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Water problems persist along Mariner East pipeline route despite court intervention

A backhoe works at a construction site for the Mariner East 2 pipeline in Lebanon County.

Jon Hurdle / StateImpact PA

A backhoe works at a construction site for the Mariner East 2 pipeline in Lebanon County.

Water impacts continue at numerous Pennsylvania sites where Sunoco is building the Mariner East 2 pipeline two months after a court-brokered agreement. The settlement between environmental groups and Sunoco Pipeline was designed to prevent horizontal directional drilling from damaging aquifers and spilling fluid into wetlands.

Data from the Department of Environmental Protection show 18 “inadvertent returns” of drilling fluid in three regions of southern Pennsylvania since a state judge approved the agreement between Sunoco and three environmental groups on Aug. 9.

There have been other spills and water-contamination incidents in at least four counties since the agreement was signed, according to reports from township officials and individual residents who say water from their private wells has become undrinkable.

The latest incidents follow reports of 90 drilling-fluid spills in 40 locations, and disturbance to some private water wells, which prompted the court agreement. In July, Judge Bernard Labuskes of the Environmental Hearing Board ordered a temporary halt to horizontal directional drilling (HDD) along the 350-mile pipeline route that runs from southwestern Pennsylvania to Delaware County, outside of Philadelphia.

Drilling resumed in August after Sunoco agreed to a series of water-protection measures including stronger oversight by the DEP. But official data and local reports indicate that water issues have continued in some locations.

The latest spill of drilling fluid – a mix of water and non-toxic bentonite clay — occurred Wednesday in a Sunoco construction zone at East Goshen Township in Chester County, according to township manager Rick Smith. The incident, also reported by two residents, was the fourth spill in Sunoco’s East Goshen drilling operation in less than a week but the first to happen inside the construction zone.

Smith said the township was not proposing any response to the spills because they will be handled by DEP, which will decide whether there was any violation of soil erosion permits.

Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields said Sunoco has been and remains in compliance with the Aug. 9 agreement. He said the company completed the first phase of the East Goshen drill on Wednesday with DEP approval.

Shields said inadvertent returns are expected by regulators to occur as part of HDD, and have been anticipated in contingency plans that are part of the company’s permits for the cross-state natural gas liquids pipeline.

“The drilling mud that sometimes comes up during drilling is naturally occurring, clean, and meets all safe drinking water standards,” Shields said in a statement. “When we do encounter drilling mud in the environment, we immediately contain and remove it, without any permanent impacts.”

The Aug. 9 settlement agreement set additional conditions for HDD, Shields said, but did not “suggest or mandate” that inadvertent returns would not occur.

DEP spokesman Neil Shader said the inadvertent releases and notices of violation issued to Sunoco since Aug. 9 do not indicate the company is violating the agreement, but are violations of the conditions of their permits.

“DEP continues to monitor Sunoco’s activity and will continue to issue NOVs (notices of violation) and take enforcement actions wherever and whenever necessary to ensure that construction does not impact the environment,” Shader said.

He confirmed that regulators expect inadvertent returns during HDD operations, and set contingency plans for cleaning them up.

As of Oct. 5, the DEP data showed that the inadvertent releases have continued since the agreement at many places along the route of the $2.5 billion pipeline, which will carry ethane, butane and propane from the Marcellus Shale of southwestern Pennsylvania to an export terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia.

In Dauphin and Lebanon Counties, the data indicates that spills have occurred after officials have allowed drilling to resume in those locations, said Alex Bomstein, an attorney for the Clean Air Council, which led the challenge to Sunoco and the DEP at the Environmental Hearing Board.

Bomstein said those cases suggest that the department has not satisfied itself that there would not be a further spill of 50 gallons or more, as required in the agreement.

“This is something that DEP agreed to, and we need to make sure that they are properly weighing what is likely to happen before giving approval,” he said.

Of the post-agreement incidents recorded on the DEP’s website, the largest appears to be of 1,000-2,000 gallons of fluid that spilled into a wetland in Westmoreland County on Sept. 22, prompting an “ongoing” investigation by the department.

Another, of 50 gallons, spilled into the Susquehanna River in Dauphin County on Aug. 24. The release was stopped, a notice of violation was issued, and the department approved a restart of drilling on Sept. 12, the data table shows.

In Lebanon County, 50 gallons spilled into Snitz Creek in West Cornwall Township on Aug. 31. The DEP approved a restart of drilling on Sept. 14 after the fluid was cleaned up, the department said. The Lebanon County spills were reported separately by West Cornwall Township, which called a press conference last week to correct what it said were inaccurate rumors about the spills in the community.

In five instances since the settlement agreement was signed, the department issued notices of violation, the data show.

Meanwhile, some residents blame pipeline construction activities including HDD for water problems.

In Morgantown, Berks County, resident David Anspach says his well water has been contaminated with the e-coli and fecal coliform bacteria because drilling by Sunoco on his property appears to have diverted water from his septic system to the aquifer that supplies his well.

Anspach, 35, says he experienced gastrointestinal problems as a result of drinking the water, and had a colonoscopy as a result. He and his family stopped drinking the well water in mid-August after tests showed the two contaminants were at high levels.

Tests on Anspach’s water from samples collected on Aug. 14 found that both e-coli and fecal coliform both sharply exceeded the Maximum Contaminant Level of zero that the federal government sets as safe for drinking water.

“This certainly was the cause of my gastrointestinal distress,” he wrote.

He said it wasn’t clear exactly how HDD may have changed the aquifer flow in his case but argued that drilling has the potential to do so.

“By drilling through the aquifer, the HDD has caused a change to how the aquifer flows,” Anspach wrote in an email. “The flow change has created a situation where my septic system flow has now been diverted into the direction of my well instead of previously away from it and through the natural process of filtration through the aquifer.”

Anspach, a DEP-certified waste water treatment plant operator, is familiar with fecal coliform from his work, and did his own tests on the well water which showed high levels of the bacteria, he said.

David Velinsky, Vice President of Science at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, said there wasn’t enough current evidence to conclude that HDD was responsible for contaminating Anspach’s well but he said the experience warrants further investigation.

The horizontal drilling for the pipeline has the potential to connect previously discrete underground waterways in the same way that horizontal drilling does when combined with fracking for natural gas, Velinsky said.

“Horizontal drilling is certainly creating pockets and connections that weren’t there before,” he said. “If all of a sudden this is showing up, it’s telling me that maybe his septic system is getting connected to his drinking water. It begs the question that something’s going on there.”

Water problems have also arisen at a site where construction of the pipeline does not involve HDD.

In Cumberland County, retired farmer Ralph Blume says his well water became undrinkable and difficult to bathe in after Sunoco cleared trees and bushes from an easement on his land.

“I like to take a shower every day but it burns your eyes and makes you itchy,” said Blume, who owns about 80 acres near Newville. Blume, 77, said he and his wife now buy bottled water for drinking after turning down Sunoco’s offer of a water ‘buffalo’ because that would have meant giving up their request for a new well.

“They will not hook that up unless you sign an agreement that you will not require a new well, in other words let them off the hook. And I said ‘nope, I’m not doing that,’” he said.

Blume lost an eminent domain battle with Sunoco in Commonwealth Court to build the pipeline on his land, and says he is now appealing to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

“My wife has been here for 77 years, and never had no trouble with the water, and now we’ve got problems,” he said.

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