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Lebanon County zoning board denies challenge to Mariner East 1

A sign marks the path of the Mariner East 1 pipeline through Chester County.

Kim Paynter / Newsworks

A sign marks the path of the Mariner East 1 pipeline through Chester County.

Zoning officials in a Lebanon County township rejected an appeal against their permit allowing a pumping station to be built along the Mariner East 1 pipeline, rebuffing the latest challenge to the project’s public utility status.

West Cornwall Township’s Zoning Hearing Board on Tuesday denied the appeal by three residents and Concerned Citizens of Lebanon County, an anti-pipeline group that has been fighting the pumping station for the last two years.

The appellants argued against the township’s decision to exempt the pumping station from zoning rules on the grounds that the natural gas liquids pipeline is a public utility project.

Sunoco Pipeline also says the existing Mariner East 1 and Mariner East 2, which is now under construction, are both public utilities, citing rulings by the Public Utility Commission and a number of courts. But opponents including the Lebanon County group argue that most of the products carried by the pipeline are for export and so the pipeline is not legitimately a public utility.

“We believe we put on evidence before the ZHB that shows that ME1 is not a public utility exempt from zoning rules but is a private pipeline for three shippers with whom Sunoco has 10- and 15-year contracts to transport hazardous volatile liquids across Pennsylvania destined for European plastics manufacturers,” said Pam Bishop, a member of the group, in a statement.

Bishop said she was disappointed but not surprised by the decision of the board, which has previously ruled against the group.

Mariner East 1 carries propane, ethane and butane some 350 miles from the Marcellus Shale of southwest Pennsylvania to an export terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia. It’s a 1930s-era gasoline pipeline that has been repurposed to carry the natural gas liquids from the shale fields. Mariner East 2 will carry the same products, but at greater capacity and pressure, and is scheduled for completion by the end of the third quarter.

Keith Kilgore, solicitor for the board, declined to explain the decision, but said the board would provide its reasoning in a written opinion within 45 days. Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The appellants urged the township to revoke its zoning permit for the Cornwall Pump Station, require Sunoco to attend a conditional use hearing, and comply with the Environmental Rights Amendment of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which the state Supreme Court recently said requires government to be a trustee, not an owner, of natural resources.

“Sunoco is operating ME1 even though there has never been any public hearing and final determination about whether repurposing a 1930s pipeline to transport natural gas liquids under high pressure adequately protects Pennsylvania’s natural resources,” said Doug Lorenzen, one of the appellants.

The board previously rejected CCLC’s appeal against the permit, saying the group lacked standing. That decision was overturned by a county judge, who sent the case back to the board for a hearing on whether Mariner East 1 is a public utility under the township’s zoning ordinance and the Municipalities Planning Code. The board’s latest denial was issued after three days of hearings in June.

The public utility status of both pipelines is also being challenged by the Clean Air Council, an environmental group that expects to argue its case in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas at the end of the year.

Bishop said her group will now appeal the board’s decision to the Lebanon County Court of Common Pleas.

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