The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) has been gradually getting more involved in the regulation of the Dragonpipe (Mariner East 2 pipeline). Two events this week give an indication of where that involvement may be headed. One is the filing of a complaint by a homeowners’ association, and the other is a ruling on one of Sunoco’s legal maneuvers.

Andover files a complaint. On Tuesday, July 24, the Andover Homeowners’ Association, Inc. (a Pennsylvania nonprofit corporation) filed a Formal Complaint with the PUC. The Andover subdivision, south of the intersection of state routes 926 and 352, has had its private, supposedly preserved-in-perpetuity open space confiscated by Sunoco for the construction of the Dragonpipe, including valve stations for all four pipelines (Mariner East 1, 2, 2X, and the 12-inch “Point Breeze – Montello” line). Andover has been vigorously defending its interests, and those of its members, in a series of legal battles concerning the Dragonpipe.

The Andover complaint basically says that Sunoco has failed to notify homeowners of various pipeline-related dangers, and failed to come up with adequate, credible emergency plans as required by federal regulations. It lists a number of different sections of both Pennsylvania and US code that require public utilities (which Sunoco claims to be) and pipeline operators to explain how they intend to warn and protect the public, and it calls on the PUC to fulfill its duty to force Sunoco to meet those requirements.

It lays out the details of Sunoco’s leakage history and other evidence of the company’s negligence, as well as its violations of permits from the Department of Environmental Protection and resulting fines.

Finally, it makes a novel but accurate argument regarding the woefully inadequate recommendations Sunoco has given in its so-called “public awareness program” concerning what to do in the event of a leak, and describes the problems of getting people (particularly those with limited mobility) out of harm’s way if there is an unexploded cloud of combustible vapor. In essence, Andover argues that the PUC has an obligation to assess the credibility and adequacy of Sunoco’s public awareness programs, rather than simply accepting whatever Sunoco provides.

Two requests of the PUC. The Andover complaint ends with two requests. The first is that this complaint be consolidated with Senator Dinniman’s complaint (in which Andover has already received “intervenor” status). If granted, this consolidation will probably strengthen both cases and help the plaintiffs to match Sunoco’s legal firepower.

The second is that the Commission require “a full and complete risk assessment to determine whether Sunoco is able to operate any or all of the Mariner East system in compliance with Commission requirements to safely (i.e., within a level of risk the Commission determines to be acceptable) provide [NGL] transportation services.” The complaint asks the Commission to “take any and all actions necessary … including … restricting or enjoining Mariner East operations unless Sunoco provides a comprehensive risk assessment and credible notification and evacuation plan….”

Sunoco has 20 days to respond. I look forward to seeing what their defense will be.

Sunoco tries to move the PUC process to Commonwealth Court. On Wednesday (July 25), the PUC ruled on a request by Sunoco to take up parts of Dinniman’s complaint in Commonwealth Court, thus bypassing the PUC process. They want to challenge three aspects of the PUC’s June 15th ruling, which allowed parts of Dinniman’s complaint to continue. In particular, they want to challenge:

  1. Whether Dinniman has standing to file the complaint in the first place,
  2. Whether there is a “clear and present danger” to justify the relief Dinniman seeks, and
  3. Whether the Senator should be required to post a bond sufficient to cover the losses Sunoco claims to be incurring while construction is delayed.

The company argues that, if Dinniman should win his case at the PUC, Sunoco will probably appeal these three issues to the Commonwealth Court. If it wins the appeal on any of these points, Sunoco argues, the outcome of the PUC process (whatever that may be) will be invalid. Therefore, why not allow the appeal now and save everyone’s time at the PUC?

The PUC, in ruling on Sunoco’s request, found Sunoco’s argument unconvincing on two of the three points. Only on the matter of Dinniman’s standing did it find that Sunoco might have a case for an immediate appeal to Commonwealth Court.

I assume we can now expect a parallel court process with arguments about Dinniman’s standing to file the complaint. Meanwhile, Dinniman’s PUC complaint process continues.

It’s clear, both from these PUC documents and from Sunoco’s new plan to use the 12-inch line to bypass incomplete parts of the Dragonpipe, that Sunoco is waking up to the reality that it is in for a long, hard fight regarding what has been, from the beginning, an ill-conceived project.