New Mariner East troubles: Spill in western Pa., exposed pipeline outside Philadelphia

Township official urges company and PUC to treat exposed pipe as an imminent problem

  • Jon Hurdle

David Mano/Submitted

The Mariner East 1 natural gas liquids pipeline has been exposed in a creek near a housing development in Uwchlan Township, Chester County.

Update, 11:13 a.m. July 20Sunoco: Exposed pipe in Uwchlan Township is inactive, not Mariner East 1

Reported previously:

Sunoco is facing more challenges to its troubled Mariner East pipelines with a major spill of drilling fluids into a Cambria County wetland and the exposure of a section of the existing Mariner East 1 line in Chester County near Philadelphia.

The company spilled about 3,500 gallons of drilling fluid into a wetland in Jackson Township, Cambria County during construction of Mariner East 2, according to the Department of Environmental Protection, which said it was informed of the incident on July 11.

The spill prompted the DEP on Monday to issue its 65th notice of violation to Sunoco since it began building the natural gas liquids pipeline in February 2017. On Wednesday, the DEP issued yet another violation for a spill of only three ounces in Washington County.

The new line’s continuing technical problems have led to three forced shutdowns, but Sunoco says it will begin operating by the end of September, thanks to the redeployment of an older line that will be temporarily used in sections of Delaware and Chester counties where the new pipe is unfinished.

In Chester County, Mariner East 1 was recently exposed in a residential area of Uwchlan Township, renewing concerns about public safety and raising questions about why the pipeline hasn’t been re-buried almost three weeks after its operator, Sunoco, reported it to the Public Utility Commission.

The 1930s-era pipeline, which carries natural gas liquids, was exposed in a creek at least 18 days ago, but township officials knew nothing about it until they were informed on Tuesday by the owner of the land where it’s exposed, said Mayme Baumann, a township supervisor.

The township engineer found the exposed section in a creek that runs through the Marchwood neighborhood, and confirmed that the pipeline is Mariner East 1, Baumann said. The section, of about four feet, is “visibly corroded,” she said.

Sunoco did not respond to a request for comment.

The pipeline exposure prompted state Senator Andy Dinniman (D.- Chester County) to renew his frequent criticism of both Sunoco and the agencies that regulate the Mariner East project.

“I’m astonished by the latest turn of events and the seemingly inexplicable lack of action from our state government agencies,” Dinniman said in a statement. “It sounds like the PUC has known for some time that an active, hazardous material pipeline is exposed to the surface in a residential area and has done nothing about it except to instruct Sunoco to ‘monitor’ the situation. If that’s not letting the fox guard the henhouse, I don’t know what is.”

The pipeline runs on the same right of way as ME2, which is under construction. The proximity of the two lines is comparable to that in West Whiteland, another Chester County township, where the Public Utility Commission has halted ME2 construction for a safety inspection because of its concerns that the integrity of the older pipeline could be hurt by the surrounding construction and unstable geology.

A section of Mariner East 1 was also exposed starting late last year at Lisa Drive, a suburban development in West Whiteland, prompting the PUC and then a judge to shut down construction of the new line and operation of the old line while safety inspections were conducted. ME1 has been restarted but the halt to construction of the new line is still in effect throughout in that township.

Dinniman said the PUC shut down ME1 within days after it was exposed at Lisa Drive but the agency has failed to do so this time.

“Now, for some reason, this exposure is treated like an afterthought,” he said. “The pipeline appears to be sitting exposed practically on the surface for weeks or more with no action, no notification, and no response.”

In Uwchlan, the township first contacted Sunoco, which said it had reported the exposure to the PUC. The agency confirmed it was aware of the issue, but neither party had told the township, Baumann said.

The PUC said there is “no imminent danger to the public” from the exposed pipe.

“PUC Pipeline Safety is investigating and has data requests in to Sunoco requesting additional information on this section of line,” said spokesman David Hixson in a statement early Thursday. “Pipeline Safety inspectors have been on site, conducted their own inspections, and reviewed records.”

But Baumann said she’s not comfortable with the PUC’s assurances. “To me, it’s an increased risk to our community. I would want our first responders to know that this is an area of increased risk,” she said.

She said PUC told her that it has given Sunoco until next week to come up with a plan to mitigate the exposed section of pipe.

Baumann said she doesn’t understand why PUC isn’t treating the issue more urgently given the nature of the materials and the age of the pipe.

“I’m concerned that it is carrying these liquids, highly pressurized and the pipe is compromised. I don’t understand why there is not more urgency,” she said.

She also faulted the company and the PUC for not discovering the exposure themselves and for not informing the township.

“I’m disappointed that a citizen had to discover this exposed pipe,” Baumann said. “I would like to have been informed as someone that’s responsible for the safety of residents.”

But she didn’t know what the township could have done about the exposed pipeline section even if it had been informed in a timely manner.

“The courts have told us that we cannot regulate these pipelines,” she said. “We depend on the PUC to do that job. There’s nothing we can do except inform the PUC and implore them to come back and check it.”

Rebecca Britton, a nearby resident and a member of the Uwchlan Safety Coalition, a community group, said the exposed pipeline represents an increased risk to public safety.

“Children could be just walking through the creek bed and could damage this if it has corrosion. This is a recipe for disaster,” she said.

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