After years of Sunoco taking the offensive to push through its dangerous pipeline, the company is now finding itself increasingly on the defensive.
Energy Transfer, Sunoco’s parent, initially thought building Mariner East would be a “slam dunk”. Back in 2015, Energy Transfer CEO Kelcy Warren was gloating. According to Bloomberg, he said “To be where we are today, it’s like a dream … I swear to God, I almost think we did it without anybody noticing.” By early 2019, Warren admitted, “So yes, we’ve learned a lot. Every place is not Texas.”
And the company is apparently still learning. Here are some indications of the scrutiny it is under, just within the past month or two.
Lincoln Highway sinkholes and safety. On July 17, 2020, the Public Utility Commission announced that it was investigating the safety of pipeline operations at Sunoco’s worksite in Chester County where Mariner East crosses the Lincoln Highway (Business Route 30). Sinkholes there are endangering the highway as well as the operating Mariner East pipelines and a valve station.
Sunoco is in violation of Uwchlan’s noise ordinance. On July 15, 2020, Uwchlan Township notified the company that it must “immediately abate the activities and source of sound” causing the violation, which is the hammer drill (“direct bore”) machine for Mariner East. It is unlikely that the machine can be successfully quieted, and it remains to be seen what might happen if the noise—a major problem in a dense suburban neighborhood—continues.
Sunoco admits faulty public awareness program to PHMSA. On June 26, 2020, PHMSA (the federal department overseeing pipeline safety) issued a document stating that Sunoco had admitted that its Mariner East “public awareness program”, required by law, had been inadequate. The company admitted that it had “failed to tailor its communications coverage area to fit its particular pipeline, location, and potential impact consequences.” Sunoco promised to expand the program accordingly. PHSMA, which is often sympathetic to pipeline companies, did not penalize the company except to say that “This finding of violation will be considered a prior offense in any subsequent enforcement action….” At least the company has been put on notice.
Loss at State Supreme Court. In a court fight over zoning permission for a pumping station in Lebanon County, on June 1st the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court refused to hear Sunoco’s appeal. That means that the building housing the pumping station is currently in legal limbo.
Attempt at secret settlement talks in Safety 7 case. Sunoco is trying to improve its chances in the “Safety 7” case before the PUC by scheduling secret settlement talks for next week with some of the parties involved. Both sides view this case as a critical test of whether Sunoco must provide a credible plan for dealing with pipeline emergencies. But the word on the secret meetings is out, and many people (including the parties to the case who weren’t invited) are insisting that any settlement talks must involve all the parties.
Delaware County residents appealing assessments because of the pipeline. In Delaware County, new property-tax assessments are taking place. Many residents believe that Mariner East construction and operation has reduced the value of their homes, and they are appealing their assessments. This will help draw the attention of local politicians to the negative economic consequences of Mariner East.
Lots more to come. This is not nearly a complete list of the issues Sunoco is currently facing. In southeastern PA, it has potential environmental problems with the DEP at Shoen Road and at Valley Creek in Chester County. Media Borough is refusing to grant an easement Sunoco needs for work in Middletown Township. The company is encountering continuing problems with the geology in West Whiteland, Edgmont, and Middletown townships. It is involved in a protracted battle over air-quality issues at Marcus Hook.
At the state and federal level, there is apparently an ongoing investigation by the FBI into potential corruption in the way permits were issued; and rumor has it that a state Grand Jury, which has already issued a report on fracking violations, will be weighing in on Mariner East.
All across the country, pipeline delays and cancellations have been in the news. It is clear that public sentiment is turning strongly against petrochemical infrastructure. Many oppose it on climate and environmental grounds, and Mariner East can’t even be defended in terms of “energy independence” since the material it carries is intended almost exclusively for export, and most of it can’t be used as an energy source anyway.
So don’t let anyone tell you Mariner East is a done deal. Sunoco is facing an increasingly hostile environment and is losing ground.