DEP seeks updated plan from Sunoco for Mariner East 2

Three groups suing for contract breach of agreement reached in August 2017

Representatives from the Depart­ment of Environmental Protection used their visit to the area Thursday to try to ease environmental concerns surrounding the Sunoco Mariner East 2 pipeline, a controversial project with a history of lawsuits and settlements.

Sunoco Pipeline LP, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, agreed to pay a $12.6 million fine to resume construction under a Feb. 8 consent agreement. DEP had halted pipeline construction on Jan. 3 because Sunoco violated permits pertaining to erosion sediment control and wetland impacts and stream crossings.

DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said during a stop at the agency’s Altoona office that DEP asked Sunoco for an updated operations plan for addressing impacts moving forward, some additional geological evaluations and additional staff training “in order to be confident” for the company to continue construction.

Joseph Adams, regional director of DEP’s south central regional office, said: “We needed them to do an accounting of their operations and let us know where things stood. The communication hadn’t been great so far as ‘What are you doing here? What are you doing there?'”

“There seemed to have been some deviations from the plan in some of the areas, and we needed to make sure that didn’t happen again,” Adams said, adding that Sunoco had to report back on pipeline operations to increase accountability. He said the DEP also conducts construction report reviews and inspections of the project on a regular basis.

Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields wrote in an email, “Building Mariner East 2 safely while minimizing environmental impact continues to be our priorities as we complete this important energy infrastructure project that has employed thousands of Pennsyl­vanians in its construction.”

He added, “The comprehensive conditions of our environmental permits, including additional protocols added over the course of construction, ensure that Penn­syl­vania’s environment is being protected.”

Sunoco and DEP are facing a lawsuit filed Feb. 28 by three environmental groups: the Clean Air Council, Delaware Riverkeeper Network and Mountain Watershed Association.

Alex Bomstein, the senior litigation attorney for Clean Air Council, said there was a contract breach of an August 2017 negotiated agreement with Sunoco and the DEP. The three organizations agreed to drop their request to halt drilling in exchange for a series of safety protections. But according to Bomstein, the DEP and Sunoco entered a second agreement without the consultation of the three organizations and withdrew some of the safety protections.

Bomstein said a couple of the protections withdrawn include a requirement for the DEP to inspect the site of a drilling spill before operations resume and the same level of protection for groundwater as surface water.

The three organizations submitted an injunction request to restore environmental protections.

“It’s a problem if the public and organizations such as ours that advocate on behalf of the public can’t trust the Department of Environ­mental Protection to not walk back an agreement that we made in good faith with them,” Bomstein said.

McDonnell said he could not comment about ongoing litigation involving the DEP.

Since its inception, the 350-mile pipeline project has experienced a number of spills and leaks of drilling fluid, causing concerns among environmental groups and landowners.

Ellen Gerhart of Huntingdon County is one of those landowners. She owns about 27 acres of land, with 3 acres that include wetlands to be used for the pipeline. There is active construction on the east and west sides of her family’s property, Gerhart said.

“There are many reasons to oppose this pipeline. One is that even though the Public Utility Commission has deemed it to be a public utility, it is in fact shipping natural gas liquids which are destined to be exported overseas for plastics,” Gerhart said. “It is not shipping for anything that is going to be used for fuel for cars or heating fuel, which is a misconception that many people have.”

She added Sunoco has changed operations managers several times and has a “horrendous track record as far as safety goes,” citing three sinkholes in Chester County.

Mike Ewall, executive director of the Energy Justice Network, said “Sunoco’s unsafe natural gas liquids pipeline is widely opposed by landowners and environmentalists for good reason. Impacts from forced taking of land to contaminated water to more extreme weather are all valid concerns that are disregarded by Sunoco and the bipartisan support for outdated energy sources like this.”

The injunction hearing will be March 19 in Com­mon­wealth Court in Harrisburg.

The mainline pipeline construction is about 93 percent complete and horizontal directional drilling is about 64 percent complete, according to Sunoco Pipeline’s website.