Sunoco can't bury the concerns of pipeline neighbors

Up until this point, it appeared as if nothing was going to stop the Mariner East 2 pipeline.

Not the concerns of public officials. Not the lament of environmentalists. Not the howls of protest from citizens who watched helplessly as Sunoco's massive multi-billion dollar project spread like a plague across the landscape of western Delaware County and the heart of central Chester County.

Armed with a crucial court ruling back in 2014 that granted Sunoco public utility status, Mariner East 2 started snaking across 11 miles of Delco and another 23 miles traversing Chester County. Trees were felled, landscapes were fouled, and residents watched in horror as their ugly new neighbor showed up in one neighborhood after another.

Building a pipeline is not a pretty business. And it has after effects, including runoff problems from digging. All of these have been abundant in building Mariner East 2, which when up and running will ferry hundreds of thousands of barrels of volatile gases such as ethane, butane and propane the full width of Pennsylvania, from the Marcellus Shale regions to a facility in Marcus Hook.

The company, backed by some local officials, labor unions and chamber of commerce types, have heralded the pipeline as a lifesaver for Marcus Hook, decidedly down on its luck after Sunoco decided to get out of the refinery business and shuttered its iconic facility on the waterfront. Some see Mariner East 2 as a lifesaver, a project that could potentially turn Marcus Hook into an energy hub for the entire Northeast.

Residents where the pipeline is being installed see it as something much worse.

They see it as a threat to property values - and their lives.

They point to questions about Sunoco's ability to properly build the pipeline and operate it safely. They point to persistent problems with runoff, a byproduct of the digging that comes with building a pipeline.

They believe the state has been lax, first in allowing the routing of such a project through densely populated neighborhoods, literally running right next to schools and senior centers.

The state shut down construction on the pipeline after sinkholes were discovered in a West Whiteland neighborhood. That action was eventually rescinded and construction resumed.

But a Public Utility Commission administrative law judge a few weeks ago again halted construction in the township, as well as stopping the flow of materials already being pushed through the existing Mariner East 1 pipeline, Sunoco's old petroleum line that has been refitted to carry the Marcellus Shale products. Mariner East 2 and another still to be constructed pipeline will basically run beside the existing line.

It is likely that the legal efforts to halt Mariner East 2 will fail, in no small part due to that key original ruling granting Sunoco public utility status, in effect noting that the project would be done for the public good.

In fact, the company points out that the project is more than 95 percent completed. Their hope is to have it online later this summer.

But something that happened recently may be a game-changer.

A work crew installing a water main for Aqua Pa. along Lenni Road in Middletown struck the buried Mariner East 2 pipeline. Luckily, the line is not yet active. The company confirmed that the work crew scratched the pipeline, but said there was no damage.

Here's the problem. The work crew hit the pipeline at 6 feet. However, they had been informed by Sunoco that the pipeline was buried 9 feet deep.

This is exactly the kind of situation that residents fear. The spot where the pipeline was struck is just a few hundreds yards from Glenwood Elementary School.

The incident is now under investigation by company officials, as well as the PUC.

"Had ME2 been operational, this could have been the kind of catastrophe we've been concerned about," said Eric Friedman, a member of DelChesco United for Pipeline Safety.

On Saturday groups opposed to Mariner East 2 held a rally in downtown West Chester. It was the biggest event yet, with several hundreds people in attendance.

The full PUC is expected to rule later this week on the judge's decision to halt construction and shut down Mariner East 1. Sunoco must back up its words - that they are installing the pipeline and will operate it to the highest safety standards in the industry.

Incidents like the one in which a contractor hit the pipeline at 6 feet when they were told it would be at 9 feet do nothing to allay those fears.