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Mariner East Project to Face More Scrutiny at Public Hearing Later This Month

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has scheduled a public hearing to take comments on two applications filed in October by Sunoco Pipeline LP to modify its construction methods at two locations in Chester County for the Mariner East (ME) 2 pipeline project.

Sunoco, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners LP (ETP), wants to change from horizontal directional drilling (HDD) to conventional boring at one site and from HDD to a combination of conventional bore, open trench and HDD at the other site. Both locations are in West Whiteland Township, where three sinkholes formed near the area where HDD for the ME 2X pipeline was underway, prompting state regulators to shut down operations on the nearby ME 1 pipeline.

The sinkholes, however, have nothing to do with Sunoco’s request. The applications to modify the company’s Chapter 102 Erosion and Sediment Control permits were filed primarily to ensure that a utility’s public water supply in the area would not be impacted. A more in-depth hydrogeology analysis and seismic testing at another location suggested a change in construction method would also be necessary.

The public hearing has been scheduled for April 30. More information about it can be found on the agency’s website. DEP also has been accepting public comments on the applications since February, announcing this week that the period would be extended again to May 11.

“Both the hearing and public comment period extensions are to ensure that local residents have the opportunity to have their concerns heard,” said DEP spokesperson Neil Shader. “The applications for modifications have been under review.”

To be sure, the project has been controversial and has drawn the ire of some residents living along the route, particularly those in the southeastern part of the state where the modifications have been proposed and other issues have arisen. The DEP fined Sunoco an historic $12.6 million earlier this year to resolve dozens of violations and allowed the project to restart construction.

The agency had suspended Sunoco’s permits and stopped nearly all building activities in response to more than 30 separate violation notices and more than 100 inadvertent returns of drilling mud, fluids and other substances, including incidents in Chester County. Regulatory snags forced the company to push back ME 2’s in-service date to 2Q2018.

ETP spokesperson Lisa Dillinger said the ME 2 mainline is 98% complete. When asked if another public comment period extension would delay the project again, she said it would not.

“We believe this change will allow us to proceed with construction in the most efficient manner possible, while keeping safety as our first priority,” she said of the construction modifications. “...This will not impact our timeline for initial in-service.”

ME 1 remains offline as an investigation of the sinkholes and the pipeline’s integrity continues. The pipeline transports ethane and propane from western Pennsylvania to the Marcus Hook Industrial Complex near Philadelphia. ME 2 and 2X, which are being built in the same right-of-way as ME 1, would run parallel for about 350 miles to move natural gas liquids from processing facilities in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to Marcus Hook.

In related news, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration said Tuesday that it has created a new grant program funded with the $12.6 million fine paid by Sunoco. The penalty was one of the state’s largest ever collected in a single settlement. Under the program, the administration said grants would be awarded for projects that reduce or minimize pollution and help protect water in the 85 municipalities along the length of ME 2’s corridor.

In a sign of what the DEP might face at the public hearing later this month, Sam Rubin, the eastern Pennsylvania organizer for Food & Water Watch, called the grant program an attempt to “silence dissent” in the communities that have been affected by project construction.

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