Pipeline drilling to resume with more oversight

Construction, including drilling, will resume along the route of Sunoco Pipeline LP’s Mariner East 2 following a settlement approved Wednesday by a state Environmental Hearing Board judge.

An attorney representing an environmental group challenging pipeline-related permits said the agreement will further protect those living near the proposed pipeline’s path.

“This is a win,” said Alex Bomstein, an attorney with the Clean Air Council, which is challenging state Department of Environmental Protection permits alongside the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and Mountain Watershed Association.

“This is an important step forward, but it doesn’t mean the pipeline is now safe,” he continued. “We continue to pursue our appeal of the permits, which were wrongly issued.”

The order — proposed Tuesday and approved by state Environmental Hearing Board Judge Bernard A. Labuskes on Wednesday — allows horizontal directional drilling to resume at 55 construction locations.

In mid-July, Labuskes ordered a halt on all drilling at those 55 locations, though that order was later amended to allow drilling at select sites across the state, including in Blair and Huntingdon counties.

Sunoco Pipeline LP — a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners — is building a 300-plus-mile pipeline to transport natural gas liquids across the state to a processing facility in Delaware County’s Marcus Hook area. Along the way, it will pass through Blair, Cambria and Huntingdon counties.

The ordered 55-site hiatus came soon after DEP released oversight data, which showed dozens of cases of leaked drilling lubricant, a combination of water and bentonite clay. Some leaks impacted water quality in private wells.

Though Wednesday’s settlement allows drilling to resume, it includes new stipulations.

Sunoco officials now must re-evaluate drilling at numerous construction sites.

Mariner East 2 construction requires horizontal drilling in some areas, with equipment using the clay-water lubricant to carry out removed material. Typically, the material flows out through a borehole, but at times fractures in the earth allow lubricant to leak elsewhere, which is known as an inadvertent return.

Evaluations at each site must be translated into written reports approved by a professional geologist, according to the agreement.

“The report shall specify all actions taken by Sunoco to eliminate, reduce or control the release … of … drilling fluids to the surface of the ground or impact to water supplies,” the agreement reads.

Those reports will be submitted to DEP, as well as the three environmental groups challenging the permits and any landowner with property within 450 feet of a drilling site, according to the agreement, which also stipulates notifications in other cases.

“I think it will be very helpful,” Bomstein said, explaining the agreement will ensure those affected by the project are well informed.

Sunoco officials also applauded the agreement in a statement released by company spokesman Jeff Shields.

“We are pleased to have reached an agreement that will allow us to proceed with horizontal directional drilling on the Mariner East 2 pipeline in a manner that demonstrates our commitment to the Commonwealth and our neighbors to protect Pennsylvania’s natural resources during construction,” it reads.

“We will continue to adhere to the strict conditions of our permits, including the enhanced standards for planning, outreach and reporting,” the statement continues. “The agreement will put hundreds of workers back on the job as we complete this transformational infrastructure project.”

In both Huntingdon and Blair counties — as well as across the state — the pipeline has faced opposition from protesters, who claim it is a risk to the environment, while others have supported the pipeline for its economic benefits.

Following Wednesday’s settlement, both opponents and supporters offered comments.

“With this settlement we are getting better protections for our community and the environment which is good,” Delaware Riverkeeper Network leader Maya van Rossum said in a statement “But it is wrong that our organizations had to bring this legal action to get us to this point.”

In a news release, Kurt Knaus, a spokesman with the Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, said his organization is glad to see drilling resume.

“Although the drilling component is just a small part of the overall pipeline construction project, it had idled hundreds of workers,” the release read.

The environmental organizations will continue to challenge DEP permits, but no court dates had been scheduled as of Wednesday afternoon, Bomstein said.

Mirror Staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.

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