Prove your humanity

Construction on the Mariner East pipeline appears to be halted by Gov. Wolf’s new order that shuts down all “non-life-sustaining” operations and businesses.

The new shut-down list released by Wolf Thursday evening indicates all construction projects, including “sub-utility” construction, cannot continue physical operations.

Neither Wolf’s office nor pipeline builder Sunoco responded immediately to requests to confirm that Mariner East construction must stop.

Earlier on Thursday, the company, as well as the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, had said construction would continue during the coronavirus outbreak despite criticism from pipeline opponents in suburban Philadelphia.

A statement from the PUC issued before Wolf’s latest order explained that since the commission had designated the natural gas liquid pipeline a public utility, and construction sites had not been included as part of Wolf’s list of “non-essential” businesses, construction on the line could continue.

“As they are essential services, utilities are expected to continue operations, including construction projects,” the statement reads.

The PUC said staff is coordinating with federal pipeline safety regulators, who have not directed pipeline builders to halt construction.

State Sen. Andrew Dinniman, a Democrat from Chester County who is a vocal opponent of the Mariner East project, had written to the PUC asking it to shut down construction in lieu of the coronavirus outbreak.

“What we see here is that the PUC is trapped in its initial decision,” Dinniman said. “The PUC defined this pipeline as a public utility based on a 1930s gasoline line. The truth is the pipeline does not provide any essential public utility service in the Commonwealth.”

The original Mariner East line, Mariner East 1, is a former gasoline pipeline built in the 1930s to transport gas from Philadelphia refineries to rural Pennsylvania.

The PUC approved public utility status for the line when Sunoco, now owned by Energy Transfer, proposed to reverse flow and ship natural gas liquids through the line. The Mariner East 2 and 2x lines were green-lighted based on the original utility status that dates back to the 1930s.

The lines now ship natural gas liquids across the state for export to a plastics manufacturer in Scotland. While construction on the lines is mostly complete, some parts of the line were held up after sinkholes developed in Chester County. The company only recently got the approval from the DEP to restart construction on the remaining sections.

A union representing some of the pipeline workers says he feels the sites are abiding by proper coronavirus precautions.

“As long as the job is open, our members want to work,” said Jim Snell, business manager for Steamfitters Local 420. “I have not heard of any issues. That said, we are taking all necessary precautions (hand wipes, soaps, sanitizers, social distancing, etc.) with LU420 and our contractors.”

Snell said if someone feels sick, there is no pressure for them to work.

That sentiment differs from the building trades rank and file at the Shell cracker plant in Beaver County, who flooded their local representatives with calls about concerns over coronavirus and crowding at the job site. The Shell cracker plant shut its operations on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Energy Transfer posted on its website that it was taking “all possible precautions to protect personal and public health and safety,” including social distancing, at Mariner East construction sites.

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.