Sunoco still needs DEP approvals to restart pipeline work in Chester County

In this file photo, Mariner East 2 pipeline construction crews work in the backyards of homes on Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township, Chester County, on May 2, 2018 after sinkholes opened in the area. That caused one of the ME2 project's many delays. (Marie Cusick/WITF)

In this file photo, Mariner East 2 pipeline construction crews work in the backyards of homes on Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township, Chester County, on May 2, 2018 after sinkholes opened in the area. That caused one of the ME2 project's many delays. (Marie Cusick/WITF)

This article originally appeared on StateImpact Pennsylvania.

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Sunoco overcame one roadblock to completion of its controversial Mariner East pipelines when the Public Utility Commission recently lifted an injunction against construction in a Chester County township, but the company still needs environmental officials to end a statewide ban on new permits and to approve permit modifications at the site.

Sunoco must obtain clean-water approvals from the Department of Environmental Protection before it can resume construction at Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township where sinkholes along the pipeline route prompted the PUC to halt construction in 2018.

The DEP has yet to approve two requested permit modifications and a “re-evaluation plan” for the site, as ordered by a court in an effort to prevent any more drilling mud spills, or “inadvertent returns,” dozens of which plagued the project during 2017 and 2018.

The company’s work at Lisa Drive is also affected by DEP’s ban on new clean-water permits for the project, imposed in February this year after the explosion of a western Pennsylvania pipeline operated by Sunoco’s parent, Energy Transfer, in 2018.

A DEP spreadsheet shows 32 sites across the state, including Lisa Drive, where the department has yet to give final approval for Sunoco’s re-evaluation plans, which take a fresh look at local geology to assess whether the pipelines can be built safely.

None of the missing approvals will be given until the permit ban is lifted, said DEP spokeswoman Elizabeth Rementer. She did not immediately respond to questions on what might lead DEP to lift its ban, or when that could happen.

In West Whiteland, Sunoco can restart work at six other sites under existing approvals, or because they are not covered by the ban on new permits, Rementer said.

After the PUC lifted its injunction on Sept. 19, Sunoco spokeswoman Vicki Granado said the company needed no further approvals from DEP or any other agency to resume work in West Whiteland Township.

But on Tuesday, she acknowledged that the Lisa Drive work, known to regulators as “HDD 400,” is subject to DEP approval of a modified permit. “HDD 400 is one we are asking for a permit modification,” she said.

She declined to say how much of the route as a whole remains to be completed but said Mariner East 2X, one of the new pipes, will be complete by the end of 2019.

Granado said the company is now free to move ahead with any part of the project that was covered by a case brought by state Sen. Andy Dinniman, who asked the PUC to halt the project until its safety could be assured. On Sept. 9, the Commonwealth Court ruled that Dinniman did not have standing to bring the case before the PUC, and ordered the regulator to lift its injunction at West Whiteland.

Since starting construction in February 2017, the multibillion-dollar cross-state pipeline project has been subject to repeated delays, shutdowns ordered by regulators or the courts, and opposition from those who say it represents a grave risk to public safety.

In response to the delays in construction, Sunoco last December started pumping natural gas liquids to a terminal in Delaware County by joining up sections of new pipe with existing lines of different diameters.

Sunoco also faces resistance from the Chester County Commissioners, who in May asked a court to stop construction of the pipeline on county-owned land, arguing that the company ignored a requirement in a historic easement to obtain county permission before building the pipeline there.

The commissioners asked the Chester County Court of Common Pleas to immediately halt pipeline construction on county land at the Chester County Library and the Chester Valley Trail and to issue a permanent injunction blocking the project on those parcels. The court hasn’t ruled yet.

Mariner East’s legal problems continued on Tuesday when Chester County’s District Attorney, Thomas Hogan, said he plans to bring a “civil nuisance action” against Sunoco because of problems including exposed pipelines in waterways, the company’s alleged violations of its permits, and the discharge of drilling fluids.

Hogan, who continues to conduct a separate criminal investigation into Mariner East, said he is authorized under Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law to give Sunoco 60 days to correct the problems, after which he will bring a civil court action if the issues persist.

Sunoco said in a statement that it was already “well on our way” to resolving the issues in Hogan’s complaint.

The company said it had completed all remediation of drilling fluid spills, as required by regulators, and is under a DEP order to cover any exposed pipes including those in Chester County.

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