The fate of the Mariner East Pipeline’s pump station in West Cornwall Township remains in the hands of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and a local citizens group that brought suit against pipeline owner Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of Sunoco, says there’s no clear answer as to when the case will be resolved.
“We really don’t know when something will happen,” said Pam Bishop, a member of the Concerned Citizens of Lebanon County. “The Supreme Court could decide tomorrow, or next week, or next month. There’s no set time frame.”
The Mariner East 1 pipeline passes unobtrusively through Lebanon County, with the only obvious indication of its presence the pump station along Route 322 near Butler Road in West Cornwall Township.
However, many residents along the pipeline’s are worried about the project, in part because of a leak that spilled 33,000 gallons of gasoline near Darby Creek outside Philadelphia in 2018, as well as other, smaller leaks. Some residents in West Cornwall have already reported water contamination because of the pipeline near their wells.
In Lebanon County, Energy Transfer Partners is at the tail-end of a multiyear project to lay newer pipe as part of the Mariner East 2 project.
However, the CCLC appealed the decision approving construction of the pipeline pump station, arguing that the project doesn’t qualify as a public utility service because the pipeline transports natural gas liquids that are shipped overseas for plastics manufacturing rather than domestic fuel.
“This is not a product that’s used by people of Pennsylvania to heat their homes,” Bishop said. “That’s why we’re arguing they’re not a public utility service. It’s a private transportation system.”
The citizens group also said the township’s zoning hearing board acted improperly in May 2015 when it issued a permit construction of a pumping station in West Cornwall. The station, according to previous reports, is needed to provide the pressure necessary to maintain the volatile gases in a liquid state while being transported. However, Bishop noted, construction was completed in September 2014 and gases began flowing through the station in January 2015 — months before the permit was issued.
The case bounced between the township and Court of Common Pleas for several years until a fresh appeal landed it before Commonwealth Court. Last October, the Commonwealth Court ruled in favor of the CCLC, finding that the permit was issued in error. However, the court did not rule on the question of Sunoco’s public utility standing.
Sunoco in January filed a petition with the state Supreme Court to allow them to appeal the Commonwealth Court’s decision. The issue remains in limbo.
Sunoco’s petition, according to Bishop, “argues that the Commonwealth Court used the wrong review standards to review our appeal” and should not have granted the CCLC standing in the case.
“Sunoco is not challenging the decision on the merits,” she said. “The Commonwealth Court decided two issues. One was whether or not we had standing to bring the appeal. The second was whether or not the zoning hearing board and the Court of Common Pleas in Lebanon County decided correctly. The Commonwealth Court said no, they erred in granting the permit to Sunoco.”
That, Bishop said, “means essentially that Sunoco is without a permit for those buildings. The court voided the permit, and determined the permit was issued incorrectly.”
She is hopeful the ruling will stand, although she said it’s possible the Supreme Court will require further legal arguments from the parties. The best-case scenario, from CCLC’s standpoint, she said, would be if the Supreme Court simply rejected the appeal.
“We believe that the Commonwealth Court got it right. We do have standing to raise an appeal, and the permit was issued incorrectly,” Bishop said. “Legally, it cannot stand. Then the permit goes away.”
Doug Lorenzen, also with CCLC, said the group also questions the township’s handling of the matter.
“They should have held hearings on the siting of the pumping station, but they never did,” he said. “Putting in this high-pressure pump station comes with a lot of safety issues attached to it. Besides, it was put on a site that was polluted by Sunoco in previous years, dating back to the 1980s.”
Wells in the area of the pipeline have tested positive for unsafe levels of gasoline additives that environmental regulators warn can be harmful in drinking water, according to previous reports. Unsafe levels of benzene, which was found on at least one local property, can increase risks of cancer and cause anemia with long-term exposure, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Methyl tertiary butyl ether, also found locally, is considered a “potential human carcinogen in high doses” and can also impact the odor and taste of water, the EPA said.
The Mariner East 1 pipeline was shut down in January 2019 following a sinkhole that exposed portions of the pipeline in Chester County. Until that time, Mariner East 1 had remained in use across Pennsylvania, despite some deterioration of the line since its construction in the 1930s.
The company did not respond to a request for comment from LebTown.
Neither did West Cornwall Township, although township officials said previously that a community involvement committee kept an eye on remediation efforts surrounding the pipeline.
In February 2019, Gov. Tom Wolf suspended the review process for clean water permit applications by Sunoco’s parent company Energy Transfer Partners, as well as any other pending approvals by the Department of Environmental Protection. According to the Associated Press, the action was prompted by unstable soil and uncorrected erosion along a company-owned pipeline in western Pennsylvania.
Around that time, it also came out that the bankruptcy of Welded Construction, the contractor previously responsible for Atlantic Sunrise and Mariner East construction in the region, had triggered a chain reaction of insolvency that left a number of Lebanon County businesses unpaid.
“There has been a failure by Energy Transfer and its subsidiaries to respect our laws and our communities,” Wolf said in a press release at the time. “This is not how we strive to do business in Pennsylvania, and it will not be tolerated.”
According to a Jan. 30 report by E&E News, a website focusing on issues of energy and the environment, Energy Transfer Partners is the target of at least three lawsuits resulting from an FBI investigation into the Dallas-based company’s methods of obtaining approvals from the state for construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline.
The FBI’s investigation into Energy Transfer was first reported by the Associated Press in November and was later confirmed by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Energy Transfer denies wrongdoing and has not been contacted by the FBI, a spokeswoman told E&E.
Also, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission’s Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement filed a formal complaint against Energy Transfer Partners in December for an April 2017 leak of the Mariner East 1 pipeline in Morgantown, Berks County, about 40 miles from Lebanon.
Lorenzen urged anyone who’s concerned about the pipeline to get involved with CCLC or Lebanon Pipeline Awareness, an allied group. It’s also good to attend public hearings to let officials know where residents stand, he added.
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