Chester County plaintiffs settle class-action suit with Sunoco over Mariner East

Mariner East 2 pipeline construction crews work in the backyards of homes on Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township, Chester County, on May 2. Sinkholes that opened in the area prompted the state's Public Utility Commission to order that an existing pipeline nearby, the Mariner East 1, be shut down until it could be determined that the sinkholes didn't threaten its safety. PUC on May 3 approved a re-start of Mariner East 1. (Marie Cusick/StateImpact Pennsylvania)

Mariner East 2 pipeline construction crews work in the backyards of homes on Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township, Chester County, on May 2. Sinkholes that opened in the area prompted the state's Public Utility Commission to order that an existing pipeline nearby, the Mariner East 1, be shut down until it could be determined that the sinkholes didn't threaten its safety. PUC on May 3 approved a re-start of Mariner East 1. (Marie Cusick/StateImpact Pennsylvania)

This story originally appeared on StateImpact Pennsylvania.

Three Chester County residents who sued Sunoco over its construction of the Mariner East pipelines have agreed to settle on undisclosed terms.

Two of the plaintiffs, Russell and Mary March, live on Lisa Drive, a suburban development that became a poster child for opponents of the pipelines after sinkholes appeared at a construction site there in late 2017 and again in the early months of 2018 and 2019. The third plaintiff, Jared Savitski, lives on a nearby street that is also along the pipeline route.

Their attorney, Andrew Neuwirth, confirmed the suit had been settled but declined to discuss its terms or say why his clients had agreed to settle. “Neither I nor my clients are permitted to discuss terms,” he said.

In the suit, filed with the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in March 2018, the plaintiffs accused Sunoco of failing to adequately study the unstable local geology that led to the sinkholes; causing an underground explosion of drilling fluid next to the Marches’ home; damaging their home, and risking a catastrophe by building the new pipelines close to the Mariner East 1 line that was already carrying natural gas liquids.

The suit accused Sunoco of negligence and several other counts in its construction practices.

The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the settlement.

In its formal response to the suit, filed last October, Sunoco admitted that an “above ground subsidence occurred” on or around Nov. 11, 2017, and said the hole was “immediately investigated and stabilized.”

But it denied building the pipeline at Lisa Drive, in West Whiteland Township, without being fully aware of the geology there and denied the plaintiffs’ claims that it knew or should have known that using horizontal directional drilling in the fragile geology would likely result in an explosion of drilling fluids.

And the company denied that the suit was a legitimate class action.

Rich Raiders, an environmental and land-use attorney who is not connected with the case, said Sunoco’s decision to settle, despite its denials, may show that it accepts the merits of the plaintiffs’ case, or that it didn’t want the negative publicity of taking the case to trial after two turbulent years of spills and shutdowns during pipeline construction.

Sunoco’s public reputation in Pennsylvania has taken a heavy battering during the last two years of construction, and it’s likely the company has decided it’s time to try to mend fences with the public and is beginning to do that by backing down from a legal fight with the Lisa Drive residents, he said.

“The court of public opinion is going to hold that there was merit, regardless of what the court of law says,” said Raiders, who has clients who are fighting Sunoco over other aspects of the pipeline project.

“How else can they minimize the damage caused by all this? The only way they can really minimize this stuff is to keep the neighbors happy.”

The appearance of sinkholes in the back yards of several Lisa Drive homes also prompted a Public Utility Commission judge in May 2018 to temporarily halt both the construction of the new pipelines and the operation of the existing line at that location, saying that the combined operation risked an explosion that would endanger public safety.

In January, the PUC halted the operation of Mariner East 1 again after a new sinkhole appeared yards from where the others had opened up in 2017 and 2018.

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