On February 16, Energy Transfer announced in an earnings call that construction on its long-delayed Mariner East pipeline project, built to carry natural gas liquids across southern Pennsylvania, was “complete.”
Nine days later, a truck arrived at the Tunbridge apartment complex in Middletown Township, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, carrying lengths of uninstalled pipeline, according to photographs, videos and witness accounts obtained by DeSmog. That truck arrived at a pipeline construction site already humming with activity, photos show, as workers prepared to weld those joints into place — despite Energy Transfer’s statements that Mariner East construction was already over.
“No, it’s not done,” said Lora Snyder, who lives near another stretch of the Mariner East pipeline in Edgmont, Pennsylvania, and has been closely monitoring Energy Transfer’s work around the Tunbridge Apartments. “I think they owe it to the community to tell us what the problem is here.”
The February 16 earnings call announcement was one the company’s investors had waited years to hear. The long-delayed Mariner East pipeline project was plagued by problems including sinkholes, drilling mishaps, and dozens of criminal charges against Energy Transfer.
“Construction of the final phase of the Mariner East pipeline is complete and commissioning is in progress which will bring our total NGL [natural gas liquids] capacity on the Mariner East pipeline system to 350,000 to 375,000 barrels per day, including ethane,” Energy Transfer’s Co-Chief Executive Officer Tom Long told investors that day.
Construction had struggled in several spots, including a corridor of grass and wetlands known to Energy Transfer as the Glen Riddle Junction Valve site and to many residents of Tunbridge Apartments as their backyard. Five Mariner East pipelines with diameters ranging from 8 to 20 inches cross between two Tunbridge Apartment buildings before tunneling under the apartment’s parking lot.
Reported troubles began in the summer of 2017, when Mariner East’s builders first reported an “inadvertent return,” or spill, of drilling solution into a nearby creek. “After drilling resumed in April 2018, so did the inadvertent returns, beginning with 150 gallons emerging on land at the Tunbridge Apartments,” a grand jury later found. In August 2018, a 12-foot-deep sinkhole in the wetland appeared.
In May 2019, regulators approved a new construction plan that relied in part on open trenches rather than horizontal drilling, but problems and cleanup efforts persisted and, the grand jury found, many problems during that construction “were not reported to DEP,” or the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
But two years later, Mariner East’s builders were still running into problems at that site.
In May 2021, Snyder discovered a pond of water had formed near the Glen Riddle Valve Junction. She provided DeSmog with images she said were captured using a drone. “Energy Transfer built us a lake,” she said she joked at the time.
That water was eventually pumped away and the flow diverted, she said. Another image, captured on June 17, 2021, revealed a stub of a muddy 16-inch pipeline that Snyder believes had been submerged in that pond for several weeks.
Meanwhile, construction problems on Mariner East drew attention from the commonwealth’s attorney general. On October 5, 2021, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro filed 48 criminal charges, including one felony count, against Energy Transfer, based largely on the investigating grand jury’s findings.
By early 2022, Energy Transfer faced a ticking clock on Mariner East, and not just because of investors. Its state permits for erosion and sediment control, known as Chapter 102 permits, which are required by DEP, were slated to expire on February 12. In January, environmental groups organized campaigns calling on the DEP to decline to renew those permits, citing in particular the pending criminal charges against Energy Transfer.
Pennsylvania DEP officials were under the impression that the only work remaining at Glen Riddle was site restoration and stabilization, emails show. “It is my understanding that all of the pipeline installation work under the permits is complete for this project; the renewal applications have been submitted for stabilization and restoration work on the project, which is already required by regulation,” Domenic Rocco, director of the DEP’s Regional Permit Coordination Office, wrote in an email to Virginia Kerslake, a Food and Water Watch organizer and former candidate for state congress who had inquired about Mariner East. “As noted above, the subject of the pending permit renewals is stabilization and restoration work, not pipeline installation or HDD [horizontal directional drilling] work.”
Restoration generally includes things like planting grass and site cleanup. “As part of restoration, fences are replaced, vegetation is reseeded and any property impacted during construction is repaired,” Energy Transfer explains on its website.
On February 11, one day before the Chapter 102 permit was slated to expire, Energy Transfer informed Middletown Township residents that it planned to start work at Glen Riddle. “As you are aware, we are nearing completion of both the 16- and 20-inch Mariner East pipelines in Delaware County,” Joseph Massaro, an Energy Transfer public affairs specialist, wrote in a letter addressed to the pipeline’s neighbors. “We are pleased to be finishing final tie-ins and preparation work before safely placing the pipelines into operation.”
