Population density map of ME2 pipeline (aka Dragonpipe)

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:

Figure 1. Population density in southeastern Pennsylvania. Map courtesy of FracTracker Alliance. Location annotations added by G. Alexander.

Figure 1. Population density in southeastern Pennsylvania. Map courtesy of FracTracker Alliance. Location annotations added by G. Alexander.

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.

Figure 2. Population density in Exton area. Map courtesy of FracTracker Alliance. Location annotations added by G. Alexander.

Figure 2. Population density in Exton area. Map courtesy of FracTracker Alliance. Location annotations added by G. Alexander.

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 leak

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 (, 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.


For schools and hospitals analysis, 2017

How close are schools and hospitals to drilling activity in West Virginia and Ohio?

A review of WV and OH drilling activity and its proximity to schools and medical facilities

Schools and hospitals represent places where vulnerable populations may be put at risk if they are located close to oil and gas activity. Piggybacking on some elegant work from PennEnvironment (2013) and Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers (PSE) Healthy Energy (PDF) in Pennsylvania, below is an in-depth look at the proximity of unconventional oil and gas (O&G) activity to schools and hospitals in Ohio and West Virginia.

Ohio Schools and Medical Facilities

In Ohio, presently there are 13 schools or medical facilities within a half-mile of a Utica and/or Class II injection well and an additional 344 within 2 miles (Table 1 and map below). This number increases to 1,221 schools or medical facilities when you consider those within four miles of O&G related activity.

Map of OH Drilling and Disposal Activity Near Schools, Medical Facilities

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work
Explore the data used to make this map in the “Data Downloads” section at the end of this article.

Table 1. Number of OH schools and hospitals within certain distances from Utica wells

Utica Class II Injection
Well Distance (Miles) Schools Medical Facilities Schools Medical Facilities
0.5 3 1 9 0
0.5-1 19 (22) 9 (10) 16 (25) 13 (13)
1-2 79 (101)  41 (51) 88 (113) 79 (92)
2-3 84 (185) 49 (100) 165 (278) 122 (214)
3-4 85 (270) 79 (179) 168 (446) 112 (326)
4-5 92 (362) 63 (242) 196 (642) 166 (492)
5-10 388 (750) 338 (580) 796 (1,438) 584 (1,076)

Ohio’s rate of Utica lateral permitting has jumped from an average of 39 per month all-time to 66 per month in the last year. OH’s drilling activity has also begun to spread to outlying counties[1]. As such, we thought a proactive analysis should include a broader geographic area, which is why we quantified the number of schools and medical facilities within 5 and 10 miles of Utica and Class II activity (Figures 1 and 2). To this end we found that ≥50% of Ohio’s schools, both public and private, are within 10 miles of this industry. Similarly 50% of the state’s medical facilities are within 10 miles of Utica permits or Class II wells.

Footnote 1: Eleven counties in Ohio are currently home to >10 Utica permits, while 23 are home to at least 1 Utica permit.

Figures 1, 2a, 2b (above). Click to expand.

Grade Level Comparisons

With respect to grade level, the majority of the schools in question are elementary schools, with 40-50 elementary schools within 2-5 miles of Ohio Utica wells. This number spikes to 216 elementary schools within ten miles of Utica permits along with an additional 153 middle or high Schools (Figure 3). Naturally, public schools constitute most of the aforementioned schools; there are approximately 75 within five miles of Utica permits and 284 within ten miles of Utica activity (Figure 4).

Figures 3 and 4 (above). Click to expand.

Public Schools in Ohio

We also found that ~4% of Ohio’s public school students attend a school within 2 miles of the state’s Utica and/or Class II Injection wells (i.e., 76,955 students) (Table 2). An additional 315,362 students or 16% of the total public school student population, live within five miles of O&G activity.

Table 2. Number of students in OH’s public schools within certain distances from Utica and Class II Injection wells

Utica Class II Injection
Well Distance (Miles) # Schools # Students Avg # Schools # Students Avg
0.5 3 1,360 453 7 3,312 473
<1 21 7,910 377 19 7,984 420
<2 96 35,390 376 90 41,565 462
<3 169 67,713 401 215 104,752 487
<4 241 97,448 404 350 176,067 503
<5 317 137,911 435 505 254,406 504
<10 600 280,330 467 1,126 569,343 506

(Note: Ohio’s population currently stands at 11.59 million people; 2,007,667 total students).

The broadest extent of our study indicates that 42% of Ohio students attend school within ten miles of a Utica or Class II Injection well (Figure 5). As the Ohio Utica region expands from the original 11 county core to include upwards of 23-25 counties, we expect these 5-10 mile zones to be more indicative of the type of student-Utica Shale interaction we can expect to see in the near future.

