Representing himself, Cumberland County resident battles Sunoco attorneys over pipeline concerns

By: - July 17, 2019 4:51 pm

A Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission hearing Wednesday on a challenge to Sunoco’s Mariner East pipelines revealed few answers about the controversial project, but continued to show the frustration many Pennsylvania residents have with the petroleum giant.

It was an unusual matchup.

On one side is Wilmer Baker, a Cumberland County resident and former steel worker, representing himself in a legal fight over the safety of the three pipelines Sunoco is operating or constructing across the state.

On the other is a trio of lawyers representing Sunoco Pipeline LP, which has been building an intrastate pipeline from Pennsylvania’s western shale fields to ports on the Delaware River for export.

In a day-long hearing in front of Administrative Law Judge Elizabeth Barnes, Baker tried to press his case through a cascade of objections from Sunoco and delays to work through procedure.

“What I wanted was an alarm system … and better public outreach, including American-made steel instead of foreign steel dumped into this country,” Baker said as he testified as his own witness.

In his own handwritten pre-hearing memo, Baker also said he wants an odor added to the pipelines’ combustible cargo — natural gas liquids, such as ethane, butane, and propane — as well as more outreach between Sunoco and emergency response services near the pipeline.

The whole Mariner East project is made up of three separate pipelines: Mariner East 1, a converted natural gas pipeline first built in the 1930s; Mariner East 2, a newly constructed natural gas pipeline as big as its predecessor; and Mariner East 2X, which is twice as big as Mariner East 2 and still under construction.

The project has led to multiple lawsuits, fines, and government-mandated shutdowns of both construction and use of the pipelines themselves over the last few years.

In December, Chester County’s district attorney opened a criminal investigation into Sunoco’s conduct while building the pipeline.

Baker, who lives 1,000 feet from the Mariner East 2 pipeline just outside Carlisle, in Lower Frankford Township, said he brought the suit after receiving a safety pamphlet from Sunoco this summer warning of the dangers from a leak of the odorless gas.

A township-arranged public meeting between residents and Sunoco was cancelled at the last minute when Sunoco backed out of the session, according to meeting minutes Baker submitted as evidence.

Baker also submitted photos of pipes that, matched with customs documents, show the pipeline’s steel was made out of the country. He added that he thought this showed it as inferior quality. Sunoco’s lawyers, however, objected to the characterization.

“We will prove tomorrow that what he says is not true,” Thomas J. Sniscak, a lawyer representing Sunoco, said. 

The hearing will continue Thursday morning. Barnes said she expects to issue a ruling in December.

Many other cases against the Mariner East pipelines are still pending, including a suit seeking a halt in construction on Mariner East 2 and 2X in Chester County filed by state Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester, who represents the area.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.