The “SOS Rally” in Harrisburg on March 19 was a milestone for our movement. It attracted people from many areas affected by the Dragonpipe (Mariner East pipeline system) and it provided evidence that our cause is finally being taken seriously in Harrisburg. In addition to over 100 protesters, a number of state senators and representatives attended the rally. (I’ll return to them at the end of this post.) The press was there in force as well. There was a clear sense that the opposition to this dangerous set of pipelines is gaining momentum.
At the rally, a handout was circulated containing information that I had compiled called “List of Possible Violations of Law Related to the Mariner East Project”. Several people requested that I make that available in electronic form, and the entire 6-page document can be downloaded here.
What’s on the list? The 17 items on that list relate to the following areas:
- Neglected maintenance of ME1, resulting in a leak
- Allowing continued ME1 operations when it was exposed in a sinkhole
- Failure to notify Amtrak of sink-hole related issues near its tracks
- Lying to federal investigators about a possible leak during pipeline testing
- Improper testing of pipeline coating
- Secrecy around the real extent of danger in densely-populated areas
- Failure to provide the OneCall system (“call before you dig”) about the actual location of pipelines
- Damage to pipe during field bending operations
- Failure to provide proper evacuation plans for persons with disabilities
- Use of substandard steel in some pipe
- Potential pipe coating damage from weathering
- Possible failure to replace all pipe from a poorly-coated batch
- Violation of air-pollution regulations at Marcus Hook
- Covertly switching to higher pressure in pipeline plans
- Illegal construction activity at West Goshen
- Possible falsification of welding records
- Improper use of old pipeline to meet a contract deadline
In each case, in the document linked above, I have provided a summary of the possible violation, information on where these problems are documented, and related questions that still need to be answered. Some violations are admitted by Sunoco, some are still contested, and a few are just hearsay at this point.
The point I wanted to make with this list is not just that Sunoco has violated the law at times, but that there is a pattern here: Sunoco does whatever it feels like, and then asks its lawyers to clean up the mess it leaves. I assume it takes this approach because this is a quicker way to get its pipelines built than playing by the rules would be. And because it makes so much money once the pipelines are in operation, the lawyers’ fees are of little concern. If this is the strategy, then serious legal action, perhaps including jail time, may be needed to change it.
What’s missing from the list? Many readers will notice that there are notable omissions from the list above. I tried to choose the items with the most obvious relation to risk. I think risk to human life and health is the key issue here, but it is certainly not the only area where Sunoco has abused the legal and regulatory system. Here are some areas that are not covered in the list above:
- Environmental destruction. The Department of Environmental Protection has cited Sunoco for dozens of violations. A list of those, and links to numerous other environmental problems with the pipeline, is here. By January 2018, Sunoco had accumulated so many violations that the DEP suspended its construction permits until Sunoco came up with a plan for better compliance. The DEP’s order, listing Sunoco’s “willful and egregious violations”, is here.
- Official corruption. There is currently an investigation by the state ethics office into whether DEP permits were improperly issued because of political pressure.
- Property rights and abuse of eminent domain. Sunoco has been aggressive in its use of eminent domain to seize property, even though it isn’t actually a “public utility” in the sense of an organization providing essential services to the public. So far, the courts have generally sided with Sunoco on this. More information (albeit somewhat out of date) is here.
- Noise, vibration, and frac-outs. Residents near drill sites have been suffering with constant noise, vibration that has damaged their houses, and frac-outs in their yards. They have had little recourse. One small victory: East Goshen won a court case last March to make Sunoco abide by its noise ordinance.
- Land agent abuses. There is no regulation of land agents in Pennsylvania, and they can promise (or threaten) pretty much whatever they want with impunity. Dozens of land owners have been lied to. I have not heard of any successful lawsuits against land agents.
- Possible SEC violations. Companies whose stock is sold to the public (as Energy Transfer’s stock is) are supposed to inform their investors about events that may impact the value of their stock. Energy Transfer has consistently been wildly overoptimistic in its promises about pipeline completion schedules and has arguably failed to warn investors of the seriousness of the troubles it has had in Pennsylvania. It is not clear to me whether this rises to the level of violating the disclosure rules of the Securities and Exchange Commission, but it might.
- Possible Title 35 violations. Title 35 of the Pennsylvania Code contains laws related to health and safety. It is possible to make a case that Sunoco has violated some parts of Title 35, or has caused others to violate it by failing to give them the information required to keep citizens safe.
Legislative action. As was evident at the Harrisburg rally, we are finally starting to see a significant number of our legislators get interested in fixing some of these problems. Starting with State Senator Andy Dinniman, and continuing with many elected officials from southeastern PA, our legislators are starting to push for reforms. Dinniman and newly-elected representative Danielle Friel Otten have organized a “Pipeline Safety Caucus” that currently includes 8 state senators and 17 state representatives. Information about some of the bills that have been introduced is here.
This is the beginning of necessary legal reform around pipeline construction and operation in Pennsylvania. If there is to be a silver lining to all the trouble this pipeline project has caused, it may be that those who consider future pipeline projects in Pennsylvania will have to be more careful than Sunoco has been.
However, even if some of these new laws are eventually passed, that won’t come in time to affect the construction of the Dragonpipe.