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Dinniman: Questions and Confusion Over Exposed Pipeline Heighten Concerns About Oversight, Public Safety
On July 20, 2018
WEST CHESTER (June 20, 2018) – Questions about an exposed portion of pipeline in Uwchlan Township continue to raise safety concerns about Sunoco’s Mariner East pipeline project, state Senator Andy Dinniman said.
“Residents discovered an exposed portion of pipeline. Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) officials confirmed that it was Mariner East 1 and was being monitored for several weeks. Sunoco now says it’s an inactive portion of the pipeline and in turn, the PUC seems to agree,” Dinniman said. “If that sounds confusing, keep in mind that it’s only the latest series of twists and turns in the ongoing saga of the Mariner East project. On something as serious as a hazardous materials pipeline running through a high-consequence community, the process has been riddled with mix-ups, misunderstandings, and an astonishing lack of information, transparency, oversight, and accountability.
To be blunt: we always seem to be waiting for the other shoe to drop Our state agencies have not exactly inspired confidence in doing their due diligence to keep the public safe. And Sunoco hasn’t exactly been forthcoming with information, instead choosing to invest in television commercials and newspaper ads,” he added.
Earlier this week, following calls from local residents and reports on social media, Dinniman’s office notified the PUC that a portion of pipeline appeared to be exposed near Crump Road in Uwchlan Township.
In response, on Wednesday, PUC officials verbally confirmed that the exposed pipeline was, in fact, Mariner East 1 (ME1), that they had been aware the situation for several weeks and had instructed Sunoco to monitor the situation. PUC officials also said they had notified the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). Uwchlan Township officials also received confirmation from the PUC that the exposed pipeline was ME1, according to news reports.
Dinniman said he was initially shocked by the PUC’s seemingly lackadaisical approach to the issue since when ME1 was exposed by a sinkhole in West Whiteland Township earlier this year, PUC officials were quickly on site and the operation of the pipeline was halted.
“It didn’t make sense to me why the PUC would let something like that sit for weeks without taking action or notifying homeowners, except to instruct Sunoco to monitor the situation. It sounded like we were letting the fox guard the henhouse,” Dinniman said.
At the time, Dinniman also questioned why the PUC Commissioners allowed Sunoco to resume operations on the ME1 just last month if a portion was lying exposed to the surface.
However, on Thursday, in an e-mail obtained by Dinniman’s office that was circulated throughout the local community, Paul Metro, Manager of the PUC’s Safety Division wrote that the commission had “received some data back from Sunoco and the exposed pipeline in the creek is abandoned. There is no product in that section of pipeline. It was replaced 4 years ago.”
Today, that information was confirmed by other PUC officials who said that the commission’s Pipeline Safety Division is still gathering and verifying information as part of an ongoing investigation into the matter.
“We have confirmed that engineers have been on site multiple times and determined that there is not an imminent threat to public safety,” PUC Legislative Liaison June Perry wrote in an e-mail. “It is my understanding that this had been part of ME1, but is now an inactive line.”
In addition, according to reports, Vicki Granado, Vice President of Corporate Communications for Energy Transfer Partners, which owns Sunoco, released the following statement to the press: “We have confirmed that the section of pipe visible in the tributary to Valley Creek is an abandoned section of pipeline that was taken out of service in 2015. At that time, it was capped and filled with grout. This was accompanied by the replacement of the active Mariner East 1 pipeline in that area which was lowered to a depth of 8’ in accordance with all appropriate regulations as part of the Mariner East 1 integrity upgrade project. This has been documented and shared with the Pa PUC.”
Dinniman said that while he was somewhat relieved that the exposed pipeline running through residents’ backyards is not actively carrying liquefied natural gas (LNGs) products, the situation sheds more light on to how Sunoco is trying to retrofit decades-old petroleum pipelines to transport highly volatile materials. In addition, the miscommunication shows the complexity of the issues at stake and raises more significant questions and doubts about the ability of the PUC and other state agencies to effectively oversee the process.
“It appears that Sunoco is basically creating a patchwork of new and old pipeline infrastructure in our area in a seemingly hasty effort to get the product to market. It sounds like the exposed pipeline in Uwchlan was part of the original 87-year-old Mariner East 1 but was possibly deemed too old, too corroded, and/or too close to the surface to put into service,” Dinniman said. “It only makes sense to think that there are other portions of that same line – possibly in similar condition – in service carrying LNGs here in Chester County. Images and video of the exposed, inactive portion of ME1 may offer insight into what active portions might look like and how they have been weathered over time.
“Furthermore, one has to wonder how and why neither the PUC nor Sunoco released this information sooner. If the PUC had been notified as Sunoco indicated it was, why didn’t they properly identify the line as inactive? If Sunoco was instructed to monitor the line, why didn’t they remind the PUC that it was inactive sooner? Keep in mind, this did not occur overnight, PUC officials indicated they had known about the exposure for weeks,” he added.
Dinniman said his frustration is echoed by local residents who are growing increasingly wary of both the PUC and Sunoco as issues and problems with the Mariner East project continue to arise.
“You have to wonder if the PUC even knows where all of the pipelines are and what is going through them. How can we be monitoring pipelines and not realize they are inactive or out of use?” Dinniman said. “I’m extremely concerned about how pipeline information is shared and verified by our state agencies, as well as how pipelines are monitored for safety. Like the Mariner East project itself, the public seems to get a patchwork of answers from various officials that we then must put together, compare, and validate to get to the truth. Regardless, I will continue to demand answers to these and other questions as the very health, safety, and well-being of my constituents are at stake.”
The ME1 pipeline, which dates back to 1931, originally carried petroleum products from the port at Marcus Hook to western Pennsylvania. Today, it is permitted to carry liquid propane, butane, and ethane in the opposite direction.
Sunoco is building two new additional pipelines, Mariner East 2 (ME2) and Mariner East 2X (ME2x) in the same right-of-way, as well as seeking to activate and repurpose an existing 12-inch petroleum pipeline to carry liquid natural gas products in Chester and Delaware Counties.
Since the beginning, the Mariner East project has been riddled with problems:
- Last summer, drilling activities in West Whiteland Township damaged an aquifer, causing water-quality issues in dozens of nearby residential wells.
- In January, after numerous violations, DEP suspended construction permits for Mariner East 2 across the state.
- In February, DEP and Sunoco reached a settlement agreement with Sunoco that included a $12.6 million fine.
- In March, multiple sinkholes appeared on Lisa Drive in West Whiteland, threatening private homes and leading to the evacuation of at least one family.
- Later that month, the PUC suspended operations of ME1 finding that “permitting continued flow of hazardous liquids through the ME1 pipeline without proper steps to ensure the integrity of the pipeline could have catastrophic results impacting the public.”
- In April, Senator Dinniman brought a formal complaint and petition for emergency relief before the PUC to halt operations of ME1, and construction on ME2 and ME2X in West Whiteland.
- In May, the PUC allowed Sunoco to resume operations on ME1.
- Later that month, a PUC judge sided with Dinniman, halting all three pipelines in West Whiteland.
- In June, the PUC maintained the shutdown of ME2 and ME2X but allowed operations to resume on ME1.