When Danielle Otten woke up Monday morning, she didn’t expect to see men working on the Mariner East 2 pipeline construction site that sits about 40 feet from her backyard, along Devon Drive in Uwchlan Township, Chester County.
For one thing, work in the area had stalled after drilling dried up and damaged nearby water wells this past summer. And just last week, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued a court order halting construction along the 350-mile long pipeline after Sunoco/Energy Transfer Partners continued to violate its permits, causing damage to private water wells, streams and wetlands.
“I walked over and it appeared they were welding. They were actively welding and working and they’re still there today,” Otten said. “It’s interesting because our understanding was all construction was to be halted. I think it’s pretty bold on the part of Sunoco.”
When DEP issued a stop work order to Sunoco last week, it appeared that all work would halt aside from drilling and erosion controls that had to be continued in order to prevent additional environmental damage. But a spokesman for the DEP now tells StateImpact that when it comes to anything other than earth disturbance or water crossings, the agency doesn’t have jurisdiction.
That means some work — like the welding Otten saw near her home — is allowed.
“The welding, as an activity DEP doesn’t regulate, would not be stopped under the suspended permits,” DEP spokesman Neil Shader wrote in an email. Shader said both DEP and the County Conservation Districts will conduct “spot inspections to ensure that the suspension Order is being complied with by Sunoco and its contractors.”
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission actually regulates welding.
PUC spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen said the agency doesn’t issue permits for pipeline construction but “requires that operators are using qualified employees and that all welds are x-rayed.”
Hagen-Frederiksen says PUC inspectors examine x-rays and welds. Hagen-Frederiksen said he couldn’t “confirm the scope of DEP’s order – that’s a question for them.”
Sunoco/Energy Transfer Partners spokesman Jeff Shields said the DEP is aware of all the work taking place along the line.“Any work currently being performed is to allow for us to suspend construction in a manner that protects public safety, the environment and the pipeline itself,” Shields wrote in an email. “To do this safely, there are a number of steps to be followed and deadlines to meet that are all specified in the DEP‘s order.”
But for residents and pipeline opponents living along the route, the regulatory confusion amounts to political footballs getting tossed between agencies, and a continued erosion of trust toward the state and its ability to protect the environment and public health.
“What’s the purpose of stopping the pipeline if they’re still out there working?” asked David Mano, a neighbor of Otten’s in West Whiteland. “To me it’s construction. And that’s not stopping construction, that’s building the pipe.”
Mano, who doesn’t have any land leased to Sunoco for a pipeline easement, lost his water supply last July when Sunoco’s horizontal drilling operation allowed mud to seep into the aquifer. Mano has since gotten his well water back, but he’s worried what will happen if and when Sunoco is permitted to re-start drilling in his neighborhood.
State Sen. Andy Dinniman, who represents parts of Chester County, said his office has been getting swamped with calls from constituents who are confused and angry. Dinniman said he and his constituents have been asking DEP to address the environmental issues for the past six months and they thought they had made progress.
Even though Sunoco can’t drill, for example, because of the DEP shutdown, Dinniman objected to the fact that some work is still allowed.
“It turns out then that the announcement of the halt of construction is symbolic at best, and political at worst,” he said. “It creates anger and distrust and that adds to the fear that the state is more interested in getting the pipeline done than supporting the health and safety of the residents.”
Dinniman says he and the constituents he hears from are not opposed to natural gas development or economic development. But in addition to the environmental impacts, many are worried about the safety of a natural gas liquids pipeline running through a densely populated area. Natural gas liquids are highly combustible if they leak. Residents have called on the Wolf Administration to do a risk assessment.
Gov. Wolf says it’s the PUC that has to do an assessment. The PUC says they’re looking into it. Dinniman says it’s just more shirking of responsibility of these agencies to serve the public. He’s called a meeting this week to see if the community can raise enough money to hire an outside firm to assess the risk.
“So now we’re doing it ourselves,” said Dinniman. “The citizens have to come together to raise the money to do it themselves. This doesn’t build confidence in government.”