On Wednesday night, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is hosting what may be the final public hearing on the Mariner East 2 pipeline as the much-debated project nears completion. And despite the passion among its opponents, the subject of the meeting won’t be how to stop the ME2, but the best way to finish it.

The 350-mile-long project began in early 2017 and is nearly complete, according to Energy Transfer (ET) spokeswoman Lisa Coleman. “The next significant phase of the Mariner East pipeline system to be completed in the second quarter of 2021, and the final phase expected to be completed in the third quarter of 2021.”

The DEP is holding “a virtual public hearing on the amendment applications for the ME2 pipeline in Chester County, relating to the Marsh Creek area,” according to the Chester County Pipeline Information Center. Citizens can participate via both internet and phone.

The amendments ET is seeking are simultaneously simple and dramatic. After pursuing a strategy relying heavily on horizontal directional drilling (HDD) for much of the project, the company wants to modify its plan for the Marsh Creek section to the traditional open trench model. Basically, instead of drilling sideways under the ground, they want to dig a ditch and put the pipe in it.

The upside of HDD is convenience for the community: You can get a pipeline through congested areas without digging up streets and disrupting daily life. The downside is the risk of inadvertent returns — drilling materials like water or clay getting out into surrounding areas.

Sonoco wants approval to make a small change to the pipeline’s path to keep disruptions in Upper Uwchlan to a minimum, even with the open-trench digging.  According to Town Administrator Tony Scheivert, there will be one crossing at an intersection in the township if the proposed route is approved.

“This is a slight reroute of 1,400 feet, running south of the original path near Marsh Creek,” according to ET/Sonoco spokeswoman Lisa Coleman. “This reroute will only add a minimal increase to the pipeline footprint.”

In a sense, the modification is a victory for local activists who’ve expressed concern about the environmental impact of HDD on their communities. While the drilling materials are non-toxic, they’re also unattractive, especially when they make it into the water in places like Marsh Creek Lake.

Horizontal drilling is also more vulnerable to delays due to dealing with unanticipated geological issues. “Preventing inadvertent returns of non-toxic clay and a more defined construction timeline are two of the benefits,” said Bill Godsey of Geo Logic Environmental Services. 

But instead of seeing the switch as a win, some environmental activists are still pushing to shut down the pipeline entirely, part of which has been operational since 2018.

State Sen. Katie Muth (D- Montgomery/Chester/Berks), a longtime opponent of the pipeline, told DVJournal the public comment period isn’t enough.

“While I am pleased that the public will have a chance to publicly comment on this most recent modification proposal to this problematic pipeline, it is important to note that the public is only permitted to comment, meaning the public cannot ask DEP officials or experts any questions, which is unacceptable.”

And as recently as a month ago, another pipeline opponent state Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, was still calling for Gov. Tom Wolf to “pull the plug” on the whole project. She’s using her Facebook page to encourage constituents to “Make Your Voice Heard!” at Wednesday’s public comment event, but Rep. Friel Otten is unclear about what she wants them to say. She recounts previous inadvertent return issues, which is an argument in favor of ET’s request, but she appears to oppose the request.

If the goal is to end the drilling issues, wouldn’t these activists support the ET modifications? 

Otten declined to respond to repeated requests for comment.

Muth was more clear about her goals for Mariner East 2: “This project has been a debacle from the start, should’ve never been approved in the first place and should be shut down immediately since the operator has multiple complaints, especially about stability and changing geophysical data reported to the DEP,” Muth said.

“A win for the environmental movement would be for this company to be kicked out of Pennsylvania for good,” Muth added.

And some Keystone State environmental groups say their hopes to block Mariner East have been buoyed by the Biden administration’s decision to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline between Canada’s oil fields and the U.S. The pipeline’s developer recently announced it is giving up on completing the project.

“There is no benefit to Pennsylvania, but we’re bearing all the risk and all the environmental damage that is caused,” said Jillian Graber, executive director of Protect PT (Penn-Trafford)

Which leads pipeline supporters, particularly those who are working on the project, to believe the real issue isn’t inadvertent returns, but Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) activism.

Advocates for the pipeline say it’s time to finish the project, which they acknowledge has placed a burden on local communities. But, they add, that burden has been temporary while the positive impact on jobs and the economy will be long lasting.

“The Mariner East pipeline network provides affordable energy to Pennsylvanians while employing local labor unions — two major economic success stories for our commonwealth,” said John D. Bland, business manager of Boilermakers Local Lodge No.13 in Newportville. In written testimony supporting the modifications, Bland highlighted the local jobs connection. “Homegrown energy resources that use pipeline transportation allow for cheaper energy costs, while also employing local workers.”

Kurt Knaus of the Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance had the same message: “Mariner East is being built with American-made, union-produced steel and is being installed with the best trained, highly skilled union workers from Pennsylvania. These are people who live and are raising their families in the communities where Mariner East will operate. They are committed to getting the job done in the safest manner possible.”

Still, opposition to the pipeline’s completion persists, despite the fact that Upper Uwchlan is already traversed by 12 pipelines. “Mariner East 2 would be number 13,” Scheivert said. In other words, blocking this pipeline would kill jobs and hurt the state’s energy sector, but would hardly mean an end to the industry.

Asked what the company’s message is as the public comment period begins, ET’s Coleman said:

“We are committed to safely completing construction of the Mariner East pipeline system while adhering to our permits and maintaining a focus on the safety of the environment, our people, and the communities through which we pass. We recognize there will always be differing opinions when it comes to energy infrastructure, at the end of the day we all share the same priority— the safety of our assets and the safety of our communities.”