Mariner East pipeline settlement gets judge's signature

A Pennsylvania judge endorsed a settlement Wednesday between Sunoco Pipeline, environmental groups and regulators to increase oversight of the Mariner East 2 pipelines after a series of spills halted underground boring along the construction path.

Environmental Hearing Board Judge Bernard Labuskes Jr. signed the agreement that the parties had proposed Tuesday evening with one minor change that did not alter the protections laid out in the settlement.

The agreement calls for Sunoco, a subsidiary of Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, to reevaluate higher-risk sites where it plans to perform directional drilling under surface obstacles, as well as sites where lubricating muds seeped out of the ground during drilling for the project so far. The settlement gives residents with water supplies close to drilling sites better notice of coming operations, expanded access to free water tests, and more time to review and respond to the company’s plans.

The pact opens the door for Sunoco to proceed with underground boring once it updates its plans and gets Department of Environmental Protection approval. Judge Labuskes had stopped drilling at 55 sites where it was underway on July 25, although he lifted some of the restrictions last week.

Environmental groups studying state data have counted roughly 90 spills over three months during drilling operations for the twin, 350-mile-long pipelines that are being built to ferry natural gas liquids from the Marcellus and Utica shales to terminals near Philadelphia. The pipeline route stretches across 17 counties in Pennsylvania’s southern tier.

Seven sites in Washington, Westmoreland and Indiana counties are among 47 higher-risk drilling sites Sunoco agreed to reevaluate as part of the settlement because of geological factors, drilling depth, past spills, or proximity to drinking water supplies, valuable natural features and utility lines.

The environmental groups that filed the appeal — the Clean Air Council, Delaware Riverkeeper Network and Mountain Watershed Association — said Wednesday the agreement provides greater protection to the public after regulatory and compliance failures led to avoidable harms. The settlement does not affect their broader appeal of the pipelines’ earth-moving and water-crossing permits, which will continue toward trial.

A DEP spokesman said the agency is pleased with the settlement terms, which will improve accountability and provide nearby residents with better information about the project.

Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields said the agreement “will put hundreds of workers back on the job” while the company meets the enhanced standards for planning, outreach and reporting.

The company expects Mariner East 2 to be in service by the end of the year.

Laura Legere:

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