An administrative law judge has shut down work on a natural gas liquids pipeline in the Philadelphia suburbs, saying Sunoco has failed to take reasonable steps to warn people and protect them from danger.
Public Utility Commission Judge Elizabeth Barnes ruled the company had to stop work on the Mariner East 2 pipeline in Chester County's West Whiteland Township and halt the use of Mariner East 1 to transport liquid fuels through the area.
"Sunoco has made deliberate managerial decisions to proceed in what appears to be a rushed manner in an apparent prioritization of profit over the best engineering practices available in our time that might best ensure public safety," Barnes wrote in a decision made public Thursday.
Sunoco Pipeline LP, a subsidiary of Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners LP, released a statement calling the decision a departure from the law and due process procedures. It vowed to appeal to the full commission within a week.
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"Judicial decisions must be based on facts and evidence — not conjecture or extrajudicial claims and issues that are not on the record, but only appear in an order for the first time," the company said, adding the industry should be concerned.
The judge said state Sen. Andy Dinniman, who sought the ruling, showed the company's drilling practices are putting water supplies at risk.
"From the beginning, we knew this was a 'David vs. Goliath' battle," said Dinniman, who lives about 2 miles from the pipelines. "Well, in this round, David won and the people of West Whiteland and Chester County won."
He said the order affirmed his claims the project has potentially endangered the health, safety and well-being of those who live in the area.
Work is nearly complete on the 350-mile-long, 20-inch-diameter pipeline to carry propane, butane and ethane from western Pennsylvania across the southern portion of the state to a terminal near Philadelphia. A second, 16-inch-diameter line is following the same route, and Mariner East 1, which dates to the 1930s, has been sending natural gas liquids eastward for about a year.
Barnes wrote that Sunoco Pipeline LP has a history of leaks and failures to report spills when they've occurred, causing sinkholes, putting wells at risk and creating the possibility of a public catastrophe.
"Sunoco may have given safety pamphlets to 66,000 people along the 350-mile route, and to schools within (a half-mile) of the pipe," the judge wrote. "However, given that vapor clouds can move depending on weather conditions and people are mobile within their communities, this is insufficient."
Possible ignition of a vapor cloud, she said, "could have catastrophic results" and justifies slowing down the project for safety and pipeline integrity tests.
She said there is an "imminent risk to the public" and a need for more study, as well as development of emergency evacuation and notification plans.
"The risk of physical injury or death in a densely populated area because of unsafe construction and operations constitutes irreparable harm," Barnes wrote.
The company said Mariner East 1 was deemed to be safe "through exhaustive geophysical testing and analysis," and that work will continue on Mariner East 2 and its companion line in areas outside the 3.5-mile section that runs through West Whiteland Township.