Joan Dillon has followed the controversial Mariner East project for years and was aware that the state last month ordered Sunoco Pipeline LP to reroute the project after construction caused environmental damage to Marsh Creek State Park near her home in Chester County.
But Dillon was unaware that the pipeline’s new pathway would encroach on land belonging to eight owners in Upper Uwchlan Township, including her home.
“I hadn’t seen anything or heard anything about a reroute and where that might potentially be, or the fact that it might affect us here,” said Dillon, who has lived on Milford Road for 20 years. She’d rather the pipeline stay away from her land.
If Sunoco Pipeline has its way, the state would drop the order that the company says is costly and time-consuming.
Sunoco Pipeline, which is a subsidiary of Energy Transfer LP of Texas, has asked the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board to overturn the state’s order requiring it to abandon its current route, calling the order “arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of its discretion.” It said the new route will add $12 million to $19 million in costs, and push back completion by two years.
Environmental Hearing Board Judge Bernard A. Labuskes Jr. has scheduled three days of hearings starting Tuesday to hear Sunoco’s request for an emergency intervention to block the order by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which regulates pipeline construction.
Sunoco says the one-mile detour of its Mariner East 2 pipeline will require new permits and new easements, and will disturb more wetlands and bore under the Pennsylvania Turnpike at two locations. It will require trenching near five homes, including Dillon’s. Overall, the detour would add more time and costs to finish a segment of the pipeline that Sunoco said was less than 60 days from completion when the DEP ordered a halt.
The new route “will cause significantly more harm to the public and the environment than any limited impact that may occur from completing construction," Sunoco said in its filings with the Environmental Hearing Board.
DEP’s order to reroute the Mariner East 2 pipeline came after Sunoco spilled about 8,000 gallons of drilling fluid on Aug. 10 near Marsh Creek Lake during construction. Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration, which faced attacks from pipeline opponents for allegedly being too accommodating to the $5.1 billion project, and which was the target last year of an FBI investigation on whether DEP staff was forced to approve Sunoco’s construction permits, took strong action against Sunoco.
“These incidents are yet another instance where Sunoco has blatantly disregarded the citizens and resources of Chester County with careless actions while installing the Mariner East 2 pipeline,” DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said in a statement. “We will not stand for more of the same. An alternate route must be used.”
If the judge grants its emergency request, Sunoco proposed to build a containment structure at the leak-prone location during construction and to maintain emergency equipment on site to reduce chances of a new escape of drilling fluid. The DEP had allowed similar measures at other troublesome locations on the 350-mile project, it said.
Environmental groups and residents who have been battling the pipeline for years were outraged when a sinkhole formed in August and about 8,000 gallons of drilling fluid from Sunoco’s project spurted to the surface and some of it polluted the lake at Marsh Creek State Park, one of the state’s most heavily visited parks. DEP ordered a halt to construction. A month later, it ordered Sunoco to reroute the pipeline.
The accident was the latest mishap for the Mariner East project, which carries such gas liquids as propane and ethane to an export terminal in Marcus Hook. The state has imposed at least $15.9 million in fines on Sunoco during six years of construction.
The Mariner East project is actually three pipelines that largely follow the same path: two new pipelines and an older pipeline that was returned to service in 2014 to carry gas liquids.The older pipeline and a newer pipeline are already completed near Marsh Creek. The DEP’s reroute order affects only the largest of the three pipelines.
The August drilling-fluid leak near Marsh Creek occurred in the same half-mile section where Sunoco had experienced similar leaks during the 2017 construction of the second pipeline. Sunoco redesigned the third pipeline to reduce the chances of leaks. DEP approved the plan earlier this year, though Sunoco’s engineers acknowledged that there still was a “moderate to high risk of drilling fluid loss."
Most of the Sunoco pipeline is constructed in conventional open trenches, but occasionally the company uses horizontal directional drilling (HDD) techniques to bore a deeper passage through the bedrock to pass under highways, rivers and residential areas without disturbing the surface. The steel pipe is then pulled through the borehole, which can be upward of a mile long.
During horizontal drilling, Sunoco’s project has been plagued with leaks of drilling fluid, which consists primarily of non-toxic bentonite clay. When drilling mud escapes through cracks in the rocks to the surface or pollutes nearby underground aquifers, the leaks are called “inadvertent returns.”
The August sinkhole developed where the pipeline goes underground for about a half-mile to avoid disturbing residences along Little Conestoga Road, which was the site of previous inadvertent returns during the 2017 construction. Sunoco redesigned the third pipeline to place it deeper underground.
But on Aug. 10, after Sunoco had reamed about 1,574 feet, drilling fluid once again leaked to the surface. The Clean Air Council estimated that about 1,000 gallons flowed into Marsh Creek Lakewhich also serves as a drinking water reservoir.
Sunoco downplayed the spill, saying the environmental impact was “minor and temporary” and that it had removed all drilling fluid that had impacted a wetland and two streams and is remediating a “small impacted area” of the lake. .
Sunoco’s experts said the drilling mud is comprised of non-toxic ingredients including bentonite, baking soda, citric acid, soda ash and water, and “do not present a concern for human health.”
Sunoco had initially withheld information on the costs of the detour as confidential, but Labuskes on Sunday rejected its request. Sunoco on Monday amended its filing to include cost estimates for the detour, but still did not disclose how much the delays would cost it in lost revenue.
Sunoco listed the property owners from whom it would need to acquire easements — the project is a public utility, so Sunoco has eminent domain authority.
Five of the properties are private dwellings, including one house that is only eight feet from the construction right-of-way.
Three property owners said they had no communication from Sunoco about the project, and expressed surprise that their land might be a target.
But not everyone was opposed.
“It depends on what they want and where they want to put it,” said Faye Senn, whose family operates an auto-repair business on Little Conestoga Road that Sunoco says it would need to cross. “And it depends upon how much they want to pay us.”