Photos of drilling activity near schools, and Figure 5 (above). Click to expand.

Private Schools in Ohio

At the present time, less than one percent of Ohio’s private school students attend a school within 2 miles of Utica and/or Class II Injection wells (specifically, 208 students). An additional 11,873 students or 11% of the total student population live within five miles. When you broaden the extent, 26% of Ohio’s private primary and secondary school students attend school daily within ten miles of a Utica or Class II Injection well. Additionally, the average size of schools in the immediate vicinity of Utica production and waste activity ranges between 11 and 21 students, while those within 2-10 miles is 112-159 students. Explore Table 3 for more details.

Table 3. Number of students in Ohio’s private schools within certain distances from Utica and Class II Injection.

Utica Class II Injection
Distance from Well (Miles) # Schools # Students Avg # Schools # Students Avg
0.5 . . . 1 . .
<1 . . . 2 25 13
<2 2 22 11 9 186 21
<3 7 874 125 30 4,460 149
<4 12 1,912 159 45 6,303 140
<5 21 2,471 118 61 9,610 158
<10 60 6,727 112 135 20,836 154

West Virginia Schools and Students

Twenty-eight percent (81,979) of West Virginia’s primary and secondary school students travel to a school every day that is within two miles of the state’s Marcellus and/or Class II Injection wells.

Map of WV Marcellus Activity and Schools

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work
Explore the data used to make this map in the “Data Downloads” section at the end of this article.

Compared with Ohio, 5,024 more WV students live near this industry (Table 4). An additional 97,114 students, or 34% of the West Virginia student population, live within 5 miles of O&G related wells. The broadest extent of our study indicates that more than 90% of West Virginia students attend school daily within 10 miles of a Marcellus and/or Class II Injection well.


Figure 6. West Virginia primary and secondary schools, Marcellus Shale wells, and Class II Injection wells (Note: Schools that have not reported enrollment figures to the WV Department of Education are highlighted in blue). Click image to expand.

It is worth noting that 248 private schools of 959 total schools do not report attendance to the West Virginia Department of Education, which means there are potentially an additional 69-77,000 students in private/parochial or vocational technology institutions unaccounted for in this analysis (Figure 6). Finally, we were not able to perform an analysis of West Virginia’s medical facility inventory relative to Marcellus activity because the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources admittedly did not have an analogous, or remotely complete, list of their facilities. The WV DHHR was only able to provide a list of Medicaid providers and the only list we were able to find was not verifiable and was limited to hospitals only.

Table 4. Number of students in WV schools within certain distances from Shale and Class II Injection wells

Marcellus Class II Injection
Distance from Well (Miles) # Sum Avg # Sum Avg
0.5 19 5,674 299 1 . .
<1 52 (71) 16,992 (22,666) 319 5 (6) 1,544 257
<2 169 (240) 52,737 (75,403) 314 16 (22) 5,032 (6,576) 299
<3 133 (373) 36,112 (111,515) 299 18 (40) 6,132 (12,708) 318
<4 88 (461) 25,037 (136,552) 296 21 (61) 5,235 (17,943) 294
<5 56 (517) 15,685 (152,237) 295 26 (87) 8,913 (26,856) 309
<10 118 (635) 37,131 (189,368) 298 228 (315) 69,339 (96,195) 305
Note: West Virginia population currently stands at 1.85 million people; 289,700 total students with 248 private schools of 959 total schools not reporting attendance, which means there are likely an additional 69-77,000 students in Private/Parochial or Vocational Technology institutions unaccounted for in this analysis.


A Trump White House will likely mean an expansion of unconventional oil and gas activity and concomitant changes in fracking waste production, transport, and disposal. As such, it seems likely that more complex and broad issues related to watershed security and/or resilience, as well as related environmental concerns, will be disproportionately forced on Central Appalachian communities throughout Ohio and West Virginia.

Will young and vulnerable populations be monitored, protected, and educated or will a Pruitt-lead EPA pursue more laissez-faire tactics with respect to environmental monitoring? Stay Tuned!

Analysis Methods

The radii we used to conduct this assessment ranged between ≤ 0.5 and 5-10 miles from a Utica or Marcellus lateral. This range is larger than the aforementioned studies. The point of using larger radii was to attempt to determine how many schools and students, as well as medical facilities, may find themselves in a more concentrated shale activity zone due to increased permitting. Another important, related issue is the fact that shale O&G exploration is proving to be more diffuse, with the industry exploring the fringes of the Utica and Marcellus shale plays. An additional difference between our analysis and that of PennEnvironment and PSE Healthy Energy is that we looked at identical radii around each state’s Class II Injection well inventory. We included these wells given the safety concerns regarding:

  1. their role in induced seismicity,
  2. potential water and air quality issues, and
  3. concomitant increases in truck volumes and speeds.

