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 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 Council, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, PA DEP, and Sunoco was designed to ensure reevaluation of vulnerable drilling sites and better communication with residents, but the spills continued. In January, amid increasing public pressure, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection ordered an immediate halt to certain types of construction on the pipelines and announced that they were indefinitely revoking certain permits. However, the PA DEP quickly settled with Sunoco, delivering a $12.6 million fine and allowing construction to resume. Pennsylvania DEP chose to announce this settlement on the Friday afternoon before the Super Bowl.
With the constant tumult of broken regulations, legal and regulatory back-and-forth, and residents’ growing uproar, the West Whiteland sinkholes faded from public attention for several months. Underground, though, the problem was spreading. In the first week of March, residents posted photos of videos of a growing series of sinkholes at the same location. This time, the largest sinkhole was the size of a swimming pool, about 15 by 20 feet wide. A home whose foundation was ten feet from a sinkhole was evacuated. Photos taken by drone showed pipeline workers standing Amtrak's Keystone line tracks, only about 250 feet from a sinkhole. Even more dangerously, the Mariner East 1 pipeline, pumping high-pressure NGLs through an 86-year-old pipeline, lay exposed. Seeking a quick fix, Sunoco began pumping several cement trucks’ contents into the largest hole. But Sunoco chose not to alert regulators or Amtrak to the situation, nor did it proactively shut down the Mariner East 1 pipeline.
Fortunately, residents and advocacy organizations, including Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety, the Pipeline Safety Coalition, and the Middletown Coalition for Community Safety, reported the sinkholes to regulators and Amtrak.
Cement trucks at the sinkhole. The square hole in front was dug to inspect the Mariner East 1 pipeline. Image by Eric Friedman, Middletown Coalition for Community Safety
In response, on March 7th, PUC Chair Gladys Brown granted the Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement’s request for an emergency temporary shutdown of the Mariner East 1 pipeline, writing, “the continued flow of hazardous liquids [NGLs] through the ME1 pipeline without the proper steps to ensure the integrity of the pipeline could have catastrophic results impacting the public.” The order specified that Sunoco was to inspect and then shut down the pipeline within 36 hours of the order, and then conduct more extensive inspections and stability assessments of the pipeline and surrounding areas over the following 10 to 14 days. The PUC will formally decide when Sunoco can reinstate service on the Mariner East 1 pipeline. The full Commission ratified this order at their March 15th public meeting.
On the same day, Sunoco spilled drilling fluid in a creek in Lebanon County and into a wetland in Blair County. This was Sunoco’s third spill at the Lebanon County drill site. The Blair County spill breached an aquifer and flowed into the Juniata River. These were Sunoco's 106th and 107th spills since beginning construction.