State halts Mariner East II pipeline construction for environmental violations
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has ordered Sunoco Logistics LP to stop work on the 306-mile, $2.5 billion Mariner East II pipeline.
Sunoco violated its permits, using unauthorized drilling methods that leaked nontoxic drilling fluid into trout streams and water wells across the state, according to the DEP.
The state discovered Sunoco was using unauthorized drilling methods after learning of a drilling fluid leak into a Berks County creek in November, the DEP order states.
Over the next few weeks, the state discovered numerous other sites in Berks, Blair, Cumberland, Dauphin, Huntingdon, Perry and Washington counties where unauthorized drilling methods were being used, often resulting in drill fluid leaking into nearby bodies of water, several of which were designated trout streams, according to the DEP.
Sunoco's permits for the affected areas called for digging a trench to install the pipeline. Instead the company used horizontal directional drilling — which takes place almost entirely underground. In Westmoreland County, the pipeline traverses Sewickley, Hempfield, Penn, Salem, Loyalhanna and Derry townships.
“They are bound by the permit conditions, and in this case they violated them by using different techniques,” said DEP spokesman Neil Shader. “Our inspectors have to be aware of what is going where when they go out to do spot checks and other inspections.”
The DEP has recorded more than 100 “inadvertent returns” — leaks of drilling fluid and other liquids — related to the construction of the pipeline since May. These range from tiny spills of less than a pint to 160,000 gallons leaked into a Cumberland County wetland. There were 20 spills in Westmoreland County, mostly around Loyalhanna Lake.
Sunoco said in a statement it plans to quickly comply with the requirements set by the state and restart construction soon.
“We intend to expeditiously submit these reports and we are confident that we will be reauthorized to commence work on this project promptly. We also reiterate our commitment to the highest levels of construction expertise and our dedication to preserving and protecting the environment in which we conduct our work,” the statement said.
Municipal leaders in Westmoreland County said as far as they know local drilling for the pipeline is already done, or nearly so.
“What I see through the township here is they've got some dressing up to do, but they're pretty much done,” said Salem Township Supervisor Robert Zundel.
A December newsletter from Sunoco said work on the project was 91 percent done, with work in Washington, Allegheny and Westmoreland counties 84 percent complete.
The 20- and 16-inch pipelines will be able to carry 275,000 barrels of liquid natural gas a day and cross 270 properties over 36 miles in Westmoreland. The new pipelines will run parallel to the existing Mariner East I line.
Under the DEP order, Sunoco must immediately stop all work previously authorized by state DEP permits, which cover all 17 of the Pennsylvania counties spanned by the pipeline, until a slew of conditions are met.
According to the order, Sunoco has 30 days to submit a full report of any trout streams crossed by the pipeline, along with a report of any other sites that use unpermitted drilling techniques, a list of all drilling contractors and subcontractors associated with the project, an explanation of how and why the permits were violated, and a plan to prevent further violations.
Sunoco also must replace or restore private wells in Silver Spring Township, Cumberland County, where property owners reported cloudy water as a result of unauthorized drilling, according to the DEP.
“This project remains critically important for our commonwealth. Sunoco and DEP should work expeditiously to resolve this matter so safe construction can resume and this vital project can get back on track,” Kurt Knaus, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, said in a statement.
Environmental groups praised the DEP's action, though some said it does not do enough to curtail risks posed by the pipeline.
“Clean Air Council applauds Gov. Wolf's DEP for finally standing up and taking this necessary action in response to Sunoco's pattern of blatant disregard for public health and safety, Pennsylvania drinking water supplies, and other natural resources,” Joseph Otis Minott, executive director and chief counsel, said in a statement.
A judge previously halted work on the project in July when Sunoco was accused of violating a 2015 settlement with West Goshen Township, but work resumed the next month when a settlement was reached.
Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Soolseem.