“They’ve put up with round-the-clock drilling and construction chaos. But after massive sinkholes began blooming in their yards, neighbors of the multibillion-dollar Mariner East project are looking for answers — and some are suing to stop it."
He awoke one morning in early March and looked out the window at his childhood yard in West Whiteland Township, Chester County, where roughly a dozen strangers in orange and yellow vests stood around a fresh, gaping void in the earth.
In recent months, Allen’s home on the outskirts of Exton has looked nothing like it did when he was growing up, thanks to Sunoco and its parent company, Energy Transfer Partners L.P. (known for building the contentious Dakota Access pipeline). Since Sunoco began construction on its controversial Mariner East natural gas pipeline project in February 2017, Allen’s modest, quiet backyard — and his neighborhood — has become a chaotic construction site.
The property is split by the path of Mariner East 1, a cross-state pipeline built in 1931 that can transport up to 70,000 barrels of highly pressurized and volatile natural gas liquids per day. It’s also the future home of two more natural gas pipelines being built by Sunoco: Mariner East 2 and 2X, which will bring the ME pipelines’ total transfer capacity to 345,000 barrels a day. To get permission to build the two newer pipelines, the company negotiated easements with Allen and his neighbors in 2016.
“They said, ‘We’re doing the drilling — we’ll be in and out,’” Allen says. “‘You won’t even know we’re here.’”
Now, a year after construction began, Allen says his once quaint property has been turned upside down and plagued by sinkholes, intrusive workers, and mysterious security guards from out of state. He’s terrified for his life and ready to flee disaster at a moment’s notice — and he’s not alone. Last week, after a state agency shut Mariner East 1 down out of fear for public safety, three of his neighbors filed a class-action lawsuit against Sunoco, alleging similar claims. Sunoco, meanwhile, maintains that its own investigation of the site “has confirmed that at no time was our pipeline at risk during construction or operation.“
But some local officials agree with the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission’s assertion that an extremely lucrative, multibillion-dollar, 350-mile pipeline project approved by both state and federal officials has spawned a potentially “catastrophic” threat to those in its path. Allen and his neighbors worry that should something happen to the existing pipeline, their water systems could become contaminated — or, worst yet, their properties (and nearby Amtrak and SEPTA railroad lines) could go up in flames.
The kicker? Some say this entire anxiety-spurring mess could have been avoided in the first place.
A Spill, Sinkholes, and the Shutdown
When I visit Allen’s house on March 18th, his yard is covered in straw and hundreds of thin wooden posts mark the paths of the pipelines. His fence and the fences of his neighbors have been torn back or removed where they previously intersected with the pipelines’ paths. There aren’t any workers today, but two burly-looking security guards watch us from afar, standing near a pickup truck on Allen’s street. In the backyard, bright orange plastic netting separates us from the construction sites of ME2 and ME2X, as well as two sinkholes, which have been filled with concrete. The sinkholes are why I’m here — but they weren’t Allen’s first problem with Sunoco.
His initial trouble came on November 11th, when roughly 1,000 gallons of drilling mud leaked out of the ground in his yard. “I pull in my driveway, and the shit is just gushing,” says Allen, a 46-year-old independent contractor. “It’s like a river.”