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Delaware River Basin Commission Urged To Pull the Mariner East Pipeline Permit

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania Mariner East 2 Pipeline construction in Delaware County.

STATE IMPACT PENNSYLVANIA - The environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network issued a rare call to an interstate water regulator to withdraw its permit for Mariner East, saying the pipeline project has violated permit conditions on drilling and water pollution in the basin.

DRN urged the Delaware River Basin Commission to suspend its docket, or permit, that was issued in December 2015 for the Sunoco pipeline project to run through 23 municipalities in the southeastern Pennsylvania portion of the basin.

Sunoco has said the project is more than 95 percent complete and will be operational by the end of the third quarter.

In a letter to DRBC Executive Director Steve Tambini on June 15, DRN said Sunoco had violated the docket by changing the number of horizontal directional drilling locations without notifying DRBC and by releasing water pollutants that contravened permits issued by other state and federal agencies, including Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Sunoco, a unit of Energy Transfer Partners, has released drilling fluid and sediment-laden storm water into the waters of the basin in dozens of incidents, violating Pennsylvania water-quality standards, and the conditions of state permits, which in turn violates the DRBC docket, DRN said.

“In light of the severe and ongoing violations of the DRBC docket and the significant harm being inflicted on water resources of the basin, we are urging you to exercise your authority to suspend this docket and undertake a thorough review of the project,” the letter said.

Neither Sunoco nor the Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, an advocate for Mariner East, responded to requests for comment.

The letter listed 19 instances of storm water discharges in six counties and 10 spills of drilling mud in seven counties in support of its request. The incidents are based on DRN’s independent research, said the group’s head, Maya van Rossum, but some may overlap with incidents reported by DEP, which has issued 58 notices of violation to Mariner East since May 2017, most recently on June 15, according to the DEPwebsite.

Van Rossum said she did not recall another time when DRN asked DRBC to suspend its docket on any project.

Peter Eschbach, a spokesman for DRBC, said he was not aware of the regulator suspending a docket for any project at any time over the last decade.

Suspension would mean halting the project, he said. “Effectively, the docket holder would have to stop work on the docketed project,” he said. “It is not something we take lightly.”

Eschbach said DRN’s request is being considered by Tambini, and representatives of the governors of Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and New York, plus the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, that make up the commission. He had no estimate for when a decision would be made.

The request adds to the challenges faced by the much-delayed Mariner East project, which has been shut down three times by judges or regulators because of water-quality violations since construction began in February 2017.

Last week, Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commissionupheld a judge’s order to halt construction in West Whiteland Township, Chester County because of concerns that public safety was at risk from the project along the same right-of-way as an operational natural gas liquids pipeline, and in an area of unstable geology.

But the PUC allowed Sunoco to resume pumping natural gas liquids along the existing line, Mariner East 1, which had been shut down by the judge.

In DRN’S letter, not all of the violations are in the Delaware River basin, and so fall outside of DRBC’s jurisdiction, but were included in the letter to show a “pattern of behavior,” van Rossum said.

Van Rossum argued that DRBC’s credibility would be hurt if it doesn’t take enforcement action.

“If they don’t enforce their own docket, then what is the value from the public’s perspective, of them issuing dockets?” she said.

Given the many violations in the project’s 17-month construction history, the request to DRBC could have been sent earlier, but van Rossum said its timing now reflects the availability of time and resources rather than any attempt to win the support of at least two environmentally proactive Democratic governors – New Jersey’s Phil Murphy and New York’s Andrew Cuomo.

“This was an important stone that has been left unturned,” she said.

Sunoco has said the multibillion-dollar Mariner East 2, the first of two pipelines in the project, will be completed by the end of September. It will carry propane, ethane and butane some 350 miles from the Marcellus Shale of southwest Pennsylvania and Ohio to a terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia where most of it will be exported for overseas petrochemical manufacture.