Following Spills and Sinkholes, Mariner East Pipeline Opponents Call on PA Governor Wolf to Stop Construction


By Dan Zegart and Sharon Kelly 

A rally in West Chester, Pennsylvania, on Saturday drew a crowd of roughly 200 opponents to Sunoco’s Mariner East projects, who cited a litany of concerns about the company’s plans to pipe natural gas liquids like propane, butane, and ethane from the Marcellus shale 350 miles across Pennsylvania for export.

“This project has made many of us in this community and across Pennsylvania unlikely pipeline activists,” said Ginny Marcille-Kerslake, a resident of West Whiteland Township who lived across the street from a Sunoco drill site. “Opposition to this project has brought together parents, grandparents, neighbors, legislators, emergency responders, business owners, school boards, Republicans, and Democrats alike.”

On May 21, Administrative Law Judge Elizabeth Barnes ordered an emergency halt to construction work on the 20-inch diameter Mariner East 2 and the 16-inch Mariner 2X, and also stopped operation of the Mariner East 1 (ME1), an 80-year-old 8-inch line also carrying explosive natural gas liquids (NGLs) that in some places lies only 27 inches below ground. By contrast, Mariner East 2 is up to nine feet below ground.

This order required Sunoco to provide information about its welding records on the aging Mariner East 1 and to provide updated emergency response plans. In the past year, ME1 suffered three leaks in heavily populated areas but failed to detect or report any of them, wrote Barnes. In one leak, in Morgantown, it took Sunoco 90 minutes to shut off the pipeline, allowing 1,000 gallons of NGLs to leak out. 

This is a dangerous quantity of hazardous gas,” Barnes noted.

Sunoco may have given safety pamphlets to 66,000 people along the 350-mile route, and to schools within (a half-mile) of the pipe,” Judge Barnes wrote. “However, given that vapor clouds can move depending on weather conditions and people are mobile within their communities, this is insufficient.”

We will pursue all legal remedies to overturn this Order, including our right to request [Public Utility Commission] review of the Order, which will be filed within the next seven days,” Sunoco Pipeline said in a statement on May 24.

The pipeline project has been plagued by spills and mishaps, racking up over 100 spills and creating huge sinkholes in suburban subdevelopments. In addition, it has been blamed for the contamination of a dozen water wells and hit with fines as high as $12.6 million by state regulators over permit violations.

Sunoco’s been its own worst enemy,” said State Senator Andy Dinniman, who gave an impassioned speech at the Saturday rally in which he said the pipeline builders’ disregard for property and environmental rights shows that they “don’t respect the constitution of this commonwealth.”

Pennsylvania State Senator Andy Dinniman and his dog Jagger outside the West Chester County Courthouse © Laura Evangelisto 2018

It was Dinniman who filed a complaint with the state Public Utility Commission in late May about a string of potentially dangerous mishaps involving Sunoco-Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) pipelines running through his district in Chester County. These included sinkholes in West Whiteland Township that exposed part of ME1, something that Dinniman and residents argue was inevitable given the area’s unstable geology, as well as the apparent contamination of well water by fluids used in horizontal drilling.

Dinniman, who lives just two miles from the pipeline, noted that in none of these cases did Sunoco-ETP notify the state Department of Environmental Protection, which according to Judge Barnes has hit the company with 50 Notices of Violation since May 9, 2017.

When Mariner East I was built in the 1930s, these Philadelphia suburbs were largely farmlands. Now, the pipeline’s route, which the much larger Mariner East 2 and 2X follow, runs through densely populated areas, within feet of elementary schools, businesses, and homes across Pennsylvania’s southern tier.  

“It goes under a playground, two little league fields,” said Jerry McMullen of Exton, Pennsylvania. “It goes past a nursing home, another shopping center, through two neighborhoods.”

There’s just incident after incident,” Jerry McMullen of Exton, Pennsylvania, said about Sunoco Pipeline’s safety record © Laura Evangelisto 2018

“Just north of us, they contaminated 12 wells,” McMullen, who added that Mariner East 1 runs through his backyard, 32 feet from his home. “Just south of it, on Lisa Drive, they opened up all those sinkholes. All that is in a span of probably three miles and we’re right in the middle of that stretch.”

