DEP hands Sunoco ‘historic’ fine

Construction on Mariner East 2 pipeline to resume

Work on the controversial Mariner East 2 pipeline can resume, according to a decision by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

But developers also must pay a “historic” $12.6 million civil penalty for violating terms of DEP construction permits while building the 300-plus-mile pipeline.

“Throughout the life of this project, DEP has consistently held this operator to the highest standard possible,” DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said in a statement.

Thursday’s announcement allowing work to resume follows weeks of halted construction. On Jan. 3, DEP officials suspended construction permits issued for the project, citing violations of the state Clean Streams Law and Title 25 of the Pennsylvania Code.

Sunoco Pipeline LP, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, is constructing the Mariner East 2 — a natural gas pipeline planned to cross the state, passing through Blair, Cambria and Huntingdon counties along the way.

January’s 24-page suspension order cited a number of construction violations including the discharge of industrial waste into state waters without a permit and a failure by Sunoco officials to secure authorization before drilling at several sites, including in Blair County.

“A permit suspension is one of the most significant penalties DEP can levy,” McDonnell said in his Thursday statement. “Our action to suspend the permits associated with this project, and the collection of this penalty, are indicative of the strict oversight that DEP has consistently exercised over this project.”

Before the suspension could be lifted, Sunoco officials and employees were required to meet 21 stipulations handed down by DEP leaders via an administrative order.

Sunoco representatives “adequately demonstrated compliance with” or “adequately addressed” all 21 of those stipulations and concerns, according to a document posted to the DEP website.

On Thursday, DEP officials entered into a lengthy consent order agreement with Sunoco.

In addition to allowing work to resume along the pipeline route, the order places a $12.6 million penalty on Sunoco — a civil penalty DEP spokesman Neil Shader called one of the largest in the state’s history.

The $12.6 million will go to the Clean Water Fund and the Dams and Encroachments Fund.

Sunoco officials also agreed to withdraw an appeal of the Jan. 3 suspension order, according to DEP.

Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields responded to Thursday’s agreement in an email.

“While we strongly disagree with their legal conclusions that our conduct was willful or egregious, we felt it was important to our unit holders and to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that we move forward rather than engage in continued litigation,” Shields said in the email. “We are committed to fully complying with the DEP order, which includes following all permit requirements.”

Locally and across the state, the Mariner East 2 has faced opposition from environmentalists and property rights advocates, who view the pipeline as a potential risk.

Others, however, have rallied behind Sunoco, citing the project’s many purported economic benefits.

Those conversations continued in the wake of Thursday’s agreement.

“Mariner East 2 is critical to Pennsylvania’s economy, and resumption of construction will put thousands of workers back on the job,” Shields said.

Pipeline opponents, including Sam Rubin of the Food & Water Watch, were critical of DEP’s agreement.

“This outrageous deal sacrifices the health and safety of Pennsylvanians for mere pocket change from Sunoco,” Rubin said. “Governor Wolf’s message to the thousands of schoolchildren living within the blast zone of the Mariner East 2 is simple: Your safety is less important than Sunoco’s profits.”

Joseph Otis Minott, executive director and chief counsel with the Clean Air Council, also issued a statement.

“I am not satisfied that DEP and Sunoco’s agreement will be robust enough to prevent the same types of egregious environmental harm from occurring during future construction,” he said.

On Thursday, DEP officials offered assurances that project oversight would not end and that work will be closely monitored to “ensure that Sunoco is meeting the terms of this agreement and its permits.”

Shields said Sunoco officials look forward to getting back to work.

“With mainline pipeline construction approximately 93 percent complete and horizontal directional drilling approximately 64 percent complete … we look forward to completing the Mariner East 2 project safely and beginning service in a timely manner,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.