It has been a remarkable few days, culminating in the shutdown of Mariner East 1, the “little sibling” of the Dragonpipe (Mariner East 2). The ME1 has already been in operation for more than a year. For most of its route, the Dragonpipe runs alongside the ME1.

The shutdown of the ME1 by the Public Utility Commission (PUC), even if it is only temporary, is a stunning turn of events. Pipeline opponents had mostly given up on the ME1. It is the ME1 that supplies the ethane from western Pennsylvania that is being shipped to refineries in Europe from the Dragonpipe terminal at Marcus Hook. But regulators have now shut it down, due to an alarming series of sinkholes that have developed along its route.

Now, Sunoco is completely unable to ship any of the volatile “natural gas liquids” (NGLs) across Pennsylvania. (It will continue to ship limited quantities across Ohio and Michigan to Canadian refineries via Mariner West.)

In this post, I will summarize the story of the sinkholes and their effect on the public and the regulators. I will end with a reminder that there’s a rally in the sinkhole neighborhood on Saturday afternoon—details are at the end of the post.

The sinkholes. The PUC shut down the ME1 because of the danger of damage to the pipe from sinkholes. Sinkholes (holes that suddenly form in ground that had seemed to be stable) are an ongoing problem in the Exton area. They have often caused problems for road construction in the area, and they often create the need for road repair. There are hundreds that are large enough to map, and countless small ones. They are often the result of unrecognized underground “voids” where the rock (usually limestone) has been largely washed away and is no longer able to carry the weight of the soil above.

sinkholes near Exton 3-9-18
Sinkholes near Exton. From Karst features mapped by Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access

The horizontal directional drilling (HDD) that is used to install the Dragonpipe in many areas can further weaken the rock in places where it is already marginal. That’s what happened in mid-November: in the backyard of a home near Exton, a sinkhole suddenly appeared, directly above a location where HDD was occurring. After drilling was restarted in February, a second sinkhole appeared nearby, and then, in early March, a third one farther along the drill path. This one was so close to a house that the residents had to evacuate on short notice.

Sunoco workers filling in sinkholes in a residential backyard near Exton (Photo: Eric Friedman)

Even more disturbing was the fact that the ME1 pipeline, in full operation, was exposed in one of the sinkholes. Sunoco reacted by quickly filling in the hole with a series of cement trucks full of grout. (Or was it actually cement? That is not clear yet.) Sunoco should have reported this situation to the PUC, but apparently did not—it was residents that raised the alarm.

If the ME1 were to be dragged downward by a sinkhole, the bending of the pipe could cause a rupture, with the potential for a disastrous explosion. That is exactly what happened in Follansbee, WV, a couple of years ago. In the Follansbee case, the subsidence (sinking) of the ground that caused the pipe to bend was due to the presence of an old mine that was gradually collapsing.

The area along the drilling route, extending uphill from the initial sinkhole, is now dimpled with small depressions—signs of possible sinkholes to come. This is happening in a densely-populated residential area.

Inspectors from the PUC were at the sinkhole site on March 3 and 4, and on the morning of the March 7, they made public a Petition to the Commission to shut down the ME1 until the situation could be reviewed and stabilized. An Emergency Order for the shutdown was issued later that day. Both the Petition and the Emergency Order drew public attention to the potential for a major disaster. (I later learned that, after the Petition was filed, the PUC asked Sunoco for a voluntary shutdown. They refused. That’s when the Emergency Order was issued.)

The people’s revolt. Meanwhile, on March 4, state senator Andy Dinniman held a town meeting at the West Whiteland Township building in Exton. Almost 200 people showed up (a huge turnout for an event that was really only publicized in West Whiteland) and they were upset. Many were newly aware of the pipeline situation, due to the publicity surrounding the sinkholes. Dinniman and other speakers outlined what is being done, and what more can be done, to stop the Dragonpipe. The feeling in the room was a combination of outrage at the behavior of Sunoco, disbelief at the lack of action by the regulatory agencies, and astonishment that the current situation could have been permitted.

Exton, and the surrounding West Whiteland Township, is becoming a major focus of pipeline safety activism. The Exton area has endured the unique problems of wells being ruined at Shoen Road, the plan to run a trench alongside the library, and now the multiple sinkholes. The geology of the Exton area is also particularly unsuited to underground pipes.

There is a sense of increasing unrest and urgency at public meetings like the March 4 event. I expect that will only increase. But it is not just the public that is getting upset with Sunoco and the Dragonpipe. There are new signs of concern from the regulatory agencies as well.

The regulators begin to act. The shutdown by the PUC is the first real action by that agency to regulate Sunoco. In the past, PUC lawyers have argued that the Dragonpipe and the ME1 are not their problem, in part because they don’t carry natural gas or oil. Using a very narrow interpretation of the PUC’s historical mandate (dating from a time when there were no NGL pipelines in Pennsylvania) it is possible to make a claim that only natural gas and oil pipelines are within their jurisdiction—and not pipelines carrying NGLs. Now, with the Emergency Order, the PUC has clearly recognized that it does have regulatory authority over these pipelines.

The particular way the shutdown came about—a very public Petition from the PUC’s own Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement requesting an Emergency Order from the Commission—suggests that insiders in the organization were worried that the problem would be swept under the rug. One might have expected the request to be handled internally, with the Commission taking the initiative (and the limelight) by being the first to go public. Once the Petition was made public, it was impossible for the Commission not to respond.

Similarly, there are signs that the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is getting increasingly impatient with Sunoco. Not only was construction shut down for four weeks in January, but the requirements that the DEP is putting on Sunoco for restarting drilling at specific HDD sites are becoming much more strict.

It seems that the professionals within both the PUC and DEP are starting to find ways to take action even when their appointed bosses (who are under pressure by political and corporate forces) will not. Combined with increasing citizen unrest, these forces are making it much more difficult for Sunoco to continue constructing the Dragonpipe.

The combination of these forces, Sunoco’s ineptitude and arrogance, and the difficult local geology have generated a new wave of pipeline opposition. I am confident that the opposition will only increase, and the Exton area will be a key focus of it.

Come to the rally on Saturday! We now have a temporary shutdown of one pipeline, but we need a permanent stop to all three. Join us at a rally on Saturday, March 10, at 3:30pm. It will last about an hour. It will take place in the neighborhood near Exton where the first two sinkholes appeared, at Ship Road and Michele Drive. There’s plenty of room to park on Constitution Drive, which is across Ship Road from Michele Drive.

We need as many people as possible there, to show support for those whose homes and families are threatened by the Dragonpipe. It will be a family-friendly event. Please come!

And don’t forget: March 12 is the last day for public comment on Sunoco’s plan for trenching through the heart of Exton. Details here.

And in Harrisburg during the next two weeks:

  • Thursday, March 15, 10am: PUC public meeting in Harrisburg. Suspension of work on ME1 will be an agenda item.
  • Monday, March 19: Hearing in Harrisburg on Clean Air Council appeal of the Consent Order that allowed construction of the Dragonpipe to resume in February.
  • Tuesday, March 20: Hearing in Harrisburg on pipeline problems, with resident testimony.