A Pennsylvania judge has allowed Sunoco Pipeline to resume horizontal directional drilling at 16 sites along the Mariner East 2 pipeline route. Previously he had banned drilling throughout the route in response to dozens of water contamination incidents during construction.
Judge Bernard Labuskes of the Environmental Hearing Board mostly agreed to a Sunoco request to exempt 17 of 55 active drilling operations covered by the two-week ban imposed on July 25.
The judge said in an order Thursday that the company could restart drilling at all but one of the 17 locations. The exception was at a creek in Lebanon County.
The company argued on July 27 that stopping horizontal directional drilling at the 17 locations would damage equipment, compromise safety, or do more environmental harm than good.
In his order Thursday, the judge said the order was lifted “with respect to all horizontal directional drilling locations identified in the Permittee’s motion” except the Lebanon County location. He gave no reason for the action.
On Friday, the judge extended the ban on the remaining active drilling sites until Wednesday, Aug. 9, adding 48 hours to the initial ban. He also postponed until Wednesday a hearing at which three environmental groups, led by the Clean Air Council, will seek a further extension of the drilling ban. The hearing was originally planned to begin on Monday, Aug. 7.
In coming months, the Board is due to hold a full hearing on the groups’ appeal against Mariner East 2 construction permits issued by the Department of Environmental Protection.
Alex Bomstein, an attorney for the Clean Air Council, said there had been “settlement discussions” between the parties but provided no further details.
Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields said he didn’t know whether drilling has restarted at the 16 sites after the judge’s partial lifting of the ban.
The July 25 order was the biggest setback so far to construction of the more than $2.5 billion pipeline, which will carry natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale of southwest Pennsylvania to an export terminal at Marcus Hook, near Philadelphia. It followed another judge’s order to halt construction in West Goshen Township, Chester County, and comes amid a legal challenge to the project’s claimed status as a public utility.
Construction began in February, and it is unclear whether Sunoco will be able to meet its goal of beginning operations of the pipeline by the end of the third quarter.
So far, there have been 90 spills of drilling mud totaling some 220,000 gallons in 42 distinct locations, according to documents obtained during the case before the EHB.
Lynda Farrell, executive director of the Pennsylvania-based Pipeline Safety Coalition, said she was “astonished” that the EHB hearing has been postponed.
“One would have thought that unknown numbers of well contaminations and 90 HDD spills, many to the waters of the Commonwealth, in a three-month period would have initiated a state-mandated halt to the project,” she said.
The Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, which supports the pipeline, welcomed the restart of drilling. “Restarting these 16 sites is good news. We hope work on the remaining sites will resume following the EHB hearing next week,” the group said in a statement.