By Dan Zegart, crossposted from Climate Investigations Center
In a split decision Thursday, Pennsylvania state regulators allowed the aging Mariner East 1 (ME1) pipeline to resume transporting highly explosive natural gas liquids (NGL), but continued an emergency shut-down of work on a section of a second NGL pipeline, the almost-complete Mariner East 2 (ME2).
The compromise motion by chairwoman Gladys Brown squeaked by on a 3 to 2 vote at a morning meeting of the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) in Harrisburg, with dissenting commissioners John Coleman and Norman Kennard supporting an immediate restart of construction on Mariner East 2. Commissioners David Sweet and Andrew Place voted with Brown.
Coleman and Kennard’s dissent largely parroted the position of pipeline owner Sunoco, now a part of Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), builder of the highly controversial Dakota Access pipeline, as well as the Rover, Bayou Bridge, and many others. ETP pipeline projects have a long record of leaks, shoddy construction practices, and deceptive dealings with landowners.
In a joint statement, Coleman and Kennard claimed there has been no evidence “that there is an immediate safety threat that warrants halting construction of ME2 and ME2X.” ME2X is new pipeline that supplements and runs along the same route as ME2.
The PUC’s decision did provide a glimmer of relief for increasingly desperate landowners, residents, school districts, and others within the immediate proximity of the Mariner pipelines — the so-called “blast zone” where an accidental leak could cause a catastrophic explosion. Of particular concern are deep sinkholes that appeared a few months ago in the backyards of suburban homes along Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township, near an Amtrak rail line.
The PUC’s order addressed at least some of these concerns.
“While there is insufficient evidence to support a finding that ME1 is being operated unsafely in West Whiteland Township, I do find that there is sufficient evidence to support a finding that the construction on ME2 and ME2X should remain halted until Sunoco meets the requirements that will be imposed by this Motion,” Brown wrote
Those requirements include that within 20 days, Sunoco must provide inspection and testing protocols, a comprehensive emergency response plan, and an up-to-date safety training curriculum for employees and contractors — all of which have been demanded by local residents for years. Sunoco also has to verify that it has the proper state Department of Environmental Protection approvals and permits to continue construction of ME2 and 2X.
Today’s action came in response to a May 24 emergency order by Administrative Law Judge Elizabeth Barnes halting use of ME1 and construction on ME2 in West Whiteland Township, where sinkholes had developed.
Barnes cited ongoing contamination of drinking water due to horizontal drilling and other work on ME2, sinkholes, and at least three leaks in the last year in heavily populated areas for ME1. All told, the pipelines are blamed for over 100 spills and the contamination of at least a dozen water wells. The project has garnered fines as high as $12.6 million for permit violations.
The Mariner pipelines carry natural gas liquids like propane, butane, and ethane from the Marcellus shale 350 miles across Pennsylvania for export to Scotland and other countries where they will be turned into plastic products, most of which would likely be sold in the United States. Enormous “Dragon Class” tankers, purpose-built to haul large volumes of NGLs — especially ethane, the key building block for numerous plastics — form the final leg of a kind of overseas pipeline. The name “Mariner” derives from this transoceanic mission.
Barnes’ order, which relied on evidence presented during two days of hearings, was triggered by a complaint filed with the PUC by State Senator Andy Dinniman, a vociferous opponent of the Mariner pipelines. Barnes agreed with Dinniman that the Mariners present “an emergency situation which represents a clear and present danger to life or property.”
Critics, as well as Barnes, have noted that unlike many pipelines that traverse the Great Plains or other areas that are largely devoid of people, the entire eastern leg of the Mariner project cuts through a densely populated corridor terminating in the suburbs of Philadelphia — what Barnes called “high consequence areas.”
Dinniman quickly fired back at what he charaterized as an inconsistent and illogical ruling by the PUC.
“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,” Dinniman said in a statement. “After all, that’s the one that potentially presents the most immediate danger to my constituents.”
“The bottom line is our position has not changed. We continue to have very real and significant concerns regarding the stability of Mariner East 1 — an 87-year-old pipeline carrying highly volatile natural gas liquids within close proximity of schools, playgrounds, senior care facilities, neighborhoods, a library, a shopping mall, and a rail line.”
Dinniman said he and his legal team will evaluate what next steps to take.
Dinniman, the Clean Air Council, and some affected residents have all mounted legal challenges to Mariner.
Yet another front was opened in the anti-Mariner campaign on June 12, when the Delaware Riverkeeper Network filed suit in federal court to halt ME2. The Riverkeeper Network charged that Sunoco violated the federal Clean Water Act and its state equivalent, the Clean Streams Law, by discharging “sediment laden stormwater to Pennsylvania’s waters on numerous occasions,” resulting in violations of of water quality standards … in various counties across the state of Pennsylvania.”
Sunoco released a statement lauding the restart of ME1, but said “we are concerned that upholding other aspects of the administrative law judge’s Order does not follow applicable law and if not corrected brings uncertainty to Pennsylvania’s entire regulatory environment.”
The PUC’s restart of Mariner East 1 was quickly condemned by affected residents in Chester and Delaware counties.
Eric Friedman, who lives with his wife and young son just a few feet from the Mariner pipelines in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, in Chester County, and is the spokesman for Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety, said his group “is disappointed that the PUC Commissioners … voted to overrule their Administrative Law Judge and allow restart of the ancient, leak-prone Mariner East 1.
“The Commissioners failed to acknowledge the lack of any credible public safety plan or the detailed safety concerns provided to them by the Chester County Commissioners; over one hundred Pennsylvania municipalities; numerous lawmakers from both political parties and at least two large school districts.”
Friedman also noted the close ties between the PUC’s commissioners and the oil and gas industry, which were detailed in a recent report by the Public Accountability Initiative.
That report found that four of the five commissioners have close professional or financial ties to the oil and gas industry. Commissioner Norman J. Kennard was previously a partner at the law firm currently representing Sunoco on Mariner East. Commissioner David Sweet is also an ex-partner at a law firm that represents Sunoco. Commissioner Andrew Place is a former executive at a major drilling firm, and Commissioner John Coleman is a director at SilcoTek, which provides high-tech protective coatings to the oil and gas industry, the report found.
In their statement opposing today’s PUC decision, commissioners Coleman and Kennard said the PUC’s Pipeline Safety Division, part of the PUC’s Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement (BIE), is tasked with ensuring safe pipeline construction and operations, and provides “the Commission’s boots on the ground” to protect the public.
Coleman and Kennard said that the Pipeline Safety Division spent 76 inspection days examining Mariner during 2017 and is pledged to continue this “rigorous inspection schedule” throughout 2018. The dissenting commissioners noted that to date, these thorough inspections have yet to find anything wrong.
“Exactly!” retorted Friedman. “When they shut down ME1, that was BIE’s first-ever enforcement action against a hazardous liquids pipeline. And Sunoco’s abysmal record of continuing accidents in Pennsylvania demonstrates the overall inadequacy of the PUC’s regulatory scheme.”
Main image: Sunoco pipeline, Mariner East graphic Credit: Chester County Planning Commission