EXPLAINER | Mariner East: A pipeline project plagued by mishaps and delays
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Mariner East: A pipeline project plagued by mishaps and delays

Jon Hurdle / StateImpact PA

A Mariner East 2 construction site in rural Pennsylvania. The Public Utility Commission lifted a ban on construction of a valve, removing one obstacle to completion of the troubled project.

Sunoco Logistics Mariner East pipeline project includes three lines — the Mariner East 1, the Mariner East 2, and the Mariner East 2X, all of which carry or will soon carry natural gas liquids (NGLs) from the Marcellus and Utica Shale plays in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania across the state to a processing and export terminal in Marcus Hook, Delaware County.

In 2014, Sunoco completed its conversion of a gasoline pipeline originally built in the 1930’s to ship gas from Philadelphia area refineries to rural Pennsylvania. Reversing the flow of the 8-inch line, Sunoco’s Mariner East 1 now carries NGLs across Pennsylvania to its suburban Philadelphia facility where it is shipped overseas to manufacture plastics.

The Mariner East 2 would expand capacity to 345,000 barrels of NGLs a day. The 20-inch diameter high pressure pipeline tunnels beneath 17 counties, cuts through 2,700 properties with a 50-foot right-of-way, and crosses more than 1,200 streams or wetlands. The company used eminent domain procedings to secure right-of-ways from reluctant landowners, including one family in Huntingdon County that sat in their trees to protest the pipeline construction.

Construction on the almost $3 billion project began in February 2017, after the Department of Environmental Protection identified hundreds of deficiencies in its water-crossing and earth-moving permits. Since then the DEP has issued more than 80 violations to the company for polluting wetlands, waterways, and destroying about a dozen private water wells. In the summer of 2017, DEP, along with several environmental groups, agreed to a consent decree with Sunoco after dozens of drilling mud spills led to the pollution of high value wetlands and trout streams, and the loss of drinking water for residents of a Chester County community.

In April, 2017 Sunoco Logistics merged with Energy Transfer Partners, the builder of the controversial Dakota Access line. Completion of the line is now about 18 months behind its original schedule. The company put the Mariner East 2 into service at the end of December 2018 by temporarily using an existing, smaller pipe. The Mariner East 2X is a 16-inch NGL line that will run parallel to the ME2 and is scheduled to be completed at the end of 2019.

In March 2018 Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission ordered a temporary shutdown of the Mariner East 1, saying it could have a “catastrophic” effect on public safety if it leaks. The commission said the pipeline had been exposed by the appearance of sinkholes near the construction of the two other Mariner pipelines. On May 3, 2018 the PUC allowed NGLs to flow through the pipeline after their inspectors reported the sinkholes did not pose a threat to public safety.

In mid-December 2018, Chester County’s district attorney opened a criminal investigation into the pipeline project, saying the sinkholes at Lisa Drive show that the project has endangered life and property. As part of the probe, he impaneled a grand jury. Sunoco called the allegations “baseless” and said it is “confident that we have not acted to violate any criminal laws in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

A hybrid Mariner East 2 line went into service at the end of December 2018. It was planned as a 20-inch cross-state pipeline. But because the full length of the 20-inch line will not be finished until 2020, Energy Transfer has said, the company will join three different pipelines to create a line through which natural gas liquids will flow temporarily.

In March 2019, the Delaware County district attorney and the state attorney general’s office began a criminal investigation of the pipeline project. Sunoco once again said there is no basis for an investigation.

In November 2019, The Associated Press reported that the FBI had opened a criminal investigation into how the Gov. Wolf administration issued permits for the project.

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