DEP eventually offered Energy Transfer an administrative extension of the Chapter 102 permit, with officials citing the need to review the roughly 2,000 public comments received about whether the state should renew the permit, according to emails reviewed by DeSmog.
On February 22, nearly a week after Energy Transfer’s earnings call, workers arrived at the Glen Riddle Junction Valve site, documents show. “ET/Sunoco’s subcontractor Michels will be mobilizing on (2/22) into Glen Riddle Junction Valve site to complete the final pipe tie ins,” Middletown Township manager John McMullan wrote in a memo that same day. “Following the completion of the operational prep work over the last two weeks, ETP/Michel’s contractor Michels [sic] will now complete final tie-ins at Glen Riddle Junction in Middletown Township.” (Energy Transfer acquired Sunoco Logistics Partners, Mariner East’s original backers, in 2017.)
Photographs soon after show digging near the valve station and appear to show sections of pipeline being removed.
Then, on February 25, nine days after the investor call, Snyder photographed several pipeline segments being delivered by truck to Tunbridge Apartments on a Michels truck.
Photos taken via drone dated February 28 show pipeline segments being prepared next to the trench.
On March 1, photographs show a pipe segment placed into the trench, and welding activity could be seen in video footage reviewed by DeSmog.
On March 2, the trench appeared to be partially filled in.
Although the images appear to show pipes being unearthed and removed, Energy Transfer previously told Pennsylvania officials that the activity documented at Glen Riddle by Tunbridge Apartments was specifically not pipeline replacement.
“Our contractor Michels is completing final tie in work at our Glen Riddle Junction facility in Delaware County,” an Energy Transfer official named Joseph McGinn wrote in a February 26 email to state Senator Katie Muth. “We are not replacing any existing pipelines at the location.”
“As we said on our most recent earnings call, construction of the final phase of the Mariner East project was completed in February and commissioning work remains in progress,” Energy Transfer said in an emailed response to questions from DeSmog. “There are other activities underway such as restoration and remediation.”
Energy Transfer did not answer whether the company believed it was accurate to say that Mariner East construction was completed if final pipeline segments were not yet tied in at or around Glen Riddle Valve Station as of February 16, 2022.
The company also did not answer when asked if any other pipeline tie ins or replacements remained unfinished and did not give an in-service date for the pipeline.
DEP said that environmental regulators would not necessarily be notified of pipeline work on Mariner East. “DEP permits regulate earth disturbance within a Limit of Disturbance (LOD) and impacts to regulated aquatic resources,” Jamar Thrasher, press secretary for the DEP, said in an email. “If the work is within the LOD and the appropriate controls are in place, DEP wouldn’t necessarily be notified or involved. PUC has broader jurisdiction and may have more information on the specific nature of the work.” He referred other questions to Pennsylvania’s PUC, or Public Utility Commission.
As of press time, a PUC official had not responded to questions from DeSmog.
Snyder and PK DiGuilio, who each live near other portions of Mariner East, visited Tunbridge Apartments to document Energy Transfer’s activities daily for months, sometimes joined by other observers, they told DeSmog.
“We have to do it,” said DiGiulio. “Otherwise people just bury their heads a lot.”
The only indication that construction remained on any Mariner East projects that could be found in Energy Transfer’s March investor slide deck appears in a chart showing Mariner East projects under the heading “major growth projects added since 2017.” A footnote after Mariner East 2 reads, “Additional phases under construction.” Several other mentions of Mariner East’s completion in the same slideshow bear no such footnote.
A one-page fact sheet from Energy Transfer on the “typical pipeline construction sequence” shows steps including lowering pipe into trench, backfilling, testing, and final cleanup and restoration. The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) overview of the pipeline construction process similarly lists steps including “Welding, Coating, Lowering and Backfilling, Testing and Site Restoration” under the heading “pipeline construction.”
Asked for the definition of commissioning, PHMSA said in an email that pipeline “pre-commissioning” generally refers to activities like pipeline cleaning, testing, and operational checks. Commissioning, the agency confirmed, is typically when hydrocarbons start flowing through the pipeline.
“Construction’s not completed,” Snyder told DeSmog during a site visit on March 1. “It’s not complete in Delaware County.”
Updated: This piece has been updated with a statement from Energy Transfer received after publication and with definitions of “pre-commissioning” and “commissioning” provided by PHMSA.