Anyone who has been paying attention knows that Sunoco often fails to follow legally-required reporting procedures when it has problems or makes mistakes in its construction of the Dragonpipe (Mariner East 2 pipeline). But are its reporting failures oversights, or are they the result of a company policy of ignoring rules and covering up bad news?
Let’s look at the evidence.
Covering up pipe damage. There have been three notable cases where Sunoco should have reported threats to the integrity of pipelines of the Mariner East system and did not.
- The PHMSA violation notice. In January, the federal Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued a “notice of probable violation”. In this instance, a PHMSA inspector was inspecting a natural gas processing plant near Hopedale, Ohio (located just across the line from Pennsylvania, and being built to feed the Dragonpipe). During his plant inspection, he noticed some nearby pipe that Sunoco’s contractor was preparing to lower into a trench. It was part of the Dragonpipe. The inspector saw that “several segments of pipe had severe coating damage, and at least one joint of pipe had a gouge that extended into the wall of the pipe”. PHMSA forced Sunoco to replace this pipe. But how many pieces of damaged pipe have been buried without being detected?
- The Lisa Drive sinkhole incident. In March, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) ordered the shutdown of Mariner East 1, the smaller and much older sibling of the Dragonpipe. The pipeline, which was actively carrying highly-explosive “natural gas liquids”, was exposed in one of the sinkholes that opened up on Lisa Drive in Exton as a result of Sunoco drilling for the Dragonpipe. Had the ME1 pipe been pulled down as the earth subsided, it could easily have ruptured, causing a catastrophe. Sunoco failed to report the incident, and instead quickly called in a dozen cement trucks of grout to fill in the hole around the pipeline. When citizens alerted the PUC and PHMSA, they sent in inspectors—but by then the pipeline had been completely covered up. We’ll never know what they might have discovered if the incident had been properly reported.
- The water-utility backhoe hit. In May, a backhoe operator working for the local water utility struck the Dragonpipe. Thankfully, it was not yet in operation. Again, Sunoco failed to report the incident, although it had an employee on the scene at the time. Local citizens reported it.
All three issues were reported by people who happened to notice them. Sunoco certainly didn’t notify anyone, although the law says it must. How many more instances of pipeline damage have there been? We’ll never know.
Dozens of permit violations. Sunoco had to obtain permits from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for its plans for dealing with water crossings, runoff, and erosion during pipeline construction.
As of June 1, Sunoco had accumulated an impressive list of 55 Notices of Violation (NOVs) of these permits, and they continue to occur at the rate of several every month. The violations involve frac-outs, construction runoff into streams, and many other issues. The list of violations is noteworthy not just for its length, but also for the fact that many of the violations were not immediately reported by Sunoco (as the law requires) or were never reported at all.
In almost half of the NOVs (22 of 55), Sunoco either failed to report the violation within the required time, failed to provide some of the required reporting, or failed to make any report at all (and the violation was caught by an external observer or inspector). In three different locations, Sunoco was even found to be using horizontal directional drilling where it was not permitted.
“A pattern of willful and egregious violation.” When the DEP temporarily shut down Dragonpipe construction in January, it complained of Sunoco’s pattern of “willful and egregious violation” of the law. That’s what the examples above describe. Sunoco’s parent, Energy Transfer Partners, has become known for its wild-west approach to pipeline construction: just do what you want and deal with the fallout later. This is not a matter of an occasional oversight. This is clearly the company’s approach to business. The result is an endless string of violations and problems, followed by attempts to paper it all over with misleading PR.
Unfortunately, pipeline regulation in Pennsylvania depends heavily on self-policing, and self-policing does not work with a rogue company that considers itself above the law.
The PUC will be ruling soon on whether to continue the suspension of ME1 operation that resulted from State Senator Dinniman’s petition for emergency relief. Sunoco has shown again and again it cannot be trusted to do the right thing. The PUC should continue the shutdown until it can come up with a plan, with real penalties, that will ensure that Sunoco follows the law.