The latest local skirmish in the nearly decade-long, litigation-filled saga of the Mariner East Pipeline took place Wednesday, June 2, at the Quentin Fire Hall, where local residents addressed the West Cornwall Township Board of Supervisors.
The board is considering a permit application that would allow the pipeline’s owner to operate two pump station buildings on Route 322.
In 2012, Sunoco Pipeline LP launched the Mariner East Pipeline project, designed to transport natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica Shale fields in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia to the Marcus Hook Industrial Complex on the Delaware River near Philadelphia. From there, the gas would be shipped overseas to make plastics.
One part of the project, known as “ME1,” uses an 88 year-old existing Sunoco pipeline passing through West Cornwall Township. Another part, “ME2,” is a newly-constructed pipeline that mostly follows the same right-of-way.
In May, 2015, the Lebanon County Planning Department, which is the township’s zoning officer, issued Sunoco a “conditional use” zoning permit to build pump station and power distribution center buildings on Route 322, to be used as part of the ME1 pipeline. The Planning Department did so without requiring Sunoco to submit a zoning application to approve the structures, and without a public hearing, because it considered the pipeline a “public utility” that was exempt from zoning requirements. Sunoco proceeded to build both structures.
A conditional use is a use of property which is permitted as long as the applicant can meet the criteria contained in the zoning ordinance for that particular use. The municipality can impose additional conditions on the use.
An organization of township residents, Concerned Citizens of Lebanon County, appealed the issuance of the zoning permit, arguing that the pipeline buildings were not a public utility, and that a full review, public comment, and zoning hearing process should have taken place before any conditional use permit was issued. Concerned Citizens did not object to the operation of the pipeline itself, just to the erection of the two buildings.
The township’s Zoning Hearing Board and the Lebanon County Court of Common Pleas sided with Sunoco and upheld the permit.
Concerned Citizens appealed to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, and in late 2019 it ruled that the pipeline buildings were not part of a public utility and that Sunoco had to re-apply for zoning approval and go through the full hearing and approval process required by law. Sunoco’s appeal of that decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was denied.
Sunoco re-applied for a “conditional use permit,” and the township’s supervisors have held nine Wednesday afternoon public hearings since March, 2020. Yesterday’s hearing, the tenth, allowed the public to address the supervisors. The board had also received written comments from the public.
Residents sound off, ask supervisors to impose conditions
The supervisors heard from eight township residents who expressed concerns that the pump station could release dangerous gasses – colorless, odorless, and combustible – either through a leak or an explosion, and that Sunoco wasn’t adequately planning for such an event. They also cited the multiple violations committed by Sunoco while constructing the pipeline through the county and what they described as Sunoco’s failure to adequately communicate with residents throughout the project.
None of the speakers asked the supervisors to outright deny Sunoco’s application, but all asked that a series of conditions be placed on the use of the buildings.
Township resident Ronald Boogaard asked the supervisors for seven “very reasonable conditions” on the use of the buildings:
- “Sunoco must help the township develop an emergency response plan. Sunoco is the only organization that has adequate information to do this properly.” Other speakers noted that Sunoco only has a generic emergency plan that is not specific to the Route 322 site.
- “An emergency alarm system . . . to alert those of us in the impact zone of a problem as soon as possible. We can’t wait for house-to-house notification by our EMS workers.”
- “The [Sunoco issued informational] brochures [sent to residents] must alert the public of the consequences of an accident or explosion using terms such as ‘property damage,’ ‘personal injury,’ ‘burns,’ ‘asphyxiation,’ and ‘death.'” Other speakers had complained that Sunoco’s brochures were vague and downplayed possible dangers.
- “Sunoco must be required to hold regular . . . training sessions for residents in the impact zone. This must include evacuation plans.”
- “Sunoco must provide real time, boots on the ground training for . . . volunteer E.M.S. personnel, and this needs to be done on a regular basis so that new personnel, as they come on, are informed.”
- “Sunoco must provide advance notice . . . of hydrostatic testing or flaring of gasses to avoid undue alarm or worry” to residents. Hydrostatic pressure testing involves the release of air from a pipe which can cause sudden, very loud noise. Flaring is the burning off of excess gas, and can produce noise and air pollution.
- “Due to Sunoco’s terrible . . . record of not reporting adverse issues, they must provide the township with all past, current, and future federal and state inspection reports.”
The supervisors did not make a decision yesterday. Instead they ordered both sides to submit proposed findings of fact, proposed conditions, and legal arguments by July 12. At that point, the law requires the supervisors to issue a decision within 45 days, meaning by Aug. 26.
Extensive earlier Mariner East Pipeline coverage from LebTown and Spotlight PA can be found here.
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