Nancy McMullen, Jerry’s wife, said that she gardens in the backyard of the home where they’ve lived for 43 years, and was concerned that Sunoco was ill-prepared for the unstable karst formations that are common in the area — even in her own garden.

When we dig, you should see, we find sandy limestone and you can see why it’s unstable, it just disintegrates,” she said.

Adding to the danger for the older Mariner East pipeline is that Sunoco reversed the direction of flow so the smaller line can also bring NGLs from the Marcellus to the Philadelphia area for export. This despite a 2014 bulletin from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)  warning about alterations in flow direction, or to the petroleum product being shipped, pipeline pressure, and other significant variables.    

Failures on natural gas transmission and hazardous liquid pipelines have occurred after these operational changes,” PHMSA cautioned, pointing to two serious oil spills following flow reversals. However, neither accident involved the far more hazardous NGLs.

In her Mariner East ruling, Judge Barnes pointed to the role karst formations played in creating a 15-foot wide, 20-foot deep sinkhole at 491 Lisa Drive in early March. She added that testimony from a Sunoco witness claiming the earlier state-ordered shutdown of operations on the pipeline had led to the sinkhole was not a credible explanation. Other sinkholes opened just south of 491 in the path of both Mariner East 1 and Mariner East 2X, and a spill of drilling fluids caused another at 479 Lisa Drive.

A visit to Lisa Drive last week revealed a once-comfortable suburban cul de sac filled with pick-up trucks belonging to pipeline crews, who were still working on the sinkholes with heavy equipment in backyards.

A protester at Saturday’s rally carries a sign calling attention to the dense population along Mariner East’s route. © Laura Evangelisto 2018

A few miles southeast, in Media, Pennsylvania, both Sunoco and the state Public Utility Commission are looking into how an excavator operated by a water main contractor struck and slightly damaged the Mariner East 2 pipeline in the front yard of a house across the street from the Glenwood Elementary school on May 21. 

In a statement, Sunoco Pipeline said that the damage was minimal, just scratches to the pipeline’s protective coating. But rally participants described their concern that a more serious strike could have resulted in a catastrophe for 415 young children who attend the school.

Had this occurred when the pipeline was operating, a strike by a piece of heavy equipment could cause an explosion,” said Eric Friedman, spokesman for the Middletown Coalition for Community Safety.

Friedman noted that almost exactly a year before the accident, the elementary school did an evacuation drill to prepare for a potential pipeline leak. But he said the Rose Tree-Media School District, one of 40 within Mariner East’s “blast zone” — the area immediately impacted by a breach in the pipeline — has received no information from Sunoco or the state on how to prepare for a leak. 

With no hard data, school officials and residents don’t even know if they can safely use cell phone alerts to warn of a leak because the gas is so volatile, using a cell phone might set it off, said Friedman.

Equally disturbing was the fact that the excavator accident happened because Sunoco’s records showed the pipe at nine feet below ground when in fact it was only six feet down, said Friedman. That means the data provided to the state’s “One Call” pipeline safety system, the “Call before you dig” number used to avoid pipeline accidents, may not be trustworthy.

Drilling mud leak along Mariner East near apartment buildings
Workers have struggled to repair an “inadvertent return” of drilling mud at the Turnbridge Apartments in Middletown, Pennsylvania, where Mariner East’s route runs within 25 feet of apartment buildings. © Laura Evangelisto 2018

Some pipeline opponents argue that the project has been rushed and that state regulators need to slow things down. Others suggest the problem runs deeper.

“It wouldn’t be safe for them to do it if they had all the time in the world, because it doesn’t make any difference, pipelines leak at some point,” said Ellen Gerhart, a landowner who has hosted a pipeline protest encampment known as Camp White Pine.

Her daughter Elise spent the weekend at the Fight Toxic Prisons convergence organized by the Abolitionist Law Center in Pittsburgh, Ellen said, while she attended the Mariner East rally in West Chester. That event centers on drawing connections between the environmental movement and prison justice struggles, focusing on how mass incarceration has left prisoners and residents of surrounding communities at risk of harm from toxic mold, contaminated water, and other hazards.

Gerhart, 63, also described her own experiences with the prison system after being arrested for civil disobedience surrounding pipeline construction on her property, including one instance where she was kept in solitary confinement for three days after declining to answer questions without an attorney present.

