DEP halts construction of Sunoco's $2.5B Mariner East 2 pipeline

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection on Wednesday halted construction of Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 shale pipeline, dealing a major setback to a $2.5 billion energy infrastructure project that has been plagued by spills and contamination of private water wells.

The state agency said suspension of Sunoco Pipeline LP’s construction permits was necessary “to correct the egregious and willful violations” cited in its 20-page order, including unauthorized drilling to install the pipeline and failing to notify the agency when discharges or spills of drilling fluid occurred.

“Until Sunoco can demonstrate that the permit conditions can and will be followed, DEP has no alternative but to suspend the permits,” said DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell. “We are living up to our promise to hold this project accountable to the strong protections in the permits.”

DEP has upbraided Sunoco repeatedly for sloppy work practices on its contentious pipeline system, which conveys Marcellus Shale natural-gas liquids such as propane to a terminal in Marcus Hook. The project has aroused strong opposition, particularly in densely developed areas of Delaware and Chester Counties, where Sunoco is building the second of three adjacent pipelines.

“Finally, DEP and the governor’s office are taking the egregious behavior of Sunoco seriously,” said Joseph Otis Minott, the executive director the Clean Air Council. The Philadelphia environmental group has been engaged in a yearlong legal battle over the state’s issuance of pipeline permits, which Minott said was a “rush job.”

The DEP’s order was issued a week after the state chastised the company for unauthorized drilling near Harrisburg that spoiled two private water wells by disturbing the underground water supply. The order suspends permits until Sunoco satisfies several conditions, including submitting a detailed plan that outlines additional measures to minimize the spills of drilling fluid, which are known as “inadvertent returns.”

Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields said the company received the suspension order Wednesday morning and intended to comply with the conditions. Sunoco Pipeline LP is a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners LP of Dallas, one of the nation’s largest pipeline operators.

Camera icon CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Most of the 350-mile-long Mariner East 2 pipeline is being built in an open trench, as shown in this photograph last year from Western Pennsylvania. The company has encountered problems when it has used horizontal drilling techniques to install the pipeline underground to avoid digging a trench at the surface.

“We intend to expeditiously submit these reports and we are confident that we will be reauthorized to commence work on this project promptly,” Shields said in a statement. “We also reiterate our commitment to the highest levels of construction expertise and our dedication to preserving and protecting the environment in which we conduct our work.”

The project’s opponents, who have complained directly to Gov. Wolf, on Wednesday called for the state to cancel construction rather than suspend work.

“What we really need is a full and permanent halt to construction and a full, transparent, and public assessment of the risks associated with the Mariner East 2,” said Sam Rubin, a spokesman for Food & Water Watch, which has organized local activists along the pipeline route. “The movement to stop the pipeline will be using this temporary halt to build the power we know we’ll need to protect communities from Mariner East once and for all.”

State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D., Chester), who has called for stricter regulatory oversight of pipeline projects, said the state’s action was overdue and insufficient.

“While I appreciate DEP at long last acting on the environmental concerns of residents impacted by the pipeline drilling in Pennsylvania, serious public safety concerns regarding the proximity of the pipeline to schools, day-care facilities, parks, libraries, and senior-living communities persist,” Dinniman said.

The Mariner East 2 project has enjoyed strong support from political, business, and labor leaders, who regard it as a major investment to channel the Marcellus Shale output through Pennsylvania, and potentially induce additional economic growth. Supporters of the Sunoco project, such as the Marcellus Shale Coalition, responded to DEP’s action with a call for “the safe and responsible construction of these important infrastructure projects.”

Critics say that the state’s enthusiasm for the project, and its casual enforcement of its rules, has encouraged Sunoco to take a cavalier approach to compliance with the terms of its water-crossing and sedimentation permits.

“It’s really surprising to me that Sunoco was that tone deaf,” said Minott of the Clean Air Council. “They were essentially getting everything that they wanted. DEP, the governor’s office were being very supportive of them.”

The suspension will remain in place until Sunoco demonstrates compliance with the permits, Wolf’s spokesman said Wednesday in a statement.

Camera icon STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Exton resident David Mano in July holds a sample of well water that was contaminated by Sunoco’s horizontal drilling work.

“It is incredibly important that operators adhere to the terms of their permit,” said the spokesman, J.J. Abbott. “A failure to do so puts jobs for the citizens of our commonwealth and investment in our communities at risk.”

The permit suspension is the latest setback in the Mariner East 2 pipeline, which was initially aimed to begin operations in early 2017. ETP, the parent company, announced in November that it was pushing back completion to the second quarter of 2018, blaming regulatory delays.

Horizontal drilling activity was suspended in parts of Chester County in July after water from several private wells turned cloudy from sediment  churned up by the drilling activity. Sunoco was allowed to resume drilling after it agreed to heightened state oversight.

The Mariner East 2 pipeline is the second of three pipelines designed to carry gas liquids from the shale region of Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia to a terminal that Sunoco has built on the site of its former Marcus Hook refinery. Most of the material is being loaded on ships and exported to European petrochemical manufacturers.

The Mariner East 2 is a new 20-inch-diameter pipeline from Scio, Ohio, to Marcus Hook, that supplements the original pipeline, a smaller 80-year-old conduit that previously carried refined fuel such as gasoline from the refinery to Pennsylvania outlets.

Sunoco also has commitments to add a third, 16-inch-diameter pipeline to the route as soon as the ME2 is completed. All together, the pipelines could carry up to 675,000 barrels a day to Marcus Hook.

The DEP’s full order suspending the permits can be found on its website. A list of the notices of violations issued to Sunoco for Mariner East 2 can also be found there.