This was written by Mollie Michel, Moms Clean Air Force’s Pennsylvania State Organizer:
Pennsylvania State Representative Danielle Friel Otten was elected in November 2018 to serve as state representative for the 155th District, which encompasses parts of Delaware and Chester counties outside Philadelphia.
While Danielle’s platform is focused on social justice at every level – strong public schools, making health care more affordable and accessible, public safety, workforce development and family-sustaining jobs – it was environmental justice that first called her to run for office.
In 2015, rumors swirled that the construction of Mariner East – a natural gas liquid pipeline being run across 355 miles of Pennsylvania – would overtake her neighbor’s yard, just feet from where her children play.
As a concerned mother and community member, Danielle began to coordinate with neighbors to demand safety, transparency, and accountability from government and state agencies who oversee these projects.
She says she understood there were already existing pipelines in the neighborhood, carrying petroleum products. But she also realized that this pipeline was a drastically different proposition.
“If there were a leak of the existing pipelines, it would be an environmental disaster, for sure, but they wouldn’t cause an explosion that would cause loss of life and property,” she says. “With Mariner East, they’re not only changing the contents of the pipeline but they’re also changing the size, and creating a dangerous infrastructure within feet of our children’s bedrooms.”
The section of the pipeline near her home in Exton is considered a “high consequence area” because it is highly densified. In fact, she says the house closest to the pipeline is only 15 feet away.
“I have a neighbor where the pipeline comes so close to his home that it’s technically inside the foundation,” she says. “His son is in the bedroom directly above.”
Friel Otten was integral in founding Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety, a collective of eight coalitions in Delaware and Chester counties joining forces to fight for public safety at the state level. The group’s advocacy resulted in national headlines and legal investigations. Mariner East remains the key political issue in the 2019 county elections and members of the organization continue to step up and run for elected office.
Friel Otten also notes that her now 5-year-old son had his first hospitalization for asthma in 2017 when pipeline construction was happening next to his preschool. When the construction stopped for a year, his asthma greatly improved, and he had far less need for medication.
“But just as the construction started up again, he woke in the middle of the night with an asthma attack,” she says.
As State Representative, Friel Otten now sits on committees for both Children and Youth and the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee. Her policy priorities include working for resolutions on fighting climate change, setting limits on carbon emissions, and making sure we are taking tangible steps forward to improving air quality and putting limits on the fossil fuel industry.
She currently serves on the Pipeline Safety Caucus, motivated to work on changing regulations at the state level regarding oil and gas infrastructure. The Caucus is working a package of legislative solutions that would create accountability for operators and their contractors and improve public safety by implementing siting authority and communications systems for local first response agencies.
She admits it’s a difficult task in Harrisburg, where there is an entrenchment of the industry lobby for oil and gas. But she refuses to take a back seat as a freshman legislator, and plans to fight vigorously for Pennsylvania families.
“I’m not going to stay silent or tread lightly,” she says. “I am driven by my children and what’s happening directly in our communities.”