Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection on Wednesday suspended all construction on Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 pipeline, saying it has violated the conditions of two kinds of permits.
“Sunoco must cease all construction activity on the pipeline project, except for maintenance of erosion controls and limited maintenance of horizontal directional drilling equipment,” the DEP said in a statement.
“Until Sunoco can demonstrate that the permit conditions can and will be followed, DEP has no alternative but to suspend the permits,” said DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell. “We are living up to our promise to hold this project accountable to the strong protections in the permits.”
DEP directed the company to submit details on how it plans to prevent drilling mud spills – or “inadvertent returns” – that have challenged the project in their dozens since construction began last February.
It also instructed the company to address impacts to private water wells in Silver Spring Township, Cumberland County, and to identify all “in progress and upcoming construction activities.”
The $2.5 billion, 350-mile long pipeline will carry natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale in Western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, to an export terminal near Philadelphia. The majority of the gas will be sent to a plastics manufacturer in Scotland.
The order follows many spills along the cross-state natural gas liquids line, which were first reported on by StateImpact when construction resulted in well water contamination for residents of a Chester County community last July. Further reporting revealed even more spills. A court order last summer directed the company to re-evaluate geology at more than 60 sites.
In November, Sunoco delayed the projected completion of the line until the second quarter of 2018.
Sunoco has 30 days to submit information to DEP in order for the agency to review whether to allow continued construction of the Mariner East 2. Pipeline spokesman Jeff Shields says the company plans to comply with DEP’s request.
“We intend to expeditiously submit these reports and we are confident that we will be reauthorized to commence work on this project promptly,” said Shields in a statement. “We also reiterate our commitment to the highest levels of construction expertise and our dedication to preserving and protecting the environment in which we conduct our work.”
Elise Gerhart, a Huntingdon County resident who has battled Sunoco over eminent domain, says she has her doubts that Sunoco will even follow the DEP’s order, and she says the move does not signal the end of the pipeline.
“I’m very skeptical that the governor’s office is taking people’s concerns seriously,” she said. “I really believe that the governor wants to push this project through. We have to go out there and see what they’re doing and report it.”
Attorney Rich Raiders, who is representing the Gerhart family in their eminent domain battle against Sunoco, says DEP’s action is surprising, and the stop-work order is both substantial and rare.
“It happens occasionally, but to do so you have to convince DEP that their existing tools just aren’t going to work,” said Raiders.
Raiders says the governor’s office has come under pressure from the public, their elected representatives and possibly DEP employees themselves who recently learned Sunoco had been drilling in areas where the company had no permits to do so.
Joe Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council, applauded DEP for its action. He said he believes the permits were “rushed” before regulators ensured that Sunoco met all the regulatory requirements.
“Now we see exactly what happens when you don’t give strict permits as required by the law, and have the resources to monitor it,” Minott said.
He called Sunoco “not a trustworthy company” that has ignored public health and safety and harm to ecosystems during its construction of the pipeline.
“Hopefully, DEP will really pause and take the time to look at how egregious the behavior of Sunoco has been throughout this process, and re-do the permits and make sure it’s being done properly,” Minott said.
Lynda Farrell, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Coalition, called the DEP’s decision “stunning” and “remarkable” after many months in which Sunoco’s critics accused the DEP of taking a hands-off approach to regulating Mariner East 2.
“This is an illustration that people with different approaches to the inherent problems of this project worked toward a common goal to say ‘enough is enough,’” Farrell said.
She attributed the decision in part to recent calls by lawmakers including state Senator Andy Dinniman and state Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky for a halt to construction, and to at least 500 phone calls to the office of Gov. Tom Wolf over the Christmas holiday period to urge him to suspend construction.
“The citizens of this Commonwealth clearly support our legislators who are now saying ‘halt the project’, we need an unbiased risk assessment.”
Kurt Knaus, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, a pipeline advocacy group made up of local chambers of commerce, labor unions and engineers, urged Sunoco and DEP to quickly resolve the issues. Knaus says all stakeholders, including Sunoco, want the pipeline to be developed safely.
“We are acutely aware of how this project affects our communities — as we are of the tremendous economic benefits it promises for Pennsylvania businesses and consumers upon completion,” Knaus said in a statement. “This project remains critically important for our commonwealth. Sunoco and DEP should work expeditiously to resolve this matter so safe construction can resume and this vital project can get back on track.”