and feature some of the stories of everyday Pennsylvanians who have testified to the impacts of these pipelines. Southsider will then outline new projects appearing on the horizon that multiply the future impacts on our communities, and the ways you can have your voice and concerns about these projects heard now.

On November 16th, 2020, the #HaltMarinerNow movement hosted a Virtual People’s Hearing to record and make public the immense health, financial, and ecological impacts of the Mariner East II pipeline. The statewide coalition is calling for Governor Wolf to halt the project immediately, and one piece of their initiative was to record the testimony of individuals and families from Chester County, Delaware County, and Indiana County—to name a few—that have had their land and local wildlife habitats disrupted, their water polluted, their safety ignored, and their property rights trampled on.

Many community members on the webinar shared images of their contaminated water or destroyed landscapes. One family from Delaware County experienced a spill from the Mariner East II in 2019 that has left them without potable water for over a year, as their well was contaminated by an inadvertent return. There was also a 1992 rupture of Mariner East I on a neighboring property that impacted underground aquifers when the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) allowed Sunoco to drill through the old site of rupture. New efforts at drilling wells on this family’s property have left them with no viable wells and financially unable to keep attempting to find clean water to drink. The family has had to bathe, cook, and drink water from plastic water bottles for a year, and in the midst of the pandemic no less. This family’s story highlighted not only the very real risk of water contamination thanks to pipeline spills, but also revealed the ways in which the law protects energy companies over property holders, who have to “prove” contamination in order to receive compensation, a process that often costs families $50,000-100,000.

One woman in Chester County described a sense of loss when she described Marsh Creek Lake, where she had regularly kayaked before 8,000 gallons of drilling fluid was spilled from the Mariner East pipeline construction into the lake in August 2020, creating a 15-foot sinkhole. Not only did the spill mean that recreation was suspended at the park, but it also has the potential to smother aquatic life and poses threats to the safety of the drinking water used from Marsh Creek Lake. This community member also shared her daily safety concerns, as she lives within an evacuation zone for a pipeline that transports a highly flammable gas that is not detectable by taste or smell. She and her family likewise find themselves without information from Sunoco or the state on how to safely evacuate if a spill or explosion would occur. This community member’s fears are corroborated by the 2018 explosion in Center Township of Beaver County, where several acres of forest burned, a house burned down, and the explosion also took down 8 electrical grid towers. 

Construction of the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline in Lebanon, PA. Photo Credit: Rachel Rosenfeld, Sierra Club PA

These stories demonstrate how our PA neighbors live daily with the damage created by the Mariner East II pipeline. But the damage and dangers of pipelines are also relevant much closer to home. Northampton county faces the prospect of the PennEast Pipeline, which Southsider has previously written about in our article “Understanding the PennEast Pipeline.” Like all pipeline projects, the PennEast carries with it the potential for a whole host of damages that could impact waterways, farmland, private property, and recreation and land conservation in Northampton county. In the construction and maintenance of pipelines, spills of drilling fluid is considered normal, sinkholes are possible, and erosion and flooding can become more common. Drinking water will likely be contaminated, wetlands and waterways like Marsh Creek will be affected, and thus too, the health and flourishing of wildlife, fish, and endangered species are put at risk. For Northampton County, these risks run contrary to the high value our community puts on farmland, open space, and land conservation. Projects like the PennEast will significantly change the character of the Lehigh Valley. These impacts have precedent in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, as the stories of communities affected from the Mariner East II illustrate, but there are also specific and beloved landscapes and waterways that the PennEast will effect, and naming them here can illustrate more firmly the reality of the impact of the PennEast pipeline.

For example, according to representatives from the PA Sierra Club, 85% of the PennEast pipeline’s proposed route will fall within the Delaware River Watershed crossing about 255 water bodies, 88 waterways, 44 wetlands, and 30 parks. To name a few of the most known, the pipeline would impact the treasured Appalachian Trail, Lehigh River, Delaware River, and even the Monocacy Creek in Bethlehem Township. State parks like Hickory Run, Beltzville, and Weiser State Forest will be within the path of the pipeline and thus dramatically affected. The pipeline would likewise cross waterways and drinking water sources, like the Francis E. Walter Reservoir, the Susquehanna River, and Bethlehem Authority reservoir, where the city of Bethlehem attains its drinking water.

Lehigh County also faces a “Virtual” Pipeline that would further endanger our community, and add to our air pollution and truck traffic, already considerable issues in the Lehigh Valley. The Governors of Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania have recently voted to move ahead with the construction of a land-locked liquefaction facility in Wyalusing, PA, which will be the first of its kind and untested. Fracked gas will be liquified in this facility and then transported by trucks and trains across 200 miles of PA to an export facility in Gibbstown, NJ. Part of the truck transportation route would cut through Lehigh County, exposing our community to what is nicknamed as a “bomb train” because the liquified fracked gas being transported is highly flammable and incredibly difficult to extinguish once it is lit. New Fortress Energy LLC predicts that they would make up to 4 million gallons per day of liquified natural gas, which would equate to 350 tanker trucks filled with this gas passing through Lehigh County every day, with 350 empty trucks likewise returning. This proposed “virtual” pipeline would compound the safety and health risks associated with the building of the PennEast, and further impact the quality of life so prized in the Lehigh Valley.

But the proposed PennEast pipeline and the virtual pipeline are only in the beginning phases of implementation, and community members’ voices can still make a difference to halt these projects and the dangers and damage they promise to impose on our communities. We must learn from the stories of our fellow Pennsylvanians who are fighting the Mariner East II pipeline. There are two primary ways you can take action. First, you can sign a petition to stop PennEast that will be delivered to Governor Wolf and DEP by the comment deadline of January 20. More immediately, however, you can also sign up for the DEP public hearing on January 13th at 6 pm. If you wish to reserve a speaking slot, you will need to sign up at least 24hrs in advance. This public hearing will give community members concerned about the PennEast pipeline the opportunity to witness and testify to the impacts of the proposed “Phase 1” of the PennEast in Luzerne, Carbon and Northampton counties. Future public hearings will likewise contest Phase 2 of the PennEast.

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