In a settlement with environmental groups, Sunoco Pipeline LP agreed Tuesday to allow more state oversight of its horizontal drilling operations on the contentious Mariner East 2 project, which has been hampered by a series of spills and contamination of private water wells.
The agreement, posted online late Tuesday afternoon by the state Environmental Hearing Board, requires Sunoco to re-evaluate plans for horizontal drilling and to submit the plans for approval to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. DEP will have 21 days to review the plans.
Sunoco also agreed to send copies of the plans to landowners who have private wells within 450 feet of the planned underground drilling. Sunoco must also notify private well owners 10 days before drilling restarts, and the landowners can request their water wells get tested "before, during, and after" drilling is started.
The settlement was reached between Sunoco and the Clean Air Council, the Mountain Watershed Association, and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. The organizations last month sought an emergency order blocking Sunoco's horizontal drilling practices after a series of mishaps.
Environmental Hearing Board Judge Bernard Labuskes Jr. on Tuesday canceled three days of hearings that were set to begin on Wednesday in Harrisburg, but kept a temporary ban in place on most of Sunoco's drilling operations until the board reviews the proposed settlement.
State Sen. Andrew E. Dinniman (D., Chester), a pipeline critic, said the settlement includes "additional and more extensive geotechnical and geologic evaluations, surveys, and sampling, as well as increased and improved notification standards for residents who may be impacted by horizontal direct drilling activities."
He said the agreement appears to include nearly all the stipulations that he had requested from Sunoco and DEP since the Mariner East drilling operations contaminated the private wells of 14 households in West Whiteland Township last month.
Sunoco, through a spokesman, declined to comment on the settlement until after it had been approved by Labuskes.
The settlement would conclude an intervention by the environmental groups, led by the Clean Air Council's lawyers, to halt Sunoco's horizontal drilling activity. The Clean Air Council had said the court's immediate intervention was needed to prevent an "unspooling disaster." But the group's six-month effort to override state permits allowing Sunoco to proceed with its 350-mile pipeline remain are still ongoing before the Environmental Hearing Board.
Labuskes, on July 25, granted a temporary ban at 55 locations where Sunoco was conducting horizontal directional drilling, a method of pipeline construction that involves drilling a lateral bore through the bedrock for distances of a mile or more to avoid the nuisance of having to excavate a trench to bury the pipe. On Friday, he allowed Sunoco to restart drilling at 16 locations.
Most of the pipeline is being installed in conventional open trenches, which aren't affected by the order and where work continues. But a ban on horizontal drilling would be a major setback for Sunoco's $2.5 billion project to deliver natural gas liquids such as propane from the Marcellus Shale region to a terminal in Marcus Hook.
Underground work is still halted under a West Whiteland neighborhood where the drilling turned well water cloudy in early July. Sunoco responded by agreeing to pay to extend public water service to an enclave of homes using private wells near Shoen Road.
Sunoco, which is owned by Energy Transfer Partners LP of Texas, is building the cross-state Mariner East 2 pipeline largely along the same route as the smaller Mariner East 1 pipeline, which went into service more than two years ago.
The company decided to use the horizontal drilling method to install the new pipeline beneath large streams, rivers, and highways, and under densely developed areas, to reduce the nuisance caused by cutting an open trench. But the technique seems to be causing more public and regulatory disturbances than anticipated.
This article has been corrected to clarify that the settlement pertains only to Sunoco's horizontal drilling activity, and that the Clean Air Council's efforts to block the company's permits are still ongoing.