The on-again, off-again Mariner East 1 pipeline is on again.

In a mixed decision, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission on Thursday voted to allow Sunoco Pipeline LP to resume service on its contentious Mariner East 1 pipeline. But the PUC continued a halt on construction of the Mariner East 2 project in West Whiteland Township.

The commission, in a 3-2 vote, partially overruled an emergency order issued last month by Administrative Law Judge Elizabeth Barnes to suspend service on the Mariner East 1, a refurbished 87-year-old pipeline that delivers propane and other Marcellus Shale gas liquids to a terminal in Marcus Hook.

Gladys M. Brown, the PUC’s chair, said there was “no new credible evidence” that the continued operation of the pipeline represents a public safety threat.

The commission in March shut down service after sinkholes developed in West Whiteland Township, Chester County, but allowed operations to resume May 3 after Sunoco stabilized the soil and inspections showed no pipeline damage from the subsidence.

Despite the finding that the operating pipeline did not represent an immediate threat, the PUC kept in place an emergency order halting construction in West Whiteland on two new adjacent pipelines, the Mariner East 2 and the ME2X. The new pipelines will also gas liquids — propane, ethane, and butane — most of which are being loaded on ships in Marcus Hook and exported to European petrochemical manufacturers.

Before it can resume construction, Sunoco has 20 days to file inspection and testing protocols, a comprehensive emergency response plan and its safety training curriculum for employees and contractors, Brown said.

A sinkhole that developed in early March in West Whiteland Township prompted the PUC to halt pipeline construction until the ground was stabilized.
COURTESY OF TJ ALLEN
A sinkhole that developed in early March in West Whiteland Township prompted the PUC to halt pipeline construction until the ground was stabilized.

The PUC's decision dealt only with the emergency order, and leaves unresolved the underlying complaint about the project's safety by State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D., Chester), a vocal opponent of the project. Dinniman, in a statement, called the decision a "mixed bag."

"I don't understand why the PUC would affirm some of the public safety issues at stake involving the construction of Mariner East 2 and 2X, but completely ignore others involving Mariner East 1," he said. "After all, that's the one that potentially presents the most immediate danger to my constituents."

The PUC's two Republican members, John F. Coleman, Jr. and Norman J. Kennard, dissented Thursday, saying that Dinniman had failed to show that construction of the two new pipelines represented an "immediate threat," and that evidence submitted of Sunoco's 2016 violations for construction practices on a Texas pipeline had "no relevance" to a finding of immediate harm.

Coleman also said that the PUC's pipeline safety experts are keeping close watch on the project, noting that the staff inspectors' report in March about the sinkhole concerns prompted the PUC to temporarily shut down operations until the ground was stabilized.

Sunoco, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners LP, argued that an administrative law judge's decision to shut down a project, at a cost of millions of dollars and inconvenience to pipeline's customers, creates a "dangerous and unlawful precedent for the commission to set, which will inevitably lead to a flood of emergency petitions where no actual safety emergency exists."

While the PUC's action to halt Mariner East 2 construction in one township has significant symbolic weight, it's unclear if it will have much practical effect on a $5.1 billion project that is already a year behind schedule.

Sunoco has continued construction work on all areas along the 350-mile route except for the 3.5-mile segment that runs through West Whiteland Township. Construction of the first of the two new pipelines, the Mariner East 2, is 98 percent complete.

The West Whiteland construction was already suspended until at least July 1 as it awaits approval by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection on new construction plans to address issues raised after the sinkholes developed and several dozen private water wells were fouled last year.

Residents and activists rallied on June 9 against the pipeline at the Old Chester County Courthouse.
ED HILLE / Special to the Inquirer
Residents and activists rallied on June 9 against the pipeline at the Old Chester County Courthouse.