How an unplanned Mariner East pipeline crossover highlights the need for enforcement and change in the state:
This month marked yet another addition to the long saga of Mariner East, as the Chester County District Attorney filed even more criminal charges linked to the pipeline project.
While these headlines grab our attention almost every week, some of the most persistent problems of the pipeline are happening below the surface. One section of the Mariner East, right off East Swedesford Road in Exton, highlights everything we’ve been fighting against: a lack of enforcement, a lack of transparency, and a lack of concern for the residents of Chester County.
Earlier this fall, a concerned resident contacted my office with drone photos of Mariner East pipelines which cross over each other.
This crossover was not on the originally approved pipeline permit, which showed them running parallel with a buffer zone between them.
My office reached out to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) to determine whose responsibility it is to hold Energy Transfer / Sunoco accountable when they fail to follow their own submitted permits. They all pointed to each other, citing that permit enforcement does not come under their jurisdiction. So, whose job is it?
Robert Fogel, Local Government Liaison of the DEP, explained in an email dated on October 31 that, “We don’t regulate the construction of the pipeline. Nothing in our permit conditions would apply to the type of activities that are described.” Meanwhile, the PUC and PHMSA essentially stated that they do not receive permits from pipeline construction companies.
The reality seems to be that Energy Transfer / Sunoco can install their pipelines in our communities however they’d like. They can tie them into knots and our state agencies probably would say that they do not have the authority to object.
If you were building an addition on your house, or even a garage or a deck, this wouldn’t fly. Township officials would hold you to the approved permit and you’d face significant penalties if you didn’t uphold that permit.
Let’s put this scenario before Mariner East. Energy Transfer / Sunoco received permit approval, began construction, and changed the plan. What can we do to hold them accountable? In Pennsylvania, nothing. There is currently no official state agency in charge of oversight or enforcement of pipeline construction. This needs to change.
If no one in Pennsylvania is making sure the permit is being followed, what is the point of a permit? Why is this corporation not held to the same safety standards as our residents?
When we look back to May 10, 2018, Matthew Gordon – the project manager of Sunoco – stated before PUC Administrative Law Judge Elizabeth Barnes that when pipelines are placed next to each other, to ensure a safe buffer, “it’s safe at 10 feet.” Judging from the photos above, I would say the space between those appears to be a little less than 10 feet.
This brings up my next question, too: why did Energy Transfer / Sunoco decide to operate against their originally planned permits? Why did it become necessary for the pipelines to cross in the first place? Perhaps they can answer why, against those permits, they now cross over.
Simply put, Energy Transfer / Sunoco is operating within a system that requires little to no oversight in construction – one that could lead to significant dangers in the future. Energy Transfer / Sunoco apparently understands they can use loopholes in our state system to push this project forward.
This year, I introduced Senate Bill 262, which would give the state authority for the siting and construction of these pipelines. However, this bill is still trapped in committee because of the strong influence that the gas industry has over Harrisburg.
Almost every week now, we learn something new and damning about the construction of the Mariner East Pipeline. Every week there is either a new investigation, a new sinkhole, a new inadvertent return, and a new reason to fight against the current way that Energy Transfer / Sunoco is putting this pipeline carrying highly volatile natural gas liquids in our communities.
How are my constituents in Chester County supposed to feel safe when Energy Transfer / Sunoco can violate their own permits? The situation on Swedesford Road clearly illustrates all that is wrong with pipeline oversight in Pennsylvania.
NOTE: This column appeared in the December 22, 2019 issue of the Daily Local News on Page A5 under the title, “Pipeline construction oversight needed in Pennsylvania.”