DRBC rejects call to pull Mariner East permit after alleged docket violations

Water regulator says it has asked Sunoco about violations of its permit conditions

  • Jon Hurdle

The Delaware River Basin Commission dismissed a call by the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network to suspend its permit for construction of Sunoco’s Mariner East pipelines in the basin on the grounds that the project has violated the agency’s permit conditions.

The interstate water regulator said most of the alleged violations occurred outside DRBC jurisdiction, and that Pennsylvania has already aggressively responded to Sunoco’s many infringements of state permits by issuing penalties including one for $12.6 million.

It also said it was unaware that Sunoco has changed its plans for building the pipelines under streams without getting DRBC permission.

“Where a host state has enforced against a docket holder for a violation of the host state’s laws or approvals, as the Commonwealth clearly has, as a matter of practice, the Commission generally does not do so,” DRBC said in a three-page letter to DRN released late Thursday. The letter was from its executive director, Steve Tambini.

On June 15, DRN urged the commission to suspend its docket, or permit, for the multibillion-dollar pipeline project, saying Sunoco had violated docket conditions by changing the number of horizontal directional drilling (HDD) locations without notifying DRBC and by releasing water pollutants that contravened permits issued by other state and federal agencies, including Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection.

DRN listed 19 instances of storm-water discharges in six counties and 10 spills of drilling mud in seven counties in support of its request.

But DRBC said 27 of the 29 violations were outside the basin and so beyond its control. Of the two other incidents, both in Berks County, Pennsylvania had already undertaken “extensive enforcement” against Sunoco, the agency said.

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Maya van Rossum, head of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said the precedent being set by Mariner East should be one of ‘defending our water resources and the rule of law.’

DRN head Maya van Rossum welcomed the commission’s statement that it is paying attention to Sunoco’s project, but said the agency should not rely on enforcement efforts by other agencies or activist groups to avoid taking its own action.

“It is not good enough to say that because others have acted to enforce against degradation of our waterways that DRBC can take a back seat in its obligation to do so,” she wrote in an email. “Mariner East is setting important precedent that other pipelines are reviewing – it is important the precedent it sets is strong and one focused on defending our water resources and the rule of law.”

In a written response to DRBC on July 3, DRN and 17 other environmental groups urged the commission to reconsider its position. They argued that DRBC should not rely on state enforcement of Sunoco’s project because its financial penalties have not prevented continued violations, and that it’s unclear whether most violations in fact occurred outside the basin, as claimed by DRBC, because of self-reporting by Sunoco.

“Your June 28 letter suggests that because most of the violations to date have been outside the
basin, that this also suggests no DRBC action is needed. We strenuously disagree,” the groups said on July 3.

While sharing DRN’s concerns about Sunoco’s many violations since the pipeline project began in February 2017, DRBC said the “vast majority” have occurred outside the basin, and the few violations within the basin are not alleged to have impacted interstate waters.

Still, DRBC said it is asking Sunoco for information on any violations of its docket, and said it might take action independently to enforce its permit conditions. “The Commission has not ruled out enforcement action of its own,” the letter said.

“Be assured that the Commission is concerned about any and all Docket violations by (Sunoco) and about any harm to water resources in the basin,” the letter said.

It rejected DRN’s charge that Sunoco had changed some drilling crossings without getting approval from the commission. It approved changes to drilling plans at two sites in Chester and Berks counties in response to a request from a Sunoco contractor, Tetra Tech, in April 2017, and is evaluating proposals for changes at two sites in West Whiteland Township, Chester County, the letter said.

DRBC represents the interests of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware and the federal government in regulating the quality and supply of water in the basin.

Sunoco says the first of the project’s two natural gas liquids pipelines, Mariner East 2, is more than 90 percent complete, and is due to begin operating by the end of September. It said in mid-June that the schedule will not be affected by the current shutdown of construction in Chester County’s West Whiteland Township, as ordered by a judge in May and upheld by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission on June 14.

The DRBC’s letter:



Delaware River Basin Commission rejects call to suspend Mariner East permits (Text)