Voices from the Sunrise Movement: Local Activism Against the Mariner East Pipeline
February 12, 2019
I met two-year-old Brooke and four-year-old Jack in late June of 2018 on a scorching 91 degree summer day in Exton, Pennsylvania. Their bubbly laughs brought out the big sister in me and we chased each other around the yard. Then Danielle, their mom, and neighbor Ginny walked me and my housemates over to what I was really there to see. Not even 100 feet from where my game with Jack and Brooke had taken place, rows of endlessly long, beige sections of pipe lay in a fenced off strip of land, the pipes bending slightly as they sloped down the hill.
Ginny explained this was the Mariner East Pipeline Project, which included refurbishing a petroleum pipeline from the 1930s and the addition of two more pipes running across the state of Pennsylvania. Sunoco and Energy Transfer Partners poured over $4 billion into this project that was now years behind schedule due to painful, avoidable complications.
Sinkholes formed inches from people’s homes, an underground freshwater aquifer that 15 houses relied on for clean drinking water was destroyed, and the soil, water table, and acres of natural land cleared for the job were damaged beyond repair. Ginny, a geologist by training, had been involved in the growing community of pipeline opposition since the beginning.
Danielle and Ginny met at a community meeting and became active in the Mariner East Resistance. It didn’t take long for Danielle to decide to run for Pennsylvania State Representative, to protect her children, her home, and the safety and dignity of her community being threatened by natural gas companies and corrupt politicians.
I was a native of the Philly suburbs just 40 minutes from Mariner East, hearing all of this for the first time. For years I lived and went to school 40 minutes from the pipeline intended to carry ethane, butane, and propane: three extremely volatile natural gas liquids undetectable if leaked, and terrifyingly easy to ignite. Danielle made the decision to run for office look easy; no one was standing up for her community, so she decided to do it herself.
For the next six months I lived with five other 20-somethings in subsidized housing and volunteered full-time to win Danielle’s election as a state representative. We learned together through countless conversations what Danielle’s community cared about. We listened to pipeline workers and NRA members, conservatives, liberals, independents, indignant non-voters, and everyone in between. We spent hours and hours with Danielle and Ginny combing the suburbs of southeastern PA, our shared mission coursing through my veins like fire, grounding me in purpose even when doors were slammed in my face.
One of the most humbling and rewarding moments of my time in Downingtown, PA was the night my housemates and I attended the public risk assessment presentation at one of the local high schools. The pipeline companies and the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission (PUC) had refused and ignored requests for a state environmental risk assessment, so the community members fighting for their lives decided to do it themselves. We walked in to the high school auditorium and immediately saw our friends from Food and Water Watch, gave hugs to the folks who recently were released from jail after our protest on the pipeline easement, shook hands with local state candidates, caught up with Danielle and Ginny, and beckoned the mayor of Downingtown to come sit by us. Over two hundred people filled the room and we never stopped catching the eye of someone we knew, worked with, or otherwise recognized. The community effort behind stopping Mariner East finally had a face. The cause for which many in the room had put their lives on hold or even at risk felt strong, capable, and worthwhile.
On November 6, Danielle Friel Otten won the election by 3,000 votes. My team of six 20-somethings had identified 5,000 supporters while knocking on doors – the margin of victory.
We successfully got a non-career politician, woman, activist, community leader into the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to replace an incumbent who had failed to represent his constituents’ best interests. Since then, Chester County launched a criminal investigation into the construction of Mariner East, while the PUC and Sonoco quietly opened the pipelines and began the transportation of the lethal natural gas liquids.
I don’t know what the future holds for Chester County’s safety at this point. Right now it feels a lot like trying to stop a powerful tidal wave. On the other hand, in lots of ways, we won. We met and inspired students at West Chester University, registered first-time voters, and rallied with thousands of people in DC, demanding a Green New Deal. The word “politician” has become a cringe-inducing word, but the woman I helped into that position exemplifies everything the job is meant to be. We, the people, the children, and the fighters of PA-144, are not up against our elected official anymore to build a world of justice and love. Finally, I witnessed honest representation, massive grassroots victory, and a growing hope for a future where true democracy reigns.
Olivia Freiwald grew up outside of Philadelphia and is now a sophomore at Tufts University studying Climate Organizing and Sustainable Development. Olivia was a fellow with the Sunrise Movement from June-November 2018, living and working full-time in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, and continues her involvement with Sunrise while in school.
Feature photo from Waging Nonviolence.