Absent Sunoco is blasted for 'wanton disregard' at Pa. pipeline safety hearing

Sunoco Pipeline LP, which is building the contentious Mariner East project across Pennsylvania, was characterized at a legislative hearing on pipeline safety Tuesday as a “bad apple” and “rogue company,” whose transgressions have made it hard for all pipeline operators in the state.

Speaking at a hearing in Harrisburg, legislators of both parties along with pipeline opponents took turns vilifying Sunoco, whose Mariner East 1 pipeline was shut down temporarily this month after sinkholes developed in West Whiteland Township, and whose Mariner East 2 pipeline construction project was fined $12.6 million in January.

“Sunoco Pipeline’s seemingly wanton disregard for the safety of our constituents living in these communities demonstrates their inability to appropriately manage the laws, regulations, permits and logistics associated with this pipeline project,” said State Sen. John Rafferty (R., Montgomery).

Sunoco, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners LP, had nothing to say for itself during the 2½-hour hearing since it was not invited to appear, according to a spokesman for Sen. Eugene Yaw (R., Lycoming). Yaw is chairman of the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, which organized the hearing along with the Senate Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee.

“We remain focused on being a valued member of the communities in which we do business, as we have done for decades,” Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields said in an emailed statement after the hearing. “We look forward to safely completing the construction of this important infrastructure project.”

Rafferty, along with State Sen. Andrew E. Dinniman (D., Chester), said that Tuesday’s testimony demonstrated the need for a package of bills they have sponsored to increase pipeline oversight and to assess an impact fee on pipeline operators.

Yaw said Sunoco’s experience is “affecting every pipeline that wants to be built, or that people are planning for, in this state.”

With Sunoco not present, Keith J. Coyle, a Babst Calland lawyer representing the Marcellus Shale Coalition, testified on the industry’s behalf that pipelines are the safest way to transport fuels, but that the industry needs to be forthright about communicating the risks.

“We live in a world that’s full of risk, and the best thing that we can do as an industry is manage that risk, and be honest about where it is, and come up with good ways to address the risk,” he said.

Sunoco is building two new pipelines along the route of an existing 8-inch-diameter pipeline that carries natural gas liquids such as propane from the Marcellus Shale gas region to a terminal in Marcus Hook. The multi-billion-dollar project has been largely supported by state business, political and labor leaders.

But Rebecca Britton of the Uwchlan Safety Coalition and Melissa DiBernadino of Goshen United for Public Safety said the pipelines pass very close to homes and schools and put their children, families and neighbors in danger.

The citizens groups have called on the state to order a public risk assessment of the pipeline, and are raising money online to pay for their own study.

The chair of Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, Gladys Brown, testified that a public risk assessment of the project “raises some difficult issues” because the PUC is prohibited by law from releasing some information publicly because of security concerns.

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PUC Chair Gladys Brown testifies at a Senate hearing Tuesday.

“We do risk assessment,” Brown said. “That’s part of our role and responsibility. But for it to be public, and everything released to the public, we believe that it violates the law.”

She said the PUC is monitoring the Mariner East project, and said its emergency order this month to halt operations on the existing Mariner East 1 pipeline after sinkholes developed was evidence the agency would “will take prompt action to protect the public.”

The pipeline, shut down March 7, will remain out of service until the PUC takes a formal action to lift the emergency order.