The Wild West in Whiteland Township

On March 15th, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission ratified an emergency order from March 7th to halt operation of the Mariner East 1 pipeline due to “a clear and present danger to life or property.” The Mariner East 1 pipeline, which carries high-pressure natural gas liquids (NGLs) to an export terminal south of Philadelphia, had been left exposed and in jeopardy in sinkholes created by construction of the Mariner East 2/2x pipelines in West Whiteland Township.

A portion of the series of sinkholes, March 2018. Image by Eric Friedman, Middletown Coalition for Community Safety

The Mariner East 1 pipeline, an eight-inch-diameter former petroleum products pipeline, was repurposed to carry NGLs in 2014. It was the smaller first step in Energy Transfer Partner subsidiary Sunoco Pipeline’s massive Mariner East pipeline project, which includes constructing two much larger NGL pipelines (16” and 20”), collectively referred to as Mariner East 2, along roughly the same route as the Mariner East 1. Like the Mariner East 1 pipeline, the Mariner East 2 pipelines will carry NGLs such as ethane, propane, and butane from Ohio and western Pennsylvania to an export terminal in Marcus Hook outside of Philadelphia. All or most of the NGLs are being shipped overseas to Europe for use in petrochemical facilities.

Despite ongoing legal and permitting challenges, construction began on the Mariner East 2 pipelines in the first half of 2017. The sinkholes, in West Whiteland Township in Chester County, started forming in November. A resident living near Mariner East 2 pipeline drilling noticed a large, deep hole open in his yard. The sinkhole grew to be six feet wide and leaked drilling fluid onto the yard. Sunoco was cited for the spill and for failing to notify the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP). In the press, Sunoco blamed the sinkhole on “soil movement” and said that the area would soon be restored to normal.

The start of the West Whiteland sinkholes in November 2017.

The start of the November 2017 sinkhole. Image by Eric Friedman, Middletown Coalition for Community Safety

While the photographs of the original sinkhole were dramatic and concerning, they were soon overshadowed by continuous reports of other Sunoco malfeasance and accidents. Throughout Mariner East 2’s construction, Sunoco has been rebuked and cited for acts such as unauthorized drilling under waterways, spilling drilling mud in waterways and yards, and contaminating residents’ private wells. Many of the spills, cases of water contamination, and the sinkholes were likely connected to the same root cause—drilling through unstable karst formations that Sunoco omitted or ignored in its geological surveys. An August 2017 settlement between Clean Air