Construction of Sunoco Pipeline’s $3 billion 350-mile long Mariner East 2 pipeline resulted in at least 61 drilling mud spills from April 25 through June 17, 2017, according to newly released documents. The spills have occurred in ten of the 12 counties along the route and range from minor releases of five gallons to larger more serious releases of tens of thousands of gallons. The documents, pasted below, include reports of “inadvertent returns,” and were released by the Department of Environmental Protection as part of ongoing litigation by the Clean Air Council challenging the department’s issuing of water crossing permits for the project last February.
The Council wants the Environmental Hearing Board to suspend construction while its case is pending review, but has so far been unsuccessful.
The spills primarily contain bentonite, a muddy clay substance used as a lubricant in drilling beneath waterways during horizontal directional drilling. Bentonite is non-toxic but can do damage to drinking water wells by clogging up an aquifer. A recent incident in Chester County forced 15 families to switch to bottled water and the company has since agreed to pay to hook residents up to the public water supply after some resident’s water wells went dry, and others experienced cloudy water.
If a large amount of the clay enters streams and wetlands, it can impact aquatic life. The drilling mud has entered trout streams, Exceptional Value wetlands, ponds, groundwater aquifers and uplands.
One of the most recent drilling mud spills occurred in Middletown, Delaware County on Monday, where 1500 gallons of bentonite spilled into a tributary of Chester Creek. On Tuesday, groundwater began flowing back through the same drill hole, an indication that the aquifer was impacted. Sunoco says no private water wells have been impacted. It was the fourth known spill in Delaware County since construction began back in February.
State Representative Leanne Krueger-Braneky, D-161 of Delaware County, called the number of incidents “shocking.”
“This is a construction project that’s going across the Commonwealth,” Krueger-Braneky told StateImpact. “Construction will continue for months and months and months, and seeing this many spills and these many problems so early on, gives me grave concern for the safety of the residents that I represent in Delaware County.”
Krueger-Braneky sent letters to both DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell and Gov. Tom Wolf asking them to halt construction on the Mariner East 2 line. Krueger-Braneky’s request follows similar pleas from other suburban Philadelphia representatives including Chester County democratic State Senator Andrew Dinniman, and State Rep. Chris Quinn, R-168 of Delaware County.
“What is occurring here is unacceptable,” Quinn told the Daily Local News earlier this week. “I am asking the governor and DEP secretary to come down here with Sunoco contractors and tour the incident sites where these breeches have occurred.”
Until release of the documents, the only incidents publicly reported occurred in Chester and Delaware counties. Previous attempts by StateImpact to gain information from DEP on spills in other parts of the state were rebuffed by the agency, which cited the pending litigation.
Attempts to reach DEP officials about the documents were unsuccessful.
Last week, Sen. Dinniman asked DEP to suspend construction based on apparent failure to comply with conditions the agency had required of Sunoco as part of the permitting process. At that time, DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said in an email to StateImpact:
“I have received the letter and I am aware of Sen. Dinniman’s concerns,” wrote McDonnell. “DEP is still investigating whether Sunoco did or did not comply with required permit conditions.”
Dinniman says Sunoco did not document private drinking water wells in the permit applications, nor did it inform residents on private drinking water wells of construction or risks to their water supplies, which had been outlined as a condition in DEP’s permits. Several residents impacted by the incident in Chester County, who lived within 50 feet of the construction, told StateImpact they knew nothing of the pipeline at all until their wells ran dry.
Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields said the spills, which are also referred to as “inadvertent returns” are an expected result of pipeline construction.
“While we have experienced inadvertent returns in a number of drills,” wrote Shields in an email, “this is not unexpected as the permit applications submitted and approved by the DEP include, among other requirements, compliance with an Inadvertent Return Contingency Plan, which we have followed by responding and containing those returns to avoid any long-term impacts and reporting them to the DEP. We have worked in coordination with the DEP to ensure that the environment is protected and will continue to do so.”
The alternative to horizontal directional drilling (HDD) is digging an open trench. Shields says when it comes to crossing wetlands and waterways, drilling minimizes environmental impact.
“The use of drills well below the surface will reduce the total wetland area impacted by construction from 118 acres to 36,” he said. “Less than half an acre of wetlands, the approximate size of an NHL hockey rink, will be permanently converted from its original state. HDD allows the pipeline to bypass culturally sensitive areas and avoid traffic disruption, and it further protects the pipeline from third-party damage.”
In fact, DEP raised a number of concerns related to horizontal directional drilling in certain areas of the state, including the area of Chester County where Sunoco’s pipeline construction has since left 15 families without well water. In a detailed list of deficiencies DEP issued to Sunoco regarding its water crossing permits in Chester County, the agency specifically named Exton and East Whiteland Township as “two areas…the most concerning, especially Exton. There are carbonate rocks, karst surface depressions; and identification of other public water supplies (groundwater or surface water) within one mile.”
DEP also took issue with Sunoco’s inventory of water supplies. “The ‘water supply areas’ geography used in the report [Sunoco submitted] is irrelevant to well locations.”
The response from Sunoco’s contractor Tetra Tech to those specific deficiencies, described communication with Aqua, the public water supplier in the area. Tetra Tech responded to DEP’s concerns by documenting three public wells owned by Aqua within 1500 feet of the horizontal directional drilling, and stated that Aqua was concerned the drilling could cause turbidity, or cloudy water.
But there was no communication documented between Tetra Tech and private well owners. Sunoco’s contractor referred to two locations with wells that were within 1,100 feet of construction, including two on Shoen Road and one in Milford, which were to be monitored by Aqua personnel.
It’s not clear if Tetra Tech was referring to private water wells, or if those were the wells owned and operated by Aqua. There are now 30 homeowners in the vicinity of Shoen Road, in West Whiteland Township, who are considering abandoning their private wells for public water due to problems caused by Sunoco’s pipeline construction.