Sunoco Pipeline LP officials did not show up as promised to a public meeting Tuesday night with the Lower Frankford Township supervisors, leaving roughly 20 residents of the rural municipality concerned that their safety questions about the Mariner East pipelines would not be addressed.
“They called us about an hour ago and said they won’t be coming, so we won’t be discussing the pipeline tonight,” Supervisor James Burkholder said during the meeting.
The township will attempt to schedule Sunoco officials to attend another meeting, Burkholder said, ideally when the township’s attorney is available to discuss the municipality’s control over the pipeline process, which is limited.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the township also approved an invoice from Brehm-Lebo Engineering for inspections along the pipeline construction routes, a process that will help determine how much the township gets reimbursed for damage to its roads.
“Beyond that, the process is pretty much all in the hands of the DEP [Pennsylvania Department Environmental Protection],” Burkholder said.
The Mariner East 2 pipeline will carry liquefied gas, hydrofracked from shale formations in western Pennsylvania, to the Marcus Hook Industrial Complex near Philadelphia for processing.
Throughout most of Cumberland County, Mariner East 2 is being built alongside Mariner East 1, a line that was installed in 1931 to carry oil, but was recently re-purposed to transport higher-pressure liquefied gases.
According to Lower Frankford residents, communications from Sunoco have provided limited safety information about either pipeline, with communications focusing on marketing the economic benefits of the pipeline.
This appears to be a significant departure from previous communications, resident Wilmer Baker said.
Baker provided a safety pamphlet from Sunoco he said he received years earlier when he moved into his property. The pamphlet gives dire warnings about what to do if you suspect a pipeline leak near your home, including not starting your car, or even using a door knocker, for fear of sparks.
“I have a wood stove that runs 24 hours a day,” Baker said. “What am I supposed to do if this thing gives out? They’re cranking up the pressure on an iron line from the 1930s, but all we get now is the propaganda, no new safety information.”
The state’s Public Utility Commission and administrative law judge appear to agree with Baker.
In March, the administrative court shut down Mariner East 1 flow after Mariner East 2 construction in Chester County caused massive sinkholes that exposed the original Mariner East 1 line.
The court allowed the pipeline to resume operation on May 3, but shut it down again three weeks later over safety concerns similar to those voiced by Lower Frankford residents on Tuesday night. As of June 14, Sunoco is again allowed to operate the pipeline
In the May 21 shutdown order, Administrative Judge Elizabeth Barnes found that “Sunoco has made deliberate managerial decisions to proceed in what appears to be a rushed manner in an apparent prioritization of profit over the best engineering practices available in our time that might best ensure public safety.”
In the past year, Mariner East 1 has experienced three leaks, all of which Sunoco failed to identify and report. In one instance it took Sunoco officials 90 minutes to close off Mariner I after being informed of a leak in Berks County that resulted in a 1,000-gallon spill of liquefied gas, Barnes said.
In reference to Mariner East 1 being strong enough for conversion from low-pressure oil to high-pressure liquefied gas, Barnes found that “there is insufficient evidence to show whether the pipe has been properly tested for repurposing.”
Sunoco has submitted no reports that would indicate the line, built in 1931, would be able to accommodate high-pressure loads of shale gas liquids, known as highly volatile liquids, according to the shutdown order.
“I question whether the [Mariner I] pipe meets today’s engineering standards to hold the HVLs of ethane, butane and methane gases, especially so close to dwellings,” Barnes wrote.
She also found that “there is a substantial issue regarding whether Sunoco has adequately created and trained its personnel and first responders of townships along its route regarding proper emergency response and evacuation procedures.”
That would seem to be the case in Lower Frankford. Burkholder said the township supervisors have had “no direct report” from Sunoco, beyond pamphlets the company gave them to hand out to residents.
The company’s June newsletter contains no concrete emergency response information, but it does devote considerable space to complaining about the Mariner East 1 shutdown decision, calling Barnes’ ruling “a significant departure from the law and the due process procedures that the PUC follows.”
The newsletter even contains a graphic of sizzling steaks with the tagline “restarting Mariner East 1 will make cookouts more affordable” due to lower energy transport costs.
“They send us all this stuff about energy prices, but they still can’t tell the township what we’re supposed to do when this thing blows up,” Baker said, referencing the explosion of the Columbia Gas Transmission line in West Virginia last month.
“Remember, that line was brand new, not 80 years old,” Baker said.
In response to the shutdowns, Sunoco has submitted exhibits to the PUC detailing safety measures. These include safety literature similar to that which Baker had received in the past, and details of training sessions for local emergency responders.
If Lower Frankford officials or residents feel Sunoco isn’t actually carrying through on those plans, they can take action through the PUC, PUC spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen said.
“There are state and federal requirements for [Sunoco] to have outreach campaigns and interaction with emergency responders,” Hagen-Frederiksen said. “If people don’t feel they’re getting the necessary information or interaction from Sunoco, we encourage them to raise that issue with the PUC.”
Other Lower Frankford residents voiced concern with ongoing environmental remediation and access issues.
Vern Leach said that Sunoco had cut his fences to run Mariner East 2 under his farm, and now wants to put in gates so that workers can access the line in the future, even though the company doesn’t have right-of-way.
Drilling fluid and mud has leaked to the surface of the wetlands surrounding Locust Creek, which abuts Leach’s property, leaving a hardened layer of silt under the marshes, he said.
“They cut our fences, so we can’t use it for pasture, and they destroyed the wetlands,” Leach said. “It’s as hard as a rock just below the surface.”
Two incidents involving Locust Creek and its associated wetlands, referred to by the state as Wetlands J35, are cited in the April 27 “consent assessment” between Sunoco and the DEP, which fines Sunoco $355,622 for dozens of instances of “inadvertent return” during the construction of Mariner East 2.
“Inadvertent return” is an industry term for incidents in which underground drilling fluid and mud escape the drilling path and cause contamination, either by entering underground aquifers or soil voids, or by flowing up to the surface.
Locust Creek and Wetland J35 experienced a 500-gallon inadvertent return on Sept. 27, 2017, and another 100-gallon incident on Feb. 27, 2018, according to the consent assessment.
DEP records show 31 incidents of inadvertent return in Cumberland County since April 2017, with problems still ongoing.
The most recent violation was issued this week — July 9 — in which the DEP and county conservation district documented a one-gallon inadvertent return in Wetland I32 along LeTort Spring Run in Middlesex Township.
Many of the inadvertent returns are of small volumes. But one stands out, an incident between May 6, 2017, and May 19, 2017, in which 170,000 gallons of inadvertent return flowed into Wetlands I30 and I32.
One Cumberland County incident was also cited in the DEP’s $12.6 million penalty assessment against Sunoco in February.
That incident did not involve inadvertent returns. On Dec. 18, 2017, county officials discovered that Sunoco officials were conducting directional drilling near North Locust Point Road in Silver Spring Township even though Sunoco officials were told to install pipe using open trench cuts and had not obtained permits for horizontal drilling at that site.
But with the sheer volume of violations and fines piling up, local residents have expressed doubt that the state has the tools to force Sunoco to stop acting recklessly, let alone fix the damage.
“They make a big deal out of a $12 million fine, but that’s a drop in the bucket for a company like Sunoco,” Leach said. “They have no incentive to stop doing what they’re doing.”
Sunoco did not return requests for comment.