Gerhart pushed back against the argument that pipelines have a better safety record than transporting fossil fuels by tanker truck or rail.

“My contention is if you have a truck or you have a train, you have a confined amount” of fossil fuels, she said, whereas a pipeline carries far higher volumes so the consequences of a single accident can be more severe.

Ellen Gerhart at the rally on Saturday. © Laura Evangelisto 2018

With Judge Barnes’ suspension order to be reviewed by Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission at its June 14 meeting, public interest groups are raising red flags about financial ties between the PUC and the gas industry. Four of the five commissioners have close professional or financial ties to the oil and gas industry, according to a Public Accountability Initiative report issued Friday.

Commissioner Norman J. Kennard was previously a partner at the law firm currently representing Sunoco on Mariner East. Commissioner David Sweet is also an ex-partner at a law firm that represents Sunoco. Commissioner Andrew Place is a former executive at a major drilling firm, and Commissioner John Coleman is a director at SilcoTek, which provides high-tech protective coatings to the oil and gas industry, the report found.

Given that a majority of commissioners have built careers tied to oil and gas interests, it’s important that the public be aware of any potential conflicts as the PUC gets ready to decide on the Mariner East project,” Derek Seidman, author of the report, said in a statement.

Sunoco is under heavy pressure from its business partners to get Mariner East 1 flowing again and to finish Mariner East 2 and 2X soon. It currently expects to have Mariner East 2 in operation by the third quarter of this year and to finish construction on the 2X project by the end of 2019.

Following the latest accident, drilling company Range Resources, one of the largest natural gas liquids producers in the state, said it had reached commercial agreements to move natural gas liquids that were to be shipped on Mariner East 1 via other pipelines.

The issue is of the market maintaining confidence in the viability of the Mariner East system as a whole,” Debnil Chowdhury, executive director of NGL research at IHS Markit, told Kallanish Energy in April, following the first shutdown. “The main concern is, or soon will be, whether takers of their supply are now rethinking long-term contracts on Mariner East 2 because of this incident raising questions on reliability of the supply.”

Those export plans are also under fire from environmental activists, who argue that the shale industry’s plans to separate and sell ethane from fracked gas wells to produce plastics creates grave environmental problems at every step of the chain.

Currently, much of the ethane from fracked wells remains mixed with the methane sold to utilities and home owners as natural gas — but ethane alone attracts a higher price from the petrochemical industry for use in chemical fertilizers and plastics.

It’s bad for public health, it’s bad for the climate, and all for the end of churning out ever more plastic, which is already killing the oceans. We’ve got sea life dying from the inside out as they swallow plastic bags,” said biologist Sandra Steingraber, co-founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking. “And so everybody’s running around and saying don’t order a plastic straw, we’re all trying to take this sort of lifestyle, consumerism approach. We’re going to get lots more plastic straws coming at us, lots more plastic bags, just because the chemical industry solves a waste disposal problem for the energy industry.”

Sandra Steingraber spoke at Saturday’s rally about plans to export ethane to Scotland and other countries for use in the petrochemical industry. © Laura Evangelisto 2018

Others at the Saturday rally questioned whether Pennsylvania should make the plastics industry a cornerstone of the state’s economy.

My concern is that once we start building that into our budget as fixes for structural budget problems,” said Anton Andrew, an attorney running for state representative in Delaware County, “we then rely on an inherently dangerous industry.”

Earlier this year, the administration of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf came under scrutiny over the role that the governor’s aide Yesenia Bane, the wife of a gas industry lobbyist, played in greasing the wheels for Department of Environmental Protection permits for Mariner East. Text messages obtained by State Impact, an NPR reporting project, as part of a lawsuit led to an ongoing investigation by the State Ethics Commission that was made public in May.

Environmental groups are now calling on the governor to reconsider the Mariner East projects.

We’ve seen contaminated waters, drilling spills, and massive sinkholes,” Food and Water Watch said in a statement announcing the event. “Governor Wolf, it’s time for you to stand up against the greed, recklessness, and arrogance of Sunoco Logistics.”

Main image credit: © Laura Evangelisto 2018

Sharon Kelly is an attorney and freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She has reported for The New York Times, The Guardian, The Nation, National Wildlife, Earth Island Journal, and a variety of other publications. Prior to beginning freelance writing, she worked as a law clerk for the ACLU of Delaware.

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