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PUC judge halts Sunoco's Mariner East pipeline, yet again

The shutdown comes less than a month after the full Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission ruled the pipeline can resume operations safely.

Pipes for Sunoco’s Mariner East Pipeline project await installation at the border of West Whiteland and Uwchlan townships near Exton.
Pipes for Sunoco’s Mariner East Pipeline project await installation at the border of West Whiteland and Uwchlan townships near Exton.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Less than a month after the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission allowed Sunoco Pipeline LP to restart its Mariner East 1 pipeline, a PUC hearing examiner on Thursday reversed course and ordered Sunoco to shut down operations again.

Elizabeth Barnes, a PUC administrative law judge sitting in Harrisburg, issued an emergency order Thursday instructing Sunoco to immediately suspend service on the Mariner pipeline in West Whiteland Township, Chester County, where sinkholes appeared earlier this year.

Barnes also ordered Sunoco to halt construction of two new Mariner East pipelines in West Whiteland, an impediment to completion of the expansion project on which Sunoco is spending $5.1 billion in Pennsylvania. Sunoco says the Mariner East 2, the first of the two new 350-mile pipelines, is 98 percent complete.

The judge acted in response to a complaint from State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D., Chester), a vocal opponent of the project, about the safety of the construction in West Whiteland. The emergency order throws the Mariner East system, which delivers Marcellus Shale gas liquids to a terminal in Marcus Hook, into disarray.

"The order is a resounding affirmation of everything we've been saying — the Mariner East pipeline project has potentially endangered our neighborhoods, schools, environment, property rights, water resources, infrastructure, and the health, safety, well-being, and very way of life in our communities," Dinniman said in a statement Thursday.

Sunoco's parent company, Energy Transfer Partners LP, said in a statement Thursday that the judges order is a "significant departure" from the law and PUC's procedures. Under the commission's rules, it has seven days to request the five-member PUC to review the judge's order.

"The entire energy industry should be concerned about today's order and consider this result when making decisions regarding future capital investments in the state as it upends Pennsylvania's entire regulatory environment," ETP said in its statement.

The company says it plans to continue construction work on "all areas along the route except for the 3.5-mile segment that runs through West Whiteland Township."

The Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, a coalition of labor and industry groups, said the "misguided" decision runs counter to previous rulings, including the PUC's May 3 unanimously vote to allow Sunoco to resume pumping Marcellus Shale natural gas liquids such as propane through the Mariner East 1 pipeline. The commission had ordered the shutdown in March after sinkholes opened up during construction of the new Mariner East 2 pipeline along the same route.

At the time the PUC allowed service to restart, the PUC's Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement said it was satisfied that the pipeline "can resume operations safely."

But the PUC also made clear that its decision was narrowly focused on the immediate threat from the sinkholes, and it said that the broader safety concerns of pipeline opponents would be addressed in Dinniman's complaint.

Barnes has previously ruled against the contentious Mariner East project. In 2014, she coauthored a recommended decision that determined the project was not a public utility. The PUC later rejected that position, granting the Mariner project the public utility status that allowed Sunoco to acquire vital rights of way using eminent domain power.

The judge's order requires Sunoco to conduct a broad array of assessments its old and new Mariner East pipelines, including the integrity Mariner East 1 pipeline. The ME1 pipeline was built in 1931 to deliver refined products, such as gasoline and heating oil before Sunoco repaired and repurposed it in 2014 to carry gas liquids from the booming Marcellus Shale fields.

The judge also granted Dinniman's request to force Sunoco to create a public risk analysis "and other information required to warn and protect the public from danger and to reduce the hazards to which the public may be subjected." The issue has been central for pipeline opponents, who say the company has not been forthright about the risks of delivering highly volatile liquids underground in densely developed areas.

Barnes said she also weighed Sunoco's record of mishaps  in ordering a halt to operations and construction in West Whiteland.

"Sunoco has made deliberate managerial decisions to proceed in what appears to be a rushed manner in an apparent prioritization of profit over the best engineering practices available in our time that might best ensure public safety," she said.