WATCHDOG REPORT: Canfield fire chief, officials discuss concerns over plans to build school near ethane pipeline
There's a pipeline that's been running through parts of the Valley for eight years, but now some parents and residents in Canfield are now sharing their concerns about the pipeline after Canfield Local School District's announcement to build its new K-8 school compound on a property that contains an eight-inch Highly Volatile Liquid (HVL) pipeline.
The transmission line runs across the former 300-acre Red Gate Farm at the corner of Leffingwell and Palmyra Roads, which was annexed into the city of Canfield in 2017. This location for the proposed school site was recently announced as part of a development agreement that provided the district with 100 acres for the new school compound.
The concern from residents is based on what flows through the pipeline – ethane – a colorless, odorless gas that is used in the making of plastics. According to the Chemical Safety Information from the World Health Organization, ethane is listed as a highly volatile liquid and an extremely flammable gas, which if released, can displace oxygen, can produce a vapor cloud, and large fireball combustion. Ethane is listed as a hazardous substance by the U.S. Department of Transportation, American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, and National Fire Protection Association, which rates substances as fire and/or explosive hazards.
The pipeline is part of the Mariner West pipeline, a 400-mile ethane pipeline that starts near Pittsburgh and runs through part of Columbiana County and across Mahoning County and continues on to Ontario.
In February, the Canfield Local School District shared its vision for the location of the K-8 compound with the public, which shows the proposed building approximately 200 feet from the existing Mariner West pipeline.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the Mariner West pipeline was the very first pipeline to move ethane in the U.S. The pipeline was commissioned in December 2013 and was placed in an existing easement across the Valley that was granted to the Sun Oil Co. in 1930.
The Mariner West ethane pipeline has been operational in the Valley since 2014. The HVL pipeline runs next to the Mahoning County Courthouse #2 on Market St. in Boardman Township, and continues west between Green Bay Drive and Forest-Garden Drive. The pipeline is operated by Sunoco Pipeline L.P., a subsidiary of Energy Transfer out of Texas.
On April 5, Canfield Fire Chief Don Hutchinson sent a letter to Canfield Local Schools Superintendent Joe Knoll, after speaking with the US. Department of Transportation, the federal agency that regulates pipelines in the U.S. In the letter, Hutchinson wrote “my review of the regulations suggest that placement of the school and related facilities would be in a 'high consequence area' and … “The proposed placement of the school facilities has raised a significant safety concern for me, as it should for the school administration.”
According to Chief Hutchinson, he has been speaking with the operator of the ethane pipeline that runs through Canfield and the township and said an immediate evacuation for “an isolated leak is 330 feet in all directions” would be needed, which coincides with the DOT Office of Pipeline Safety distance for High Consequence Areas, based on product and size piping and the pounds per square inch for 300 feet.
Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts, Inc. out of Redmond, WA., specializes in investigations on pipelines for safety, construction, and risk management, recommends an evacuation radius of at least a half-mile, or 2,640 feet if a vapor cloud were to form from a leak, crack or rupture. Kuprewicz said an 8-inch ethane pipeline leak could cause damage to nearby buildings, but rupture would be more destructive.
Canfield Local Schools Superintendent Joe Knoll said that the Canfield Local Board of Education and his office have been spending the last few months reviewing pipeline data and having discussions with the pipeline operator and the local fire department.
The district has offered community information sessions since the announcement of its plan to build at the Leffingwell location, giving concerned citizens and parents the opportunity to ask questions and share their viewpoints on the proposed school plan.
“There are a lot of safety measures that the pipeline operators have in place,” Knoll said, “Which is good for us in a school setting.”
Neither the Canfield Fire Chief, nor any officials are claiming that Sunoco Pipeline has been lax in maintaining or the upkeep of the Mariner West pipeline, but are seeking additional information to make informed decisions.
Vicki Anderson Granado, Vice President of Corporate Communications for Energy Transfer/Sunoco Pipeline, said “Our Mariner West pipeline transports natural gas liquids and has been operating safely since late 2013. Overall, we operate more than 120,000 miles of pipelines traversing 41 states. Our industry is heavily regulated and we meet or exceed where possible all safety regulations when it comes to the operations and maintenance of our pipelines.”
In his letter to Canfield Superintendent Knoll, Fire Chief Hutchinson wrote “that the placement of the school and related facilities would be in a 'high consequence area'” according to regulations regarding the pipeline. The letter added, “Despite my concerns, you [Knoll] should understand that I do not have jurisdiction over the placement of school facilities in relation to pipelines."
Knoll said that the district is working with Fire Chief Hutchinson on his concerns on the proximity of the proposed build location to the pipeline. Hutchinson is recommending the district build 300 feet away from the pipeline.
Kuprewicz said the district can take other preventive measures to make the proposed school as safe as possible, including moving the building site as far as possible on the property from the ethane pipeline. He recommended that the school should be built from block or concrete, and recommended reducing the number of glass windows on the side of the proposed building facing the pipeline in case of a rupture.
Knoll said the administration will be checking with ThenDesign Architecture out of Willoughby to see if the chief's suggested changes can be accommodated and added that the district is working with the district's architect firm and will follow all safety precautions for the new facility.
Knoll said that the pipeline is monitored around the clock, using technology to monitor pressure and flow.
Knoll also said he would recommend to the board the installation of ethane detectors on the buildings as an additional safety measure, “Anything we can do to get more layers of safety and security for our staff and students.”
While Ohio Public Utilities Commission enforces regulations set by the U.S. Department of Transportation and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHSMA) on pipelines in the state, there are no state or federal regulations that prevent building near pipelines. Kuprewicz said the primary concern of building near an HVL pipeline would be a pinhole or crack, which would release an odorless, colorless gas.
In the last 20 years in the U.S., 27 people have been killed from Hazardous Liquid pipeline issues, with 14 public fatalities and 13 industry-related deaths, according to the PHSMA website. There have also been 26 public injuries, and 33 industry injuries in the same time frame.
However, Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and W.Va all rank low on the accident density heat map for hazardous liquid pipeline accidents from the U.S. Department of Transportation National Pipeline Mapping System, which looks at incidents from 2010 through July of 2021. The monitoring and reporting of incidents of HVL pipelines not only includes ethane but other highly volatile liquids such as butane, propane, benzene, ethylene, propylene, resins, and natural gas liquids.
In 2014, a much larger 20-inch ethane pipeline ruptured in Brooke County, W.Va., which burned 23,000 barrels of ethane and scorched about 5 acres, and sent flames into the air several hundred feet, according to the Associated Press reporting of the incident.
According to Kuprewicz and the PHMSA guidelines, the proper way to extinguish an ethane pipeline fire is to close the shutoff valves along the pipeline and let the gas burn out, which, according to Kuprewicz, could take days.
Knoll stated the reason the district is interested in building on the Leffingwell location is the ability to house all the school buildings in one location, noting “There's not a lot of places in Canfield that has 100 acres.”
The proposed K-8 compound would replace the 52-year-old and 61-year-old elementary school buildings in the district, and would also replace the nearly 100-year-old Canfield Middle school. The funding for the new schools would come from a 6.9-mill, 37-year bond issue that will generate $107.8 million for the new construction, and also cover the costs of furnishing, equipping, and renovating other buildings in the district, which is on the May 3 Primary election.