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Shut down Mariner East before it kills us, pipeline foes implore Pennsylvania agency

Opponents say the Sunoco pipelines, which carry gas liquids like propane to a export terminal in Marcus Hook, are too close to houses and schools to be safe.

A sinkhole that developed in 2018 in West Whiteland Township is one of several problems that have occurred along Mariner East pipeline project, causing some residents to file protests.
A sinkhole that developed in 2018 in West Whiteland Township is one of several problems that have occurred along Mariner East pipeline project, causing some residents to file protests.Read moreCOURTESY OF TJ ALLEN

The contentious Sunoco Mariner East project once again occupied center stage in a courtroom Wednesday as 10 residents and a homeowners association from the Philadelphia suburbs implored a state agency to halt the cross-state pipeline.

A Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission (PUC) hearing examiner opened two days of testimony in West Chester from witnesses who complain that the $5.1 billion project is unsafe and should be shut down before a disaster strikes. They say the Mariner East project, whose three pipelines carry natural gas liquids such as propane from the Marcellus Shale region to an export terminal in Marcus Hook, is too close to houses and schools to be safe and was recklessly approved by the state.

“It’s not that we’re against the pipeline, it’s that we’re for basic things that are threatened by this project, the first of which is obviously the safety of our communities,” said Eric Friedman, the head of the Andover Homeowners Association in Thornbury Township, Delaware County. He said all of the residents in the 39-home subdivision live in a potential “fatality zone” if the pipeline fails.

The Andover Homeowners Association is among several complainants whose cases are before Administrative Law Judge Elizabeth Barnes. The PUC judge in November declined a request by a group of residents known as the “Safety Seven” to grant an emergency injunction blocking construction of the project and consolidated five cases into one.

The consolidated case is moving forward on a prolonged timetable — Barnes has scheduled expert witnesses to testify next July — which means it’s likely the judge will issue a recommended decision, and the PUC will make a final decision, around the end of next year.

The three Mariner East pipelines, two of which are already operating, are scheduled to be completed long before a decision comes. Sunoco Pipeline LP, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer LP of Dallas, says it is set to finish the third pipeline at the end of this year, though it still faces litigation from Chester County over access to county land on which Chester County revoked rights of way this year.

About a dozen local governments, school districts, or elected officials have intervened in the residents’ case before the PUC, including Delaware and Chester Counties. Their lawyers filled the jury box Wednesday in Courtroom 1 of the historic Chester County Courthouse.

Range Resources Corp., an anchor shipper on the pipeline, has joined the case on Sunoco’s side.

The hearing, which attracted about 50 spectators, coincides with local elections, and the Mariner East project has become a political issue in some jurisdictions following a series of construction mishaps, sinkholes, and leaks. State environmental regulators have hit Sunoco with $13.5 million in fines since 2017, and the Chester County district attorney announced last month that his office plans to sue the project as a public nuisance.

Separate from the court cases, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is developing new permit conditions and policy guidelines for future pipeline projects. And the PUC is reexamining its regulations governing the construction and operation of pipelines, such as Mariner East, that carry highly volatile liquids.

“It was very important for the public to have an opportunity to voice their concerns because there’s been a lot of obfuscation and misinformation coming out of Sunoco Logistics,” said Michelle Kichline, chair of the Chester County Commissioners, using a former corporate name for the pipeline company.

“This has become a little bit of a circus with all these parties,” said Eric Friedman, of the Andover Homeowners Association.

Friedman, a federal aviation safety inspector and a vocal critic of the project, came armed with more than 1,000 pages of documents and aerial drone footage of construction to buttress his central argument against Sunoco. He says the company’s public awareness flyer downplays the pipeline’s risk to residents and is deficient under state and federal law.

Friedman, a frequent litigant against the project, argues that there is essentially no escape for nearby residents if the pipeline leaks highly volatile gas liquids, including propane, butane, and ethane that can form an odorless ground-hugging explosive cloud if they escape into the atmosphere.

Sunoco’s lawyers Robert D. Fox, of Manko, Gold, Katcher & Fox LLP, and Thomas Sniscak, of Hawke McKeon & Sniscak LLP, attempted to discredit Friedman, characterizing him as an anti-pipeline activist whose positions on safety are inconsistent. Friedman has challenged the PUC’s refusal to release some pipeline information that the agency says is confidential for security purposes.

“He has repeatedly talked about safety risks, but when it was in his own interest, he takes a completely different position,” said Fox.

The suspicion and mistrust between the parties was evident during Sunoco’s cross-examination of Friedman, which was interrupted by frequent objections from the residents’ lawyers, Michael S. Bomstein and Rich Raiders. Friedman responded by offering unsolicited assessments of Sunoco’s safety record, setting off more rounds of legal jousting.

Sunoco lawyers asked Friedman to read the conclusion of a report by a West Goshen Township pipeline consultant, who said an older section of pipeline repurposed by Sunoco “meets and exceeds” federal pipeline safety regulations.

"Are you aware of these conclusions?” Fox asked.

“I’m aware of the words on this page,” Friedman said.

The second day of hearings will be Thursday, starting at 9 a.m.