Troubled Mariner East pipeline construction at Marsh Creek State Park in Chester County has restarted, leading the project’s builder to say it expects to finish the 350-mile-long natural gas liquids line in the first quarter of 2022 — more than two years after its initial planned completion.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection issued new permits to Energy Transfer, parent company of Sunoco Pipeline, that allow construction on a section of pipe at Marsh Creek Lake to resume. It had been halted since August 2020 after the company spilled between 21,000 and 28,000 gallons of drilling mud fluid there. That section is one of the last legs of the line left to be completed.
The updated permits include a new route that allows open trench excavation rather than below-ground horizontal directional digging. They were approved despite the state Attorney General’s October filing of 48 charges that allege environmental crimes committed by the Texas-based company.
From the outset, Mariner East’s construction has faced delays. It has caused dozens of drilling mud spills into wetlands and waterways across the state, led to dangerous sinkholes in Chester County, and polluted drinking water supplies across the entire length of the project.
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The company bought at least five homes in Chester County after its work damaged the aquifer and created sinkholes. The DEP has issued more than 120 notices of violations to the company, which has paid more than $20 million in fines and assessments since construction began in February 2017. The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission temporarily shut down the operation of the Mariner East 1 pipeline in 2018 over safety concerns.
Neighbors want construction halted
People who live near the latest spill and politicians say construction of the final section of pipe should be halted, at least until the company completes a cleanup of Marsh Creek Lake.
State Sen. Katie Muth, a Democrat who represents parts of Chester and Montgomery counties, said she’s “infuriated” by the new permits allowing construction at Marsh Creek.
”I think it should be completely stopped until they have actually tested the public and private water supplies all along [the pipeline route],” she said. “No one has done that. This project was flawed from the beginning.”
Muth said she’s already received calls from constituents worried about how the current construction could affect groundwater and drinking water supplies, and whether neighboring backyards will once again be flooded.
People who live nearby worry that because Energy Transfer has to renew all its original permits in February, the company will rush this last section.
“They are pushing forward really fast,” said Christina “PK” DiGiulio, who lives by Marsh Creek and uses drones to document construction. “It’s been a reckless process. This is the DEP enabling a criminal entity to push their pipe through without doing proper groundwater impact studies and protecting the health and safety of the people.”
Muth said that while there are no statutes that prevent companies facing criminal charges from continuing construction, the permits could be pulled.
“DEP does have the legal authority to revoke or deny any permit for any operator that has a history of repeat violations,” Muth said. “So [DEP] doesn’t use its authority. You can’t say they’re underfunded forever, and that the laws aren’t strong enough, when they hold the authority to revoke or deny, and they’ve never done it.”
A spokesperson for DEP said the Consent Order and Agreement between the company and both DEP and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources brought the company into compliance “with statute and regulation, therefore leaving no legal reason to delay making a decision on the permit modifications.
“As for the charges filed by the AG’s office, DEP continues to follow the case closely and will exercise its regulatory authority as it deems appropriate,” DEP spokesperson Virginia Nurk wrote in an email.
Three controversial pipelines
The Mariner East project consists of three pipelines carrying highly volatile ethane, propane, and butane: the 8-inch Mariner East 1 line; the 20-inch Mariner East 2 line; and the 16-inch Mariner East 2x. The lines carry Marcellus Shale gas from western Pennsylvania to the company’s 800-acre terminal in Marcus Hook, Delaware County, where the bulk of the product is shipped to Scotland to make plastics.
The company now plans to convert part of the Mariner East 1 back to carrying refined products, such as gasoline, jet fuel, diesel, and heating oil. The “Pennsylvania Access” line would connect Midwest refineries to central Pennsylvania, the Lehigh Valley, and upstate New York.
Opposition to the Mariner East project has been particularly fierce in the densely packed suburbs of Philadelphia, where its foes say the pipes carrying highly volatile natural gas liquids pose a safety threat while not providing energy to Pennsylvanians. And they say that continuing to put fossil fuel infrastructure into service runs counter to global, national and statewide goals on tackling climate change.
“This is one of the most reckless drillers in the nation,” Muth said. “No, the pipeline is not safe. It goes through neighborhoods, schools, nursing homes, libraries, places it should not be. And there is not a need for this pipeline in the commonwealth.”
Muth pointed to the explosion of Energy Transfer’s natural gas liquids Revolution pipeline in 2018 in rural Beaver County. After being in service for only a week, the pipeline ruptured during a landslide, engulfing a hillside in flames and forcing evacuations. The explosion released 3 million cubic feet of gas and sent flames 150 feet into the air. No one was injured in the blast, but it killed several pets, damaged vehicles, and destroyed six high-voltage electric transmission towers and an electrical line.
An Energy Transfer spokesperson has said the company operates its Mariner East pipelines safely.
“There are no safety concerns regarding the ongoing operations of our active pipelines in this area, which have safely operated for years,” spokesperson Lisa Coleman said.
“As we work to complete Mariner East 2 construction, we will continue with our robust geophysical testing program to ensure the safety of the community, the safety of our employees, and the safety of the environment. Additionally, our construction protocols in this area include the installation of steel casing that will help to permanently stabilize the ground around the pipelines.”
Coleman said the natural gas liquids transported through the Mariner East lines and exported at the Marcus Hook terminal in Delaware County are “critical to our supply chain as the building blocks used to manufacture the products we use daily.”
As part of the agreement that included the new permits, Energy Transfer agreed to dredge Marsh Creek Lake of the drilling mud and pay $4 million to the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Potential carbon capture
The company is also looking to get into the carbon capture business, including at the Marcus Hook terminal. On an earnings call in November, Energy Transfer executives discussed a feasibility study to capture carbon dioxide from flue gas, and provide it to beverage and food companies through their pipelines.
“We are also looking at other projects related to our assets that involve capturing CO2 from processing plants for use in enhanced oil recovery and sequestration,” Coleman said. “We continue to believe that our franchise will allow us to participate in a variety of projects involving carbon capture or other innovative uses as we continue to reduce our carbon footprint.”
The construction at Marsh Creek should be completed by mid-February, she said.
This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.