Pa. judge temporarily halts Mariner East 2 pipeline drilling construction

A state Environmental Hearing Board judge ordered Tuesday that Sunoco temporarily halt a key drilling method for construction of its Mariner East 2 pipeline. The order came in response to a filing by environmental groups that the process has polluted local waterways in Pennsylvania.

The ruling by Judge Bernard Labuskes Jr. effectively halts work at 55 locations where Sunoco Pipeline LP is using horizontal drilling to install the pipeline. The order expires Aug. 7, when the board will hold three days of hearings on whether construction can continue.

It was the second ruling in as many days blocking Sunoco’s progress on Mariner East 2, at least partly. On Monday, an administrative law judge temporarily blocked construction of a valve-control station in West Goshen Township, Chester County.

Hailing Tuesday’s order was Joe Minott, director of the Clean Air Council, which had sought suspension of drilling for the pipeline.

“It’s very significant,” Minott said. “This is the first time that someone has called the industry on their regular practices. And I think it’s about time.”

At issue before the Environmental Hearing Board was a July 15 filing by the Clean Air Council, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and the Mountain Watershed Association saying that, within two months, there had been 61 spills of a mixture of water and bentonite clay used in the drilling construction process. That drilling is separate from the drilling known as hydraulic fracturing used to extract natural gas from shale.

Sunoco was rushing construction of the pipeline, the environmental groups maintained, and the drilling “inflicted significant, irreparable harm upon the environment.” The filing said Sunoco’s drilling had hit underground springs in Middletown Township, Delaware County.

“Copious amounts of cloudy water mixed with unknown substances was pouring for days out of what was clearly an inadequate and ineffective attempt at containment, and a water well is now being tested for possible contamination.”

In a statement Tuesday, Sunoco said that “the full hearing before the Environmental Hearing Board will demonstrate that we have expended every effort to meet the strict conditions of our environmental permits.”

Sunoco said it was evaluating drilling plans and had already stopped work on a number of drills to address concerns raised by the state Department of Environmental Protection and Gov. Wolf. The company said it would continue other construction on the pipeline, including open-trench construction throughout the state as well as conventional road boring, “with safety and protection of Pennsylvania’s environment as our first priorities.”

After Tuesday’s order, the DEP also weighed in, saying it would enforce measures for violations associated with the pipeline in West Whiteland and Uwchlan Townships, Chester County. The agency said 14 homeowners on Shoen Road in West Whiteland had “experienced adverse impacts to their private water supplies, which are drawn from groundwater.”

The department “continues to be diligent in our oversight of this project,” said DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell. “To impact a person’s private drinking water is inexcusable, and we intend to hold this operator accountable to the fullest extent.”

Mariner East 2 is an expansion of Sunoco’s current Mariner East pipeline system and will carry natural-gas liquids through 17 counties along the southern part of the state.  It has a long and complex legal and regulatory history that includes eminent-domain proceedings.

The Clean Air Council also is involved in the most serious remaining legal challenge to the pipeline, being heard in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court. The group is suing Sunoco, saying the Mariner East 2 violates the federal and state constitutions, including Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment.

The case is expected to go to trial at year’s end, when Sunoco hopes the pipeline will be completed.