This article originally appeared on StateImpact Pennsylvania.
Mariner East pipeline builder Sunoco, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer, wants to continue construction at 16 separate worksites across the state, including three horizontal directional drilling operations, amid the coronavirus pandemic that has led the state to restrict business activity.
Sunoco submitted six requests for continued construction on Friday after Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all “non-life sustaining” businesses to suspend operations to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The order includes pipeline construction among its list of hundreds of required closures, but companies can seek waivers. The state says it has fielded about 16,000 requests so far.
Energy Transfer said it had suspended all of its drilling operations by Saturday, but ongoing maintenance and repair work continues — including along Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township, Chester County, the site of multiple sinkholes.
It’s unclear if the state has granted some or all of Energy Transfer’s requests, but a company spokesperson did confirm it has permission to “stabilize, secure and demobilize” all construction sites. The company had sought a 10-day waiver for securing all sites.
In a letter sent Monday to Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission chair Gladys Brown Dutrieuille, and Ramez Ziadeh, executive deputy secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Energy Transfer vice president Joe McGinn detailed the waiver requests and said they were necessary to “comply with permit conditions, security and safety concerns.”
Neither the PUC nor the DEP have authority to grant requests.
A spokesperson for the Department of Community and Economic Development said DCED has no plans to release details of companies seeking waivers, including approvals or rejections, or details on how those decisions are made.
Energy Transfer spokesperson Lisa Coleman said completely halting construction activities could have adverse impacts.
“Our top priority is the safety and protection of the Pennsylvania communities where this work is taking place,” Coleman wrote in an email.
But pipeline opponents say the company is skirting the rules to rush through a project that has already damaged wetlands, streams and private property, especially when the agencies tasked with oversight like the DEP and PUC are also operating at reduced capacity due to the coronavirus outbreak.
“This is the very definition of a non-essential business,” said Eric Friedman, who has long opposed construction of the pipeline through his residential neighborhood in Delaware County. “A pipeline that’s intended to export fracked gas by-products overseas to make plastics is the very definition of a business not essential to sustaining life.”
Clean Air Council, which has been involved in several lawsuits aimed at shutting down or ensuring greater safety of the line, said the requests for waivers are too broad and don’t all address safety concerns.
“It is frankly outrageous that in this time of crisis, Energy Transfer is trying to get around the critical protections Governor Wolf has put in place to minimize deaths of Pennsylvanians,” said Clean Air Council executive director Joseph Minott.
Energy Transfer’s waiver requests include two horizontal directional drilling operations in Westmoreland County, as well as an HDD site at Raystown Lake in Huntingdon County. Those operations are expected to be completed by May 1.
The waiver requests for two locations — in West Whiteland Township and in Middlesex Township, Cumberland County — were to avoid road closures.
McGinn said 11 locations needed continued construction due to “potential adverse impacts to human health or the environment.”
Those include open-pit locations in Blair, Westmoreland and Berks counties as well as three locations in Chester County, and one each in Lebanon and Dauphin counties, where there exists a potential for borehole collapse.
Other waiver requests include a testing site in Delaware County and a new gathering pipeline in Lycoming County to connect a wellhead to the main pipeline. That waiver request says cessation of the work could damage an exceptional value waterway.
The company also requested a waiver to continue working on securing the Revolution pipeline as part of the consent decree negotiated with the Department of Environmental Protection, resulting from the 2018 explosion and fire on the pipeline.