Residents look to township codes to block Sunoco pipeline

One of the 50 people in a town meeting hall – so crammed he had to stand – asked how many of his fellow citizens wanted to form a group to express their safety concerns and demand answers from the company that planned to plant a new natural gas liquids pipeline. Almost everyone shot a hand toward the ceiling.

As Sunoco Logistics Partners L.P. begins construction on the 350-mile Mariner East 2 pipeline, which the company says is necessary to meet demand for natural gas products and to bring jobs to the region, residents in Thornbury Township, Delaware County, a prosperous community of 8,000, are making plans to at least slow down what they can’t seem to stop.

Activists in Thornbury and West Goshen Township, Chester County, two of the 18 towns in the pipeline's path, have hired attorneys and have sent notices to municipal officials that they are invoking an infrequently used statute that allows private citizens to sue companies for alleged violations of town ordinances.

Eric Friedman, who attended last week’s Thornbury meeting, urged township officials to enforce local zoning ordinances that he says the Mariner East 2 pipeline project would violate.

Friedman, president of the Andover Homeowners' Association, said the pipeline route would take away legally guaranteed open space. Residents have notified officials that if they didn’t act by March 12, the homeowners might resort to the courts.

West Goshen resident Tom Casey is leading those accusing Sunoco of violating a township ordinance that requires a certain distance between pipelines and occupied buildings. Township officials there face the same deadline.

Residents in both townships have submitted draft complaints to their governments.

Sunoco officials said they would have no comment on the litigation threats.

Residents in at least one other town, Middletown Township, Delaware County, have said they would like to pursue similar litigation, and residents in other towns could follow, Friedman said.

"We have shared interest," Friedman said, "because, unfortunately, flammable gas doesn’t stop when it gets to a municipal boundary."

The pipeline would carry natural gas liquids, such as propane, from the Marcellus Shale to Marcus Hook, near the Delaware border.

Municipal officials along the pipeline corridor for Mariner East 2 and PennEast, a separate project by another company to transport Marcellus Shale products to Southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey, have signed resolutions opposing the projects. Some are considering or have passed additional ordinances specifically to regulate pipelines.

James Raith, chairman of Thornbury's Board of Supervisors, said at the town’s meeting Wednesday that the township would look into the alleged ordinance violations and were prepared to go to county court to defend their laws.

David Brooman, a lawyer representing West Goshen, said Sunoco was "in clear violation” of township code.

Township officials sent Sunoco a letter dated Feb. 9 saying the planned placement of a valve along the pipeline was in a residential zone. The code allows such structures only in industrial zones. In a response two weeks later, company officials "said they would not be complying with local zoning," Brooman said. "They threatened to sue the township." 

He said he planned to meet with township supervisors Wednesday to discuss their options. Sunoco spokesman Jeffrey Shields said the company's letter conveyed to the township that the valve site was a public-utility facility that was exempt from local zoning ordinances.

"In the meantime," Brooman said, "I’m pretty certain a citizens group will be suing them to enforce zoning not just here but in other communities."

However, state law specifies that the company must pay legal fees only if a suit is brought by a municipal government.

"We’re hopeful that the township and the Board of Supervisors will do the right thing, will step up and bring the lawsuit on the residents’ behalf,” said Joanna Waldron, an environmental lawyer at the Doylestown firm Curtin & Heefner, who sent the letters to West Goshen and Thornbury.

West Goshen also filed a complaint Feb. 17 with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission that accused Sunoco of violating the terms of a settlement the company and township officials reached in 2015 regarding its Mariner East 1 pipeline system. Sunoco agreed to construct two safety valves that could close off sections of the pipeline in an emergency. So far, township officials said, Sunoco has built only one.

Sunoco officials say they are complying with the agreement. The company "intends to meet all of its obligations," they said, and they will "vigorously defend this action" before the commission.

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