PUC allows contentious Mariner East 1 pipeline to restart

The on-again, off-again Mariner East 1 pipeline is on again.

In a mixed decision, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission voted Thursday to allow Sunoco Pipeline LP to resume service on its contentious Mariner East 1 pipeline. But the PUC continued a halt on construction of the Mariner East 2 project in West Whiteland Township.

The commission, in a 3-2 vote, partially overruled an emergency order issued last month by Administrative Law Judge Elizabeth Barnes to suspend service on the Mariner East 1, a refurbished 87-year-old pipeline that delivers propane and other Marcellus Shale gas liquids to a terminal in Marcus Hook.

“While the record contains accounts of Sunoco’s mishaps in other jurisdictions and other pipelines, there is no new, credible evidence to support a finding that the continued operation of ME1 poses a clear and present danger to life or property in West Whiteland Township,” said Gladys M. Brown, the PUC’s chair.

The commission’s action clears one impediment to the $5.1 billion infrastructure project, which has been supported by state political and business leaders because it creates a Pennsylvania outlet for Marcellus Shale production. But the project has been slowed by construction mishaps and fines that have reinforced the fears and anger of opponents along its pathway.

The PUC in March shut down service after sinkholes developed in West Whiteland Township, Chester County, but allowed operations to resume May 3 after Sunoco stabilized the soil and inspections showed no pipeline damage from the subsidence.

Despite finding that the operating pipeline did not represent an immediate threat, the PUC kept in place an emergency order halting construction in West Whiteland on two new adjacent pipelines, the Mariner East 2 and the ME2X.

The new pipelines will also transport gas liquids — propane, ethane, and butane — most of which are being loaded on ships in Marcus Hook and exported to European petrochemical manufacturers.

Before it can resume construction, Sunoco has 20 days to file inspection and testing protocols, a comprehensive emergency response plan, and its safety training curriculum for employees and contractors, Brown said.

A sinkhole that developed in early March in West Whiteland Township prompted the PUC to halt pipeline construction until the ground was stabilized.

The PUC’s decision dealt only with the emergency order, and leaves unresolved the underlying complaint about the project’s safety by State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D., Chester), a vocal opponent of the project. Dinniman, in a statement, called the decision a “mixed bag.”

“I don’t understand why the PUC would affirm some of the public-safety issues at stake involving the construction of Mariner East 2 and 2X, but completely ignore others involving Mariner East 1,” he said. “After all, that’s the one that potentially presents the most immediate danger to my constituents.”

The PUC’s two Republican members, John F. Coleman, Jr. and Norman J. Kennard, said in their dissent Thursday that the commission should have reversed the entire suspension because Dinniman had failed to show that construction of the two new pipelines represented an immediate threat.

They said that the PUC’s pipeline safety experts are keeping close watch on the project, and noted that the concerns raised by staff inspectors in March about the sinkholes prompted the PUC to temporarily shut down operations until the ground was stabilized.

Sunoco, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners LP, had argued that Dinniman did not have legal standing to bring the complaint. On Thursday, it called the PUC’s ruling an “inherently political decision” and said it created uncertainty about Pennsylvania’s “entire regulatory environment.”

In its filing with the PUC, Sunoco argued that Barnes’ decision to shut down a project, at a cost of millions of dollars and inconvenience to pipeline’s customers, has implications for any energy infrastructure projects and “will inevitably lead to a flood of emergency petitions where no actual safety emergency exists.”

Although the PUC’s action to halt Mariner East 2 construction in one township has significant symbolic weight, it’s unclear whether it will have much practical effect on a  project that is already a year behind schedule.

Sunoco has continued construction work on all areas along the 350-mile route except for the 3.5-mile segment that runs through West Whiteland Township. The company says that construction of the Mariner East 2, the first of the two new pipelines, is 98 percent complete.

Sunoco already suspended construction in West Whiteland until at least July 1 as it awaits approval by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection on new construction plans to address issues raised after the sinkholes developed and several dozen private water wells were fouled last year.

Camera icon ED HILLE / Special to the Inquirer
Residents and activists rallied on June 9 against the pipeline at the Old Chester County Courthouse.