Chester County’s Uwchlan Township mounted the latest local challenge to Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 pipeline this week when its supervisors voted unanimously to enforce an ordinance that requires any hazardous liquids pipeline to be set back from buildings further than the distance currently under construction.
The three-person board, elected last November on a platform of protecting the public from any threat to safety from the pipeline, instructed the township solicitor to file suit against Sunoco, saying that the current construction would violate setback provisions in the ordinance.
The previous board declined to enforce the ordinance because it believed the rule was pre-empted by the pipeline’s status as a public utility, as determined by Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission, said Mayme Baumann, one of the new commissioners.
But the new board determined that the natural gas liquids pipeline is being built well within a “pipeline impact radius” that the federal government defines as the distance within which any failure of a pipeline “could have significant impact to people or property,” according to the ordinance.
“A public utility facility that involves hazardous liquid and/or gas pipelines shall be set back from all occupied structures, a minimum distance equal to the Pipeline Impact Radius,” the ordinance says.
The precise radius will vary depending on a pipeline’s pressure and diameter, but based on those criteria for Mariner East 2, it would be at least 1,000 feet, Baumann said. By contrast, some houses in the township are only 25 feet from where the pipeline is being built, she said.
“It’s in people’s back yards,” she said. “About 100 families are in the direct path. There are cases where their shed in their back yard is on the other side of the easement from their house.”
Even though the PUC has given public utility status to Mariner East 2, the commission does not have siting authority for hazardous liquids pipelines and therefore should not be able to pre-empt a local zoning ordinance, Baumann said.
“It doesn’t make sense that if there’s no siting authority at the state level, how would our zoning ordinance be pre-empted?” she said.
Advocates such as those in Middletown, Delaware County say any leak from the line could result in an explosion that would burn anyone within a radius determined by operating pressure and wind direction.
Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields said the company does not comment on pending or potential litigation. In response to concerns about pipeline safety raised by some other communities in suburban Philadelphia, Sunoco has said that the pipeline meets all state and federal safety standards.
With its decision to enforce the ordinance, Uwchlan Township joins West Goshen, also in Chester County, and Middletown in Delaware County in an attempt to control pipeline development by enforcing existing local rules on zoning. Those townships lost their cases in county court and are now appealing to Commonwealth Court.
Rich Raiders, an attorney who represents several pipeline opponents, said the Uwchlan initiative will create another test of whether municipalities can control pipeline siting in their jurisdictions.
“Several municipalities have ordinances that regulate where pipelines can go,” Raiders wrote in an email. “Now the courts have to tell us if these ordinances are valid or not.
“If they’re not, then Sunoco is free to build and operate and these ordinances aren’t worth the paper they are printed upon. If the courts decide that the municipalities can properly claim the right to regulate, then Sunoco has a problem.”
Sunoco is restarting work on the pipeline after a month-long shutdown ordered by the Department of Environmental Protection on the grounds of many spills of drilling fluid and other violations by Sunoco during construction.