This week, a pipeline exploded in Beaver County destroying one home and forcing two dozen people to evacuate. The Revolution Pipeline, owned by Energy Transfer Partners, was active for only a week before it blew up. It was built to send gas to another nearly completed pipeline, the Mariner East, which will carry natural gas liquids from the Pittsburgh area to Philadelphia.
The Mariner East is being built by Sunoco Logistics. It’s had dozens of spills during construction, incurred millions of dollars in fines, and sparked protest from communities along its route. For StateImpact Pennsylvania’s Energy Explained podcast, Reid Frazier spoke with StateImpact reporters Susan Phillips and Jon Hurdle to help understand why this pipeline has been so controversial. Here’s some of that conversation:
Reid Frazier: An important piece of the Mariner East story involves the right of eminent domain. The company has the right to take land from landowners who refuse to sell to them. And the reason they have this eminent domain power is that the company received what’s called a “certificate of public convenience.” Susan, can you explain what that is, and why that’s an important aspect of this story?
Susan Phillips: Basically, it means that a company can take land for their project. Usually eminent domain involves land that is taken from private owners for the public good–a highway, for instance, like the turnpike. What’s unusual is that this is not a government project; this is being carried out by a private company for profit. And not only that, but the gas is going to be shipped overseas. It’s a hard sell for a lot of people who may not think that this is for the public good.
Of course, the land owner gets compensated in some way, and the land owners have the right to negotiate that compensation. But if the landowner did not want to give permission for the pipeline, then the company would go to a local court and say, ‘We have this permission from the U.S., and we want eminent domain.’ Pretty much in every case, the judge ruled in favor of the company and against the individual landowner.
RF: There’s a family, the Gerhart family, that lives in Huntington County in the south central part of the state. You’ve covered their case over the last few years. Can you give us some background on them and why they were so upset about Sunoco actions here?
SP: They didn’t want the pipeline on their land. It’s just that simple. When they bought the land, they had participated in a program to preserve open space. They thought that may have helped them prevent a pipeline coming through their land. It didn’t. They fought it in court. They lost. They ended up deciding to do nonviolent civil disobedience on the land. They and their supporters sat in trees for a number of months while other trees were cut down.
Ultimately, their standoff failed, and the pipeline was built through their land. And Ellen Gerhart (the grandmother in the family) was sent to jail several times as part of her protesting the building of this pipeline. And that just is an example of how controversial this line is and how high some of these emotions run.
RF: You guys have documented dozens of spills and accidents that the pipeline has endured during construction. John, can you fill us in on some of the drilling problems that Mariner East has had?
John Hurdle: The drilling problems started pretty much as soon as they started constructing the pipeline in February of 2017. The main problem that the project has had is dozens and dozens of spills of what’s called drilling mud, which is a clay-based lubricant that the company uses.
The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) started to enforce these problems with drilling mud spills, and they started issuing notices of violation for these incidents, some of which spilled thousands of gallons of drilling mud into wetlands and waterways and private properties.
RF: Drilling mud is non-toxic, so why would this be a problem for the environment?
SP: Drilling mud is a bentonite clay. If it spills into a stream or a wetland, it sort of smothers a lot of the tiny aquatic life, those little bugs that fish feed on. So it has an impact throughout the food chain of a stream or a wetland.
RF: What has the DEP done as a result of all these spills into the waters of the Commonwealth? Their mandate is to protect these streams.
JH: One of the three shutdowns that Mariner East has experienced since it’s been under construction was in January 2018, and that lasted for about a month. And when it was lifted, the DEP fined Sunoco. So DEP said that it would take a very rigorous approach to Sunoco’s repeated violations and it has done so.
RF: The company has also had problems with sinkholes. Why are there sinkholes along the route of this pipeline?
SP: People woke up and there was a big hole in their backyard. They had been drilling for this pipeline, and they ran into this certain limestone which is full of holes. But the most dangerous thing that happened was that it exposed the actual Mariner East 1 line, which had already been built, and had already been sending natural gas liquids through the line, and that’s really dangerous. If the line is not on a stable foundation, it could leak. Natural gas liquid is very combustible. People were afraid that if there was a spark nearby, or a lit match, or a cigarette, it could explode. So that fear is what led to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) actually shutting down the operation of Mariner East 1 and also halting the construction of Mariner East 2.
RF: This has been very controversial in suburban Philadelphia where it’s being built. Why has there been so much resistance to this pipeline there?
JH: What I would say is that there’s a lot of awareness that the pipeline is going through a very densely populated area–the western suburbs of Philly. And critics of this project say that it’s outrageous that a pipeline carrying these highly explosive natural gas liquids should have been routed through such a densely populated area in the first place. That’s really what’s motivated a lot of people.
SP: If you go out to the suburbs and see where these construction sites are, it’s literally in people’s backyard. And local communities felt powerless to stop it; local governments felt powerless to stop it, even in terms of its own zoning. So there was this combination of shock of having to host this pipeline, and fear because of the dangers–mud spills, sinkholes, the pipeline being shut down…The fracking boom has come to the Philadelphia suburbs and they’re not happy about it.
Susan Phillips and Jon Hurdle cover energy for StateImpact Pennsylvania