Sunoco Pipeline violated a court-brokered agreement imposing new restrictions on drilling for its Mariner East 2 pipeline when it spilled drilling mud into at least three waterways, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said on Tuesday.
“The spills constitute a violation of the permit conditions, which were modified by the Aug. 9 settlement agreement,” said Neil Shader, a DEP spokesman.
Shader said the company is due to respond on Wednesday to a notice of violation issued by DEP for two spills of drilling mud into the Susquehanna River after the agreement was signed by the company and three environmental groups that were challenging it before the Environmental Hearing Board.
When they have received Sunoco’s response to the violation notice, DEP officials will decide whether to take additional action such as an order or civil penalty, Shader said. Any enforcement would be taken by the DEP and not by the Environmental Hearing Board.
DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell promised tougher enforcement of environmental laws after dozens of spills along the controversial pipeline route escaped into wetlands and caused cloudy water in some private wells, prompting a chorus of complaints from residents and lawmakers.
The agreement requires Sunoco to do more to protect private water wells and wetlands from spills of drilling fluid during the construction of Mariner East 2. The company agreed to re-evaluate the geology at sites where it is conducting horizontal directional drilling (HDD) for underground placement of the pipe; to offer to test private water wells before, during and after drilling; to give landowners 10 days’ notice of the start of drilling, and to seek approval from the Department of Environmental Protection to restart drilling at sites where spills occurred.
The deal followed a temporary halt to HDD ordered in July by Judge Bernard Labuskes of the Environmental Hearing Board, in response to dozens of spills along the line in recent months. By the time of the settlement agreement, there had been 90 drilling fluid spills at 40 sites across the state, according to DEP documents obtained during a court case.
Since then, the DEP has reported four more spills – known as “inadvertent returns” — at HDD sites, and issued one notice of violation.
One of the spills, on Aug. 17, happened when the company was drilling under the Susquehanna River in Lower Swatara Township, Dauphin County, releasing about 50 gallons of drilling mud, consisting of bentonite clay and water, according to the company.
The DEP’s Shader said Sunoco failed to clean up the drilling fluid from the spill, as required in the agreement, restarted drilling on Aug. 24, and then caused another spill.
“As part of the Aug. 9 agreement, when an inadvertent return is discovered, it is supposed to be contained and remediated, and the Department is supposed to approve Sunoco’s actions, before HDD operations resume,” Shader said in a statement. “Sunoco did not remediate the drilling fluids discovered on Aug. 17 before resuming HDD operations on Aug. 23. Sunoco did cease drilling operations on Aug. 24 when the new inadvertent return was discovered.”
Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields said most of the drilling fluid from both the spills has been recovered, and that the company is awaiting DEP permission to resume drilling at that location.
After the Aug. 24 spill, crews immediately stopped drilling and notified DEP, as required in the agreement, Shields said.
On Aug. 29, another spill of 40-50 gallons of drilling fluid occurred in Upper Uwchlan Township, Chester County, Shader said. He said the material entered a wetland, and that DEP officials made several trips there to investigate and collect samples.
On Tuesday, DEP said it is investigating a fourth spill into an unnamed tributary of Chester Creek on September 2.
Shields denied that any of the incidents constitute a violation of the agreement. “We are in compliance with the consent agreement,” he said, without elaborating.
But Alex Bomstein, an attorney with the Clean Air Council, which led the EHB challenge to Sunoco, said the company does appear to have violated the agreement.
“Based on DEP’s report, Sunoco appears to have breached the settlement agreement by forging ahead after spilling drilling fluids into the Susquehanna River,” Bomstein said. “Sunoco has had several more drilling fluids spills since it restarted drilling earlier in August. DEP needs to hold Sunoco accountable for its violations of the Mariner East 2 permits and the settlement agreement.”
The pipeline has been under construction since February. When complete, it will carry pressurized ethane, butane and propane – collectively called natural gas liquids – from the Marcellus Shale of southwestern Pennsylvania to an export terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia. Sunoco says it expects to complete the project in the fourth quarter of 2017.
This story has been corrected to reflect new information from the Department of Environmental Protection showing that the Aug. 29 spill occurred in Upper Uwchlan Township, not Uwchlan Township.