Cumberland County resident Wilmer Baker presented his case against Sunoco to a state administrative law court on Wednesday, in a hearing often delayed by objections from the pipeline operator’s attorneys over what was and was not hearsay or applicable expert testimony.
Baker, a Lower Frankford Township resident who is representing himself, presented materials and called witnesses before administrative judge Elizabeth Barnes in Harrisburg.
Sunoco will present its evidence when the hearing continues on Thursday.
Baker alleges that the Mariner East pipelines, which transport liquefied gas from hydrofracking sites in western Pennsylvania to the Marcus Hook processing facility in Philadelphia, are unsafe, and that Sunoco and its parent company, Energy Transfer Partners, have been negligent in addressing safety issues.
Baker’s claims about safety involve Mariner East I, a line that was originally built in 1931, as well as Mariner East II and IIX, the lines that are under construction along the same route.
Mariner East I, which was built to carry petroleum but re-purposed to carry higher-pressure liquefied gas, has leaked at least three times since 2017, one of the reasons that Barnes ordered the line temporarily shut down in a previous case.
Baker said that, given the age of Mariner East I, Sunoco should be required to install some type of alarm or early-warning system.
This is reinforced by Sunoco’s alleged negligence in taking care of the line in Cumberland County, Baker said. A portion of Mariner East I is exposed to the water in a stream bed near McClure’s Gap Road, apparently due to erosion caused by construction of the other two lines, according to photos and testimony from Kim Van Fleet, a Dickinson College instructor who lives on the adjacent farm.
Baker also alleged, based on photos of the pipes used for Mariner East II in Cumberland County, and a U.S. Department of Commerce trade case against a Greek steel company, that the pipeline is using substandard steel similar to that detailed in a report on previous pipeline defects.
Baker said he'd like the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission to open an investigation into Sunoco’s steel purchases and have a regulatory body confirm that the steel being used meets U.S. standards.
“What I wanted was an alarm system, better outreach, and American-made steel instead of the foreign steel they’re dumping on this country,” Baker said.
Thomas Sniscak, an attorney for Sunoco, said his presentation on Thursday will prove that Baker’s concerns regarding the integrity of the steel do not apply to the Mariner East II and IIX.
“You’re taking one incident as applying to everything,” Sniscak said during Wednesday’s hearing. “He’s bringing up something from nine years ago and has made no nexus [that it applies to Mariner East].”
Sniscak also raised multiple objections during the hearing regarding Baker’s testimony, as well as those of his witnesses, about Sunoco’s safety outreach.
Baker has cited a number of incidents, reported by this newspaper, in which township and county officials have said that Sunoco has abruptly canceled or refused public meetings on pipeline concerns. Baker also frequently asked his witnesses to convey what they had been told by local first responders about Sunoco’s safety training, or lack thereof.
However, those officials and first responders were not there to testify in-person.
“You can’t make a statement from a declarant who isn’t in court to testify. It has to come from the horse’s mouth, so to speak,” Sniscak said, an objection he raised many times.
Baker’s case, much of which he hand-wrote himself, is one of several legal and legislative issues ETP and Sunoco are dealing with.
Late last year, the Chester County District Attorney’s Office launched a criminal investigation into Sunoco’s pipeline construction in the Philadelphia suburbs; shortly thereafter, the Delaware County DA, in conjunction with the state Attorney General’s Office, launched the same.
In September 2018, ETP’s newly built Revolution pipeline in western Pennsylvania, which is not part of Mariner East, exploded. In February, the state Department of the Environment placed a permit moratorium on ETP/Sunoco projects, with Gov. Tom Wolf citing a “failure by Energy Transfer and its subsidiaries to respect our laws and our communities.”
Several more challenges to the PUC over Mariner East’s safety, similar to Baker’s, are also upcoming in the administrative court. State legislation has also been proposed to put a two-year moratorium on pipeline licensing.
The PUC has given notice that it will undergo a rule-making process for pipelines under its existing authority in the state code, including matters of public awareness, pressure testing and leak detection.
The Cumberland County commissioners issued a resolution this week urging the PUC to create additional public meeting requirements for pipeline safety, citing Sunoco’s failure to meet the county’s requests for public hearings.