Environmental groups on Wednesday hailed a settlement with Sunoco Pipeline LP that they say provides greater protection to the public from horizontal directional drilling operations that have plagued construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline.

Alex Bomstein, a Clean Air Council attorney, called the settlement a "meaningful" agreement that will require Sunoco to take more measures to prevent the spills of drilling mud and disruptions to private water wells that have snagged construction of the pipeline.

The ME2 Pipeline route
Staff graphic
The ME2 Pipeline route

The settlement, which was formally approved by a judge on Wednesday, requires Sunoco to use experts to evaluate and improve plans for drilling at more than 60 locations on the 350-mile pipeline prior to starting or restarting drilling, expands the identification and testing of private water wells, and strengthens plans to prevent and respond to problems during construction.

The agreement could add some delays to construction of the $2.5 billion project, which Sunoco's parent company, Energy Transfer Partners LP, expects to put into service in the fourth quarter.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection will get 21 days to review each of Sunoco's new drilling plans, and Sunoco will also need time to test private water wells if requested by neighboring property owners. "We'll be watching to ensure that the DEP is approaching these re-evaluations in an an appropriate way," said Bomstein.

Environmental Hearing Board Judge Bernard Labuskes Jr., who was set to hold an emergency hearing this week in Harrisburg, signed off Wednesday on the settlement between Sunoco and the Clean Air Council, the Mountain Watershed Association, and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. The state also approved the plan.

Sunoco Pipeline said it was pleased that the agreement would allow it to resume drilling "in a manner that demonstrates our commitment to the commonwealth and our neighbors to protect Pennsylvania's natural resources during construction.

"We will continue to adhere to the strict conditions of our permits, including the enhanced standards for planning, outreach, and reporting," the company said. "The agreement will put hundreds of workers back on the job as we complete this transformational infrastructure project."

The environmental groups directed much of their scorn toward Gov. Wolf and the DEP for failing to provide sufficient oversight of the $2.5 billion project, which will deliver natural gas liquids such as propane from the Marcellus Shale region to Sunoco's terminal in Marcus Hook. The state groups documented about 90 spills or leaks during three months of drilling operations.

"The harms that Sunoco's recklessness is causing the public and the environment should have never happened,"  Joseph Otis Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council, said in a statement. "Unless our elected officials start taking the public health threat from building natural gas infrastructure seriously, this is bound to continue to happen."

Maya van Rossum, who heads the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said in a statement that the agreement provides more environmental protection.

"But it is wrong that our organizations had to bring this legal action to get us to this point," she said. "Sunoco should have complied with the law. DEP should have enforced the law and fulfilled its constitutional obligation to protect our environment. Instead, it fell to our community-supported environmental organizations to do so."

The settlement concludes an intervention by the environmental groups to halt Sunoco's horizontal drilling activity. But the group's six-month effort to override state permits allowing Sunoco to proceed with its pipeline is still ongoing before the Environmental Hearing Board, a court that reviews DEP's administrative decisions.

Labuskes, last month, granted a temporary ban at 55 locations where Sunoco was conducting horizontal directional drilling after 14 residents of West Whiteland Township in Chester County complained their private wells were disturbed by Sunoco's operations.

Horizontal directional drilling is a method of pipeline construction that involves drilling a lateral bore through the bedrock to avoid the nuisance of having to excavate a trench to bury the pipe. Sunoco uses horizontal drilling to go under large highways, rivers, and densely developed neighborhoods.

Sunoco says most of the pipeline is being installed in conventional open trenches, which aren't affected by the settlement and where work continues.

The twin-pipeline Mariner East 2 project largely follows the same route as the smaller Mariner East 1 pipeline, which went into service more than two years ago.