STATE IMPACT PENNSYLVANIA – Construction on Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 natural gas liquids pipeline project will remain shut down for now, but Mariner East 1 can re-start.
The state’s Public Utility Commission on Thursday modified an administrative law judge’s order that stopped work on Mariner East 2 and operation of Mariner East 1 in Chester County until the PUC could assure its safety.
The commission voted 3-2 to approve PUC Chairman Gladys Brown’s motion that there is “no new credible evidence” that operation of ME1 “poses a clear and present danger to life or property in West Whiteland Township;” and that the commission needs more information from Sunoco before deciding whether ME 2 construction can “safely re-start” in the township.
Within 20 days, Sunoco must provide inspection and testing protocols; comprehensive emergency response plans; and safety training curriculum for employees and contractors. The PUC also wants Sunoco to verify that the Department of Environmental Protection has issued necessary permits for the project’s construction.
Administrative Law Judge Elizabeth Barnes on May 24 granted an emergency petition by state Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-Chester County) calling for the pipeline construction and operation to be stopped in West Whiteland Township until the PUC determines it is safe.
PUC commissioners John Coleman and Norman Kennard dissented. Coleman read a statement saying they don’t believe there is evidence to indicate Mariner East 2 work poses a public safety threat.
“The senator has not shown that there is an immediate safety threat that warrants halting construction of ME2 and ME2X,” Coleman said. “Therefore we do not believe that Senator has met the burden of proof for emergency relief.”
Dinniman reacted to the decision by calling it 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,” Dinniman wrote in a statement. “After all, that’s the one that potentially presents the most immediate danger to my constituents.”
Dinniman says he still has safety concerns regarding the operation of the Mariner East 1, originally a gasoline pipeline built in the 1930s but recently repurposed by Sunoco to carry natural gas liquids.
Judge Barnes agreed with Dinniman’s claim that the project posed a threat to public safety in West Whiteland Township.
She found there was “an imminent risk to the public and a need for immediate relief and further study to be done.”
“Additionally,” she wrote, “local and state government needs time to create emergency evacuation and notification plans and to educate the public before operations should resume.”
Energy Transfer Partners, Sunoco’s parent company, ripped Barnes’ decision, saying there was no basis for the ruling. It was “a significant departure from the law” and “upends Pennsylvania’s entire regulatory environment.”
The company spokesperson Lisa Dillinger said ETP is happy with the PUC’s decision to re-start Mariner East 1 but criticized the decision to keep construction halted on Mariner East 2.
“This can only be seen as an inherently political decision as Senator Dinniman does not have legal standing to bring this suit in his political capacity and if he lacks standing, the entire administrative law judge’s decision should have been reversed,” Dillinger said. “We will consider our legal options, as no business or person in Pennsylvania should have to worry about not receiving a fair proceeding; and we will plan accordingly in order to keep ME2 on schedule for in service as stated.”
The company has said the project meets or exceeds state and federal standards. It noted that the PUC had already investigated Mariner East 1 and deemed it safe. The PUC shut down Mariner East 1 in March because of concerns it could be threatened by sinkholes near Mariner East 2 construction in West Whiteland Township. On May 3, the PUC determined there was no problem, and allowed ME1 to re-open.
Barnes’ May 24 ruling was the latest blow to the cross-state project that has been plagued with legal, environmental and technical problems since it started construction in February 2017.
The latest shutdown is the third ordered by judges or regulators during that time. In January, the Department of Environmental Protection stopped work and issued a $12.6 million penalty to Sunoco for continuing spills, saying the company had been “egregious” in breaking environmental rules.
The company has said the repeated delays do not alter its plans to start operating Mariner East 2 in the third quarter.
The new pipelines will carry propane, ethane and butane from southwest Pennsylvania and Ohio to a terminal at Marcus Hook in Delaware County, where most of the fuel will be exported. The company says some propane will be taken from the line to supply domestic markets.
The company previously estimated the construction cost for Mariner East 2 at “more than $2.5 billion.” Dillinger said recently that the company has not disclosed the updated cost.
Sunoco can seek to have the PUC reverse the emergency petition and restart construction on Mariner East 2 as long as it complies with the requirement to provide further information to the commission within 20 days. Judge Barnes has yet to schedule hearings or rule on Dinniman’s underlying petition.