Data Downloads for Maps Above

By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Nearly 2 Million Pennsylvanians Live Within a Kilometer of Oil & Gas Wells

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology

In October 2014, the FracTracker Alliance performed an analysis showing an estimated 1.2 million people lived within a half mile of oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. We have now updated the analysis, but this time, the unit of measure is one kilometer (0.62 miles).

PA Population Within 1km of Active Oil and Gas Wells

This map shows the estimated population within one kilometer of active oil and gas wells in PA – a total of nearly 2 million Pennsylvanians. To access the full set of tools and details about how the map was made, click here for the full screen version of the map.


To get as complete a picture as possible of the oil and gas industry in PA, we queried the spud date report to show all wells that were listed as being spudded between January 1, 1800 and November 12, 2015. We used the former date because it appears to be a default for unknown spud dates, and the latter being the date that the data were downloaded for the analysis. Altogether, this yielded 203,887 oil and gas wells throughout the state, but 74,900 (37%) of these lacked location coordinates. All of those missing latitude and longitude data were classified as conventional wells, and many of them were fairly old. We then filtered out wells that were reported as not being drilled, as well as those that were permanently plugged, either by the operator, or by the PA Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP). The resulting set, which we refer to as “active” oil and gas wells, included 106,970 wells, of which 9,042 (8%) are defined as unconventional wells by the state.

To obtain an estimated population, we used the Census Tract level of detail, using official 2010 population figures. We calculated the area within 1 kilometer of active wells in three categories – conventional, unconventional, and all oil and gas wells. The population was then estimated by comparing the area inside the 1 km zone to the entire Census Tract, multiplying that ratio to the population of that tract, and repeating the process for each of the three datasets.

This area calculation was performed in Albers Equal Area projection optimized for the Great Lakes Basin area.  Every method of flattening an area of a globe on the map will lead to some type of distortion, but this projection prioritizes area over other factors, and is therefore appropriate for this type of analysis.


An additional year of drilling activity, a more comprehensive date range, and the slight increase of the radius distance has had a significant effect on the estimated population near wells. The 2014 analysis yielded an estimated 1,264,576 within a half-mile of wells, while the current analysis has the figure at 1,965,837, an increase of 55%. Below is a table showing differences between the two analyses:


This chart shows summaries of the current analysis of population within 1 km of wells in PA and an October 2014 version, showing population within a half-mile of wells.

One thing you will notice in this figure is that simply adding up the number of people who live in areas near unconventional and conventional drilling will not get you to the 1,965,837 figure we’ve presented. This is because some people live within the specified distance of both types of wells.

Additionally, it is impossible to say how many people live near the oil and gas wells that lack location data, as we obviously can’t map these wells. The majority of these wells may be in the areas that are already represented in the buffer zones, or they may extend that distance significantly.

Hydraulic fracturing, stimulations, & oil & gas drilling unjustly burden Hispanic & non-white students

By Kyle Ferrar, CA Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

As my first year in The Bay Area of California comes to a conclusion and the summer once again turns into fall I realize how much more this time of year meant for me living on the east coast. For us lucky ducks living in the Bay Area, fall is perpetual. With the California drought seasons blur together, but back home in Pennsylvania and New York, fall marks a much appreciated relief from 90°F+ days. Regardless of where you live certain fall activities are universal, including hockey, postseason baseball, football, and most importantly for kids – going back to school.

In California alone, almost 6.24 million students from kindergarten to 12th grade are enrolled and attend classes at one of the 10,366 state “campuses.” State-recognized schools range in size from under a dozen students to a maximum 2013/2014 enrollment of 5,229. When so many children are together in one space, they share much more than just the scholarship, social development, and the occasional but inevitable flu virus. They share the same environmental media (air, water, soil) and are therefore exposed to the same environmental contaminants.

To understand who among this vulnerable population is subject to potential health impacts, the FracTracker Alliance has put together a report analyzing the demographic characteristics of schools located near oil and gas extraction activity. An interactive map of the data that was analyzed is shown below, as are the points of the report. The full report can be found here:

 Disproportionate Burdens for Hispanic and Non-White Students in California

and here in Spanish:

Las Estimulaciones por Fracturación Hidráulica y la Perforación Petrolífera Cerca de las Escuelas y dentro de los Distritos Escolares de California son una Carga Desproporcionada para los Estudiantes Hispanos y Estudiantes No Blancos.

Fracked well near elementary school

Sequoia Elementary School located in Shafter, CA.

In the background, less than 1,200 feet from the school is
an oil well (API 403043765) that was hydraulically fractured.

