On September 10, 2018, a landslide took out a section of Sunoco’s brand-new Revolution pipeline in Beaver County. The pipeline broke in two, releasing a cloud of raw mixed gases (primarily methane) that ignited almost immediately. The resulting explosion burned about 3 acres of trees, a single-family home, a barn, and several vehicles. The family escaped with their lives, but little else. The fire was so intense it melted a nearby electric transmission tower, which fell, taking five other towers with it.
The Beaver County explosion had little to do with the Dragonpipe (Mariner East pipeline system) except that some of the material to be carried by the Revolution pipeline was intended to eventually be sent east on the Dragonpipe. But the consequences had a dramatic impact: the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP} stopped issuing any environmental permits to Sunoco, including those needed for continuing work on the Dragonpipe. Now, with the Revolution situation seemingly resolved, those permits will begin flowing again, and the delayed Dragonpipe work will resume.
The DEP flexes its muscles. The DEP’s response to the explosion (first the “permit bar”, and now $30 million in fines, together with many requirements that Sunoco must now meet) reflects a new level of discipline on the DEP’s part. For years, the DEP issued one “notice of violation” and “deficiency letter” after another, but rarely has the DEP taken any serious action. Now, they have.
The $30 million fine, while it could still be viewed as a small amount in the context of a multi-billion-dollar project, is still enough to get Sunoco’s attention. At the current rate of flow through the pipelines, it represents the revenues for several months of Mariner East operation. And the requirements of the settlement, assuming it is enforced as written, could result in many more penalties if Sunoco fails to comply fully and on the agreed schedule.
Why now? Regular readers of this blog may wonder what took the DEP so long to start getting tough. Part of the reason may be the increased scrutiny the DEP itself is getting, from the public, the Attorney General, and (according to the Associated Press) from the FBI.
But the settlement document (called a “Consent Order and Agreement”, and available here) suggests a growing frustration at the DEP with Sunoco’s failure to cooperate in the months following the Beaver County explosion. Sunoco seems to have assumed it could continue to ignore the DEP’s regulations with impunity, even after a devastating accident.
Here is a timeline of events following the explosion on September 10, 2018, as laid out in the settlement document.
Sept 10 to Oct 28, 2018: In spite of the explosion, Sunoco continued to violate a variety of DEP requirements. It did not stabilize numerous sections of the pipeline that required stabilization, it continued to damage wetlands and streams, it conducted earthmoving work outside the lawful “limits of disturbance”, and it continued to discharge sediment into waterways.
Oct 29, 2018: The DEP issued a Compliance Order. Sunoco was ordered to halt work on the Revolution pipeline, other than to repair damaged pipe and maintain existing “best management practices”. Sunoco was to file a set of plans to remedy its practices.
Jan 10, 2019: The DEP notified Sunoco that it had failed to comply with the October Compliance Order. Sediment was still being discharged; there was no flagging, markers, or signs where they were required; and no temporary stabilization had been done where it was called for. The required Temporary Stabilization Plan was not submitted, the required Erosion and Sedimentation Control Plan was not submitted, and a Post Construction Stormwater Management Plan (PCSM Plan) that complied with Pennsylvania regulations had not been submitted. In short, Sunoco had ignored the Compliance Order.
Feb 8, 2019: The DEP, finding that Sunoco was not following its Compliance Order, petitioned Commonwealth Court to enforce it. Now, the DEP’s patience had run out.
Also on Feb 8, 2019: The DEP sent Sunoco a letter “withholding the issuance of any approvals” for Sunoco environmental permits, effectively halting Sunoco’s ability to continue construction on parts of both Revolution and Mariner East. Known as the “permit bar”, this freeze on DEP permit approvals has made it impossible for Sunoco to work on Mariner East at multiple locations in Delaware and Chester County (along with other spots across the state). Sunoco immediately appealed this action to the Environmental Hearing Board, which acts as an appeals court for DEP’s regulatory decisions. I’m not sure what became of that appeal, but Sunoco was not successful in getting the approval freeze lifted.
March 1, 2019 to Dec 9, 2019: Over this period, Sunoco submitted six revisions of its plans in response to the Compliance Order. DEP reviewed each of them, found them insufficient, and issued deficiency letters.
March 26, 2019: Commonwealth Court issued a Stipulated Order (I understand this to be basically an out-of-court settlement) in response to the DEP’s February petition. I have not been able to find this document on the web, but it seems to have supported the DEP’s case for a freeze on approvals. At any rate, the freeze continued.
April 30, 2019: Sunoco submitted an updated PCSM Plan. As of this writing, the DEP has not approved it yet, because changes will be needed due to revisions of stabilization and erosion-sedimentation plans.
May 14, 2019: A second Compliance Order was issued regarding a multitude of violations committed during construction. These included: 23 streams were completely eliminated because Sunoco simply filled them in, 120 streams had their length changed (mostly shortened), 17 wetlands were eliminated and 70 more were significantly altered—all in violation of DEP regulations. Under this Compliance Order, Sunoco was required to identify all “waters of the Commonwealth” that had been impacted, submit a report of its investigation, submit a plan and schedule for restoration, and submit permit applications to do the restoration work. Over the ensuing six months, Sunoco submitted, and resubmitted, versions of those plans.
Dec 13, 2019: DEP gave preliminary approval to Sunoco’s most recent plans. This is the step that led to the current Consent Order and Agreement, and that opens the way for permits to be issued again.
Implications for Revolution and Mariner East. The plans for the Revolution pipeline that Sunoco has agreed to require adherence to strict deadlines. Failure to meet them can mean fines of up to $20,000 per day and potentially other penalties—another permit freeze is one option explicitly noted in the DEP press release—so Sunoco is likely to pay much closer attention to cleaning up its Revolution mess than it has so far. The construction process for Revolution will also be much more closely monitored and (given the problems so far) completely new construction plans may be needed for problematic stretches of the route. It is even possible, I suppose, that constructing Revolution won’t be possible along the present route in a way that meets DEP regulations. I don’t expect Revolution to be operational for many months, perhaps even years.
Mariner East is a different matter. The DEP will be issuing permits over the next few months, and construction activity is likely to be feverish over the spring and summer. Apart from the permits, this settlement doesn’t affect Mariner East construction except to the extent that the DEP may be watching Sunoco more closely than it has in the past.
Conclusion. This outcome is obviously a good one for the folks in Western Pennsylvania who are dealing with the Revolution pipeline. The opposition to Mariner East has benefitted too, because the permit freeze kept many Mariner East permits from being issued, but that benefit is ending now. Mariner East opponents will now need to focus on other ways to make their case.