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Update, Aug. 26: Judge Bernard A. Labuskes Jr. temporarily granted Sunoco’s request that work be allowed to continue at the Shoen Road site, pending a hearing scheduled for Sept. 1. Labuskes said he may reconsider his order if “at any point Sunoco’s drilling results in new or increased environmental harm or presents issues of health and safety.”

Reported originally: 

Sunoco filed a legal challenge against Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection on Monday, calling on the Environmental Hearing Board to overturn the DEP’s recent shutdown of a construction site for the controversial Mariner East pipeline project.

The company argued that the DEP was “improper” and “arbitrary” in issuing an Aug. 20 order that shut down operations of a drilling site in Chester County’s West Whiteland Township, an area where fragile limestone geology has caused repeated technical problems for the pipeline.

Sunoco said it would be irreparably harmed if it is forced to continue the shutdown, which DEP said was prompted by a “turbid groundwater discharge” at a horizontal directional drilling site at Shoen Road and Route 100 that officials have shut down twice before over the last three years because of the project’s impact on residential water wells.

Notice of Violation

DEP issued a notice of violation after the discharge at the site, known as HDD 360, on Aug. 8. The department said the discharge was related to Mariner East construction activities, and was designated as an “inadvertent return” so drilling could not restart without DEP’s permission.

Even for a pipeline project that has been plagued with delays since it started in February 2017, construction in West Whiteland has been exceptionally problematic. In July 2017, about a dozen families experienced cloudy water or loss of supply from their private wells after Sunoco’s drilling near Shoen Road punctured an aquifer. In 2018, a series of sinkholes opened up on a pipeline construction site at nearby Lisa Drive, a suburban development, forcing state officials to order a shutdown at that location.

In the”Interest of the Public at Large”

In the latest incident, Sunoco argued that a prolonged shutdown would harm the public interest because groundwater flowback will occur, the borehole will be lost, and future drilling will have to retrace ground already covered.

The company also accused DEP of contradicting its own letters of June 29 and July 2, which approved a restart of HDD 360 after an earlier shutdown.

“It is of utmost importance to complete construction promptly at the HDD 360 work location, important not only for SPLP’s interests, but also for the interests of the public at large to complete construction at a location which has been in-progress now for over three years,” the company said in a seven-page petition.

It urged the Board, a quasi-judicial body that hears complaints against the DEP, to issue an order of “supersedeas” that would block the latest order.

More than 100 Notices of Violation since 2017

The DEP said it does not comment on matters in litigation. Last Thursday, the department fined Sunoco $355,000 for spills of drilling mud in eight counties in 2018 and 2019. Those incidents were among more than 100 for which the DEP has issued notices of violation since the project began in early 2017.

The Sunoco complaint prompted a petition by three environmental groups – Clean Air Council, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and Mountain Watershed Association – to seek to intervene in the case.

It urged the Board to allow its intervention, and criticized Sunoco for continuing to pursue HDD 360 despite the repeated problems.

“Rather than finding a more appropriate location for its Mariner East 2 pipes, Sunoco has persisted for more than three years now in drilling at the Shoen Road location where it has not been able to drill without damaging the surrounding residential neighborhood,” the petition said.

Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety, which represents residents along the Mariner East pipeline route in Chester and Delaware counties, said Sunoco should not be fighting DEP over regulations that the company has repeatedly violated over more three years.

The group said it is “outraged” that DEP is being forced to defend itself in court for trying to enforce regulations that it said Sunoco has defied.

Calls to Permanently Shutdown All Construction

Sunoco’s action came on the same day that more than two dozen environmental groups called on the DEP to “immediately and permanently” shut down all construction of the Mariner East pipelines, saying the company has destroyed water wells, ignored orders from the DEP, and caused more than 200 spills of drilling fluid.

In a letter to DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell, the groups said the fines levied by DEP since the project began have failed to persuade Sunoco to operate more safely, and are “merely the cost of doing business.”

Gov. Tom Wolf has repeatedly rejected calls to shut down the project. 

Following criticism from the groups about Sunoco’s recent spill of some 8,000 gallons of drilling fluid into Marsh Creek Lake in Chester County,  Wolf’s spokeswoman, Lyndsay Kensinger, said drilling there has been shut down, and that DEP expects to take “further action.”

“We are committed to holding permittees accountable and will continue to provide active and stringent oversight over the construction of Energy Transfer projects,” she said. “DEP has consistently held the company accountable for violations to the full extent of the law and will do so in this instance as well.”

The pipelines carry natural gas liquids – propane, ethane and butane – some 350 miles from southwest Pennsylvania and Ohio to an export terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia. The project has stirred strong protests from communities along the route, especially in the western suburbs of Philadelphia where some residents fear mass casualties if there’s an explosion of the liquids in densely populated areas.

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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.