Key Findings of School Analysis:

  • There are 485 active/new oil and gas wells within 1 mile of a school and 177 active/new oil and gas wells within 0.5 miles of a school.
  • There are 352,784 students who attend school within 1 mile of an oil or gas well, and 121,903 student who attend school within 0.5 miles of an oil or gas well.
  • There are 78 stimulated wells drilled within 1 mile of a school and 14 stimulated wells drilled within 0.5 miles of a school.
  • There are 61,612 students who attend school within 1 mile of a stimulated oil or gas well, and 12,362 students who attend school within 0.5 miles of a stimulated oil or gas well.
  • School Districts with greater Hispanic and non-white student enrollment are more likely to contain more oil and gas drilling and stimulation.
  • Schools campuses with greater Hispanic and non-white student enrollment are more likely to be closer to more oil and gas drilling and stimulation.
  • Students attending school within 1 mile of oil and gas wells are predominantly non-white (79.6%), and 60.3% are Hispanic.
  • The top 11 school districts with the highest well counts are located the San Joaquin Valley with 10 districts in Kern County and the other just north of Kern in Fresno County.
  • The two districts with the highest well counts are in Kern County; Taft Union High School District, host to 33,155 oil and gas wells, and Kern Union High School District, host to 19,800 oil and gas wells.
  • Of the schools with the most wells within a 1 mile radius, 8/10 are located in Los Angeles County.

Report Map

The interactive map below allows the user to compare the demographical profiles of school districts with oil and gas drilling and stimulation activity. Non-white enrollment percentages of school districts are displayed in shades of blue. Overlaid with red are the relative counts of stimulated and/or non-stimulated oil and gas wells. The highest counts of wells are hosted in school districts located in the Central (San Joaquin) Valley and along California’s south coast. Geologically, these areas lay above the Monterey Shale – the 50 million year sedimentary basin producing California’s oil reserves.

Conventional and unconventional wells in PA

Over 1.2 Million Pennsylvanians Within 1/2 Mile of a Well

Aging well in McKean County, PA. Source:

One of the potentially troubling aspects of oil and gas development is that there are usually people who live in the vicinity of the wells. Pennsylvania now has over 8,000 active unconventional wells; there are any number of issues that can occur with these modern, industrial-scale sites, including road degradation, contaminated water, and health impacts, among others. In addition, there are over 93,000 of the smaller, conventional wells in operation throughout the Commonwealth. While these garner far less attention than their unconventional counterparts, they are also prone to producing similar impacts, not to mention that since many of them are older wells, they not only have potentially been subject to deterioration and occasional neglect, but were constructed during a period with less stringent requirements than are currently expected.

Petroleum engineers are now capable of drilling horizontally for tens of thousands of feet. For the most part, however, this technology is employed to maximize production, rather than to ameliorate impacts on people who live near the product. But who are these people? To help to answer this question, the FracTracker Alliance calculated the number of people living in a half-mile radius around active wells in the state.

More than 1.2 million Pennsylvanians live within the impact area.

Of the 93,754 wells that have been drilled in the state since 1950 that have not yet been plugged, the Pennsylvania DEP only has location data for 79,118 of them. All but one of the 14,636 missing locations are for wells that are categorized as Conventional. While one must presume that there is some overlap in coverage within the half-mile zone, the extent of this region – and therefore the population that lives within it – cannot be determined.

Fig. 1. PA Populations Near Oil and Gas Wells. Click here to access written description and additional map tools.

To maximize the reliability of our calculations, this map was created using a custom Albers equal-area projection centered on Pennsylvania. A half-mile buffer around each well type was created, and the resulting layer was clipped to Census tract data. The ratio of the smaller clipped area to the full Census tract area was calculated, and that ratio was then multiplied by the population totals from the 2010 Census to obtain our population estimates of the half-mile zone. The area in the study area is larger than six states, while the calculated population is larger than that of eight states.

Of the 79,118 active oil and gas wells in PA for which location data are available, we determined the area and estimated the population within a half mile radius. Note that some regions are with a half-mile of both conventional and unconventional wells.

Fig. 2. Number of people in PA near oil and gas wells (79,118 active wells for which location data are available). Note that some regions are with a half-mile of both conventional and unconventional wells.

The county most impacted, in terms of area, for unconventional wells is Bradford, with 353 square miles (See Figure 2). Washington County had the most people living in the zone, however, with 20,566. For conventional wells, the drilling landscape is the largest in Indiana County, affecting 761 square miles, while Erie County has the most people in the half-mile zone, with 212,900. When considering all wells together, the numbers are almost identical to conventional wells. Indiana County leads with 762 square miles, while the drill zone in Erie County represents 211,903 people, or 76% of the county’s population in 2010.