[Column] After Sunoco silenced its own contracted scientists, it’s time to shut down Mariner East

3 min read1,735 views and 158 shares Posted November 30, 2020

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After countless spills in Lebanon County and throughout the Commonwealth, community complaints and millions of dollars in fines, it’s clear that the Sunoco Mariner East pipeline system cannot be built safely. Now, there’s new evidence Sunoco has stooped to yet another appalling tactic to keep its dangerous project moving forward – silencing its own contracted scientists.

Sunoco routinely prevented professional geologists on staff from investigating and accurately reporting sinkholes and other environmental conditions along the pipelines’ route. Clean Air Council has filed an intent to sue Sunoco over these actions, which clearly violate the company’s Erosion and Sedimentation Control permits for its Mariner East II pipelines.

The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) must take immediate action to make sure communities are not at risk for increased dangers as a result of Sunoco’s deceptions. DEP must ensure there are significant consequences for those who would lie and put profits before people with this pipeline.

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Clean Air Council first learned of these violations from a whistleblower who recognized the danger of Sunoco’s actions. There was a clear pattern of Sunoco preventing contracted geologists from effectively doing their jobs. We seek to prove that Sunoco prevented geologists from talking to drillers and prevented them from reporting potential sinkholes outside of arbitrary areas. What’s more, Sunoco failed to monitor sinkhole events when they were reported and would alter reports before they were submitted to DEP and other regulators.

The whistleblower was ultimately fired for reporting a sinkhole in Chester County that was outside Sunoco’s arbitrary boundaries. It’s clear that Sunoco doesn’t respect its own contractors, in addition to a broader disregard for the communities and environment in Mariner East’s destructive path.

Our lawsuit is just the latest legal action taken against Sunoco and Mariner East. Regulatory agencies, municipalities, concerned residents, shareholders, prosecutors, nonprofit organizations, and resident groups have all taken legal action related to Mariner East. Clean Air Council has challenged the Mariner East project from a variety of angles, including through an appeal of water permits in 2017, which forced settlements that ensured more protections for residents. Additionally, seven residents in Chester and Delaware counties have filed a lawsuit to halt construction and operation of the pipelines. The “Safety 7” suit, in which Clean Air Council is an intervenor, connects Sunoco’s terrible safety track record with its failure to warn and protect community members from explosions. The two-week hearings from this case have ended, and a judge now has an opportunity to recommend that  the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) stop this project once and for all.

Since the start of its project, Sunoco has paid more than $15 million in fines related to Mariner East violations. It’s clear the company sees these fines as simply the cost of doing business, and not a deterrent to inflicting future damage. Fines alone are not enough. Tainted wells, frustrated communities, contaminated waterways and lasting environmental degradation are also all just the cost of doing business for Sunoco.

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In allowing Sunoco’s business as usual to continue, DEP is failing in its duty to protect our environment and serve the citizens of the Commonwealth. The agency has the legal authority to revoke permits when other enforcement tactics would not promptly or effectively correct the violation. After more than 300 spills have released over 340 thousand gallons of drilling fluid into Pennsylvania’s environment, it’s clear that another round of violations will not alter Sunoco’s behavior or make Mariner East any less dangerous.

This most recent lawsuit is another step in forcing Sunoco to obey the law. It’s an important step, but regulators can and should go further. Sunoco has clearly lost its social license to operate in the Commonwealth. Time and time again, Sunoco has shown that it cannot build the Mariner East pipeline safely, let alone operate it safely for years to come. It has shown that it will always put profits before people and the environment. It’s time for DEP to do the only thing that will end these dangerous spills and the potential for greater devastation. Enough is enough. It’s time to shut Mariner East down for good.


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Joseph Otis Minott, Esq., is executive director and chief counsel of Clean Air Council.

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