A Pennsylvania judge has put a two-week hold on all drilling for a controversial pipeline construction project that’s had multiple spills and sparked complaints of well contamination.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board ordered Sunoco Pipeline L.P. late Tuesday to stop all horizontal directional drilling underneath waterways on its 350-mile Mariner East 2 pipeline after a series of leaks or spills of drilling fluid and the contamination of private water supplies.

The board, an appeals body for state regulatory decisions, heard arguments last week from several environmental groups seeking a permanent injunction on construction.  They described 61 spills of drilling mud, including one of 160,000 gallons into an exceptional value wetland, and drilling damage to wells that forced 15 families to evacuate their homes.

The Mariner East 2 project is the only pipeline under construction of three planned to cross Pennsylvania to carry the natural gas products from Marcellus Shale wells in the northern and western parts of the state.  Mariner East 2 is an expansion of an existing Sunoco pipeline that carries natural gas from Ohio and western Pennsylvania to its Marcus Hook facility in Delaware County. The pipeline traverses 17 counties in the southern part of the state.

The Clean Air Council, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and the Mountain Watershed Association, Inc. had filed appeals in February contending that state permits for the project are deficient and that Sunoco’s construction plans were faulty. This week’s decision halts construction until a full hearing, now scheduled Aug. 7.

“The [DEP] permits were massively deficient, the construction is designed wrong and pipe is being laid in the wrong places,” said Alex Bomstein, senior litigation attorney for the Clean Air Council. Bomstein said that the DEP permitted the pipeline to proceed despite hundreds of pages of comments from opponents that pointed to these same flaws. 

The injunction affects 55 active construction sites and another 168 sites where the company plans to drill beneath a stream and install pipe.  This method, called horizontal directional drilling, is thought to be more environmentally friendly than trenching, where all water is removed from a section of stream temporarily while pipe is laid across the bottom.

“We believe that the full hearing before the Environmental Hearing Board will demonstrate that we have expended every effort to meet the strict conditions of our environmental permits,” said Jeffrey Shields, a spokesman for Energy Transfer Partners, the Texas-based company that merged with Sunoco in April.

Shields said the company will continue work on sections of the pipeline that don’t include drilling under streams.

The Department of Environmental Protection also announced Tuesday that it was enforcing a consent order and agreement with Sunoco that halts construction in two townships in Chester County for violations where drinking wells were damaged. Although the DEP does not regulate private drinking water wells, the permits for Mariner East 2 included special provisions relating to private wells that go beyond state law.

“DEP is conducting its own independent investigation of this pollution event and reserves the right to assess further enforcement, as appropriate,” Secretary Patrick McDonnell said.