Population density maps: Lessons on where NOT to put a pipeline
By George Alexander, Guest Author
Census maps tell the story
FracTracker Alliance recently created a set of maps showing population variation along the route of the Mariner East 2 Pipeline, which I refer to as the “Dragonpipe.” FracTracker’s maps dramatically reveal a route that runs through many centers of dense population, and seems to avoid relatively nearby areas with far lower population density. The maps are based on US Census 2010 block-level data.
The take-away lesson from these maps is this: Sunoco has put the Dragonpipe in a very bad location.
As an example, here is a map of the pipeline route as it passes through Berks, Chester, and Delaware counties in Pennsylvania:
The dark brown areas in the map above denote the most densely populated locations, displayed as the number of people per square mile. The lighter the color, the lower the population density. The black line is the pipeline route.
In the upper left-hand part of the map, note that the route passes through the suburbs of Reading, in Berks County. Further south in the same map, notice how it passes directly through population centers in Chester and Delaware counties.
Let’s examine this pattern more closely.
Why was this route chosen in the first place?
For Sunoco’s convenience
In many areas, from a standpoint of impacts on local communities, the pipeline route is actually the worst possible track that Sunoco could have chosen; it puts more people at risk than any other path, given the same starting- and endpoints. Why in the world did they choose this route?
The answer is this: for Sunoco’s corporate convenience. The Dragonpipe, for most of its length, runs side-by-side Mariner East 1 (ME1), an existing 80+ year-old pipeline designed to carry gasoline and heating oil to customers in the central and western parts of Pennsylvania. From this standpoint, the location of the old pipeline makes sense; it had to be sited near populated areas. That’s where the customers for gasoline and heating oil were located back in the 1930s.
However, the flip-side of Sunoco’s corporate convenience may also mean unnecessary risks to tens of thousands of Pennsylvania residents.
The old pipeline connected the centers of population in the 1930s, areas that are now much more populous when they were nearly ninety years ago. In the southeastern part of Pennsylvania, the character of the area has also changed dramatically. When the original pipeline was built, the landscape along ME1’s route through Delaware and Chester counties was predominantly farmland. Today, that area has changed to densely-settled suburbs, with homes, schools, businesses, hospitals, and shopping centers directly adjacent to the pipeline’s right-of-way.
The Exton area provides a prime example of how this transition to suburbia has set the stage for potential disaster along the pipeline route. The following image shows a detailed view of the population density near Exton. As you can see, the pipeline route sticks to high-density areas (shown in dark brown) the entire way, even though lower-density options (shown in orange and yellow) exist nearby.
Sunoco — like any corporation — has a moral obligation to conduct its business in a safe manner. This includes choosing a safe route for a pipeline that has inherent dangers and risks. However, Sunoco apparently did not choose to do so. Moreover, by law, Sunoco has an obligation to make human safety paramount. In the settlement Sunoco reached last August with Clean Air Council, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and Mountain Watershed Association, Sunoco agreed to consider alternative routing for the pipeline in this area. Then, despite their promises, Sunoco simply bypassed that part of the agreement. Rather than explore alternatives to the proposed route, Sunoco dismissed the alternatives as “not practicable” because they did not involve the right-of-way that was already in use for Mariner East 1.
Sunoco seemed to have made their sole priority in considering a pipeline route whether the company has an existing pipeline there already. A better route would reduce by hundreds the number of people who could be killed or injured if there were a leak and explosion.
Pipelines can and do leak. Mariner East 1, in its short career as a pipeline carrying NGLs, has already leaked several times. It is just good luck that the leaks were stopped before any product ignited. (See most recent report of ME1 and ME2 issues.) The Atex pipeline, a pipeline of similar size and content that runs down to the Gulf Coast, ruptured and exploded near Follansbee, WV, in just its second year of operation. And there’s no reason to believe such an incident would never happen with the Dragonpipe.
Sunoco has an obligation to do what it can to minimize the injuries, death, and destruction caused by an event like the Follansbee explosion. The Follansbee incident occurred in a forested area. The explosion destroyed several acres of trees, but no-one was killed. The result would have been far different if had the explosion been in a densely populated area.
Just as the maps above show how the Philadelphia suburbs and those of Reading are threatened, other FracTracker maps show the threats to suburbs of Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, below. Click to expand.
A call for change
Indeed, across the state, the Dragonpipe route gets dangerously and notably close to population centers. Such a path may be a convenient and financially beneficial option for Sunoco, but it is an unacceptable risk for Pennsylvania’s citizens to bear.
About the Author: George Alexander publishes the Dragonpipe Diary (www.dragonpipediary.com), covering all aspects the Mariner East pipeline project, including technology, risks, legal issues, economics, and the people and groups involved. He recently retired from a career in journalism and marketing.
An earlier version of this essay was published in Mr. Alexander’s blog, Dragonpipe Diary, on June 29, 2018.