The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has dealt another blow to the Mariner East Pipeline through Lebanon County.
The state’s top judicial body on Monday, June 1 denied the company’s petition to appeal a lower court’s decision, putting the future of the Sunoco Pipeline’s pump station in West Cornwall Township in jeopardy.
The court upheld an October 2019 ruling by the Commonwealth Court, which said the West Cornwall Township Zoning Hearing Board acted improperly in May 2015 when it issued a permit for construction of a pumping station along Route 322 near Butler Road.
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, construction was completed in September 2014 and gases began flowing through the station in January 2015, several months before the permit was issued.
The Concerned Citizens of Lebanon County (CCLC) brought suit against pipeline owner Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of Sunoco, in a case that bounced between the township and Court of Common Pleas for several years until a fresh appeal landed it before Commonwealth Court, which decided in CCLC’s favor. Sunoco in January filed a petition with the state Supreme Court to allow them to appeal the Commonwealth Court’s decision.
That petition has now been rejected.
“We are very pleased, after five years of litigation, to finally be vindicated,” CCLC member Pam Bishop said Tuesday.
“The permit that was issued has been voided,” she said. “If it was anybody else, and the township found a building that did not have its permit … the township would ask them to take it down. That would be the normal procedure. We’re not sure what the township will do.”
In a message sent to CCLC members, Bishop and her husband, Doug Lorenzen, said the decision means the permit issued by the township for the Cornwall pump station is invalid.
“The township should issue an enforcement notice that they do not have zoning approval to continue to allow the enclosures on their property,” the letter stated. “Sunoco would need to either remove the structures or submit an application for conditional-use approval.”
The process for a conditional-use, Bishop said, includes a public hearing, as well as an impact study on residents, the environment and the township at large.
“The battle could be over if Sunoco, recognizing that it has no permit for the building, would tear the pump station down,” she said. “My guess is they’re not going to do that.”
The citizens group has also argued 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. The court did not rule on that question.
West Cornwall Township supervisor David Lloyd said in an email that the matter will be discussed at the next board meeting, which will be held via Zoom at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, June 8.
The Mariner East 1 pipeline already passes through Lebanon County. The only visible indication of its existence is the pump station off Route 322. Energy Transfer Partners is at the tail-end of a multi-year project to lay newer pipe as part of the Mariner East 2 project through the county.
Some township residents have voiced concerns about the pipeline project, in part because of a leak that spilled 33,000 gallons of gasoline near Darby Creek outside Philadelphia in 2018, as well as additional, smaller leaks. Some residents in West Cornwall have already reported water contamination because of the pipeline near their wells.
Energy Transfer Partners did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The pipeline company has a checkered past in Pennsylvania. Most recently, in February 2019, Gov. Tom Wolf suspended the review process for clean water permit applications by 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 Pa.
Wolf, in a statement at the time, chided the company for a “failure … to respect our laws and our communities.”
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.
Energy Transfer Partners is also 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, according to a Jan. 30 report by E&E News, a website focusing on issues of energy and the environment.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission’s Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement filed a formal complaint against Energy Transfer Partners last December for an April 2017 leak of the Mariner East 1 pipeline in Morgantown, about 40 miles from Lebanon.
Do you know a piece of Lebanon County news we should be covering? Reach our newsroom using the form below.
Give the gift of local journalism.
If you are thankful for what LebTown brings to the community, consider joining our cause as a member. Members get an inside look at our publishing schedule each week, plus invites to our members-only Facebook group and happy hours.
Sign up for an annual membership using the link below, and we’ll give you a free LebTown mug at the next happy hour.
Learn more and join now here.