PUC Judge Shuts Down Sunoco Mariner East Pipeline (Again) Amid “Grave Risk”

The order comes less than a month after the agency allowed Sunoco to resume operation after sinkholes emerged earlier this year. The company said it plans to fight the ruling.

Two of the sinkholes that appeared along Sunoco Mariner East pipeline construction sites near Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township. | Via TJ Allen

A judge with the Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission has once again ordered a shutdown of Sunoco’s contentious Mariner East 1 pipeline, this time amid a “grave risk” to public safety.

On Thursday, PUC administrative law judge Elizabeth H. Barnes approved a petition for emergency relief that was filed last month by state Sen. Andy Dinniman. Dinniman, an outspoken opponent of Sunoco’s three Mariner East pipelines, had filed the petition during the tail end of the first ME1 shutdown, which was ordered in early March and lasted roughly two months.

Some background: The PUC ordered the first shutdown after at least three sinkholes (one as deep as 20 feet) opened near homes and rail lines along Lisa Drive in Exton, part of West Whiteland Township, which Dinniman represents. The sinkholes developed near construction sites for Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 and 2x pipelines, and one of them exposed the bare pipe of ME1. (ME2 and ME2X are currently under construction; when finished, all three pipelines will carry Marcellus Shale natural gas liquids to a facility in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania.)

At the time, PUC chairman Gladys M. Brown ruled that permitting ME1’s highly volatile NGLs to flow through the area posed a “catastrophic” risk to public safety. Sunoco was granted permission to restart the pipeline in early May, after the company satisfied various requirements put forth by the PUC and the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Now, Barnes has again ordered Sunoco to halt its ME1 pipeline and to pause construction on ME2 (which is 98 percent complete) and ME2X, specifically in West Whiteland Township. In her order, Barnes wrote that “the rupture of a hazardous liquid pipeline at the welds of an 8-inch pipe in [a high consequence area] such as West Whiteland and the ignition of such a potential vapor cloud could have catastrophic results.”

In a statement, Sunoco called the order “a significant departure from the law and due process procedures that the PUC follows in rendering decisions” and said it plans to pursue “all legal remedies to overturn this Order, including our right to request PUC review of the Order, which will be filed within the next seven days.”

ME1 has experienced three leaks in “high consequence areas” within the past year, Barnes wrote. None of the leaks ignited, but the company failed to identify and “report the leak or spill to proper authorities when they occurred,” Barnes said. One of them, which occurred in Morgantown, Berks County, on April 1st, was allegedly discovered and reported by a landowner, and Barnes said that it took 90 minutes to shut down the pipeline after the landowner informed a pipeline operator. In that time, nearly 1,000 liquid gallons of a natural gas liquids mixture (a “dangerous quantity,” Barnes wrote) were allegedly released.

Dinniman called Barnes’s order a win in a “‘David vs. Goliath’ battle,” and groups like the Clean Air Council and Food and Water Watch also praised the decision on Thursday.

“The order is a resounding affirmation of everything we’ve been saying — the Mariner East pipeline project has potentially endangered our neighborhoods, schools, environment, property rights, water resources, infrastructure, not to mention the health, safety, well-being and very way of life in our communities,” Dinniman said.

In its statement, Sunoco said it believes “there is no evidence or legal basis to support Senator Dinniman’s claims in his Petition and the Order that followed.”

The organization says it will also continue with ME2 and ME2X construction in all areas along the route except for the 3.5-mile segment through West Whiteland Township.

“The entire energy industry should be concerned about today’s Order and consider this result when making decisions regarding future capital investments in the state as it upends Pennsylvania’s entire regulatory environment,” Sunoco said.

Barnes ordered Sunoco to conduct extensive testing on the pipelines, including geophysical and geotechnical analyses. Dinniman has maintained, while referencing scientific analysis, that the Lisa Drive construction site is prone to sinkholes because it sits almost exactly atop a fault line where limestone rock structure is prone to dissolution.

The order awaits full approval from the PUC. The next meeting is scheduled for June 14th.

Sunoco said that it does not think the order will “affect our stated in service timeline to place ME2 into service in the third quarter of 2018.”