Sunoco’s plan to change the construction of its Mariner East 2 pipeline in Chester County’s West Whiteland Township is stirring opposition from residents and local lawmakers only five months after a botched drilling operation there spilled fluid, punctured an aquifer and turned drinking water cloudy in some private wells.
The company wants to abandon its controversial method of horizontal directional drilling (HDD) at two West Whiteland sites where a court temporarily halted the practice last summer as part of a statewide action in response to dozens of spills along the 350-mile route.
The Environmental Hearing Board ordered Sunoco to conduct a “re-evaluation” of 63 sites where fluid was spilled, in an effort to determine whether local geology was suitable to the drilling technique even though state permits were issued and construction was underway.
At the points where the pipeline route crosses North Pottstown Pike and Swedesford Road, an independent geologist hired by Sunoco concluded, horizontal drilling should either be sharply curtailed or scrapped altogether, because continuing the work would likely result in more spills.
At the Pottstown Pike site, the consultant said, the drilling would likely have the same result because of a “fractured” geological formation some 70 feet below the surface.
“Based on the further analysis of the underlying geology and hydrogeological factors such as fractured geology, cobble and voids, the original design was determined to pose a moderate to high risk of subsurface and/or surface loss of drilling fluid,” the report by Groundwater & Environmental Services said.
At the Swedesford Road site, the drilling technique is unsuited to the limestone geology, and a method should be used that won’t spill drilling fluids, the report said.
Sunoco has accepted the geologist’s reports, and is now proposing to build the pipeline in an open trench and through a conventional bore at the West Whiteland sites, according to two “re-evaluation” documents on the Department of Environmental Protection’s web site.
But the new plan has already sparked protests by West Whiteland residents and some of their elected representatives even before DEP decides whether to approve it.
“While Sunoco has gone through the motions of re-evaluation, it is clear that the information provided is insufficient,” said State Senator Andy Dinniman, a Democrat whose Chester County district includes West Whiteland.
In a Nov. 22 letter to DEP, Dinniman said Sunoco’s plan for the Pottstown Pike site does not examine the environmental impact of open-trench and conventional bore construction, fails to discuss the possibility of sinkholes – one of which recently opened up on private property in the township – and urged officials to take stronger measures to ensure that pipeline construction does not affect private water wells.
He called on DEP to reject the report as incomplete, to require Sunoco to do a “complete” impact evaluation, and to hold public hearings. DEP did not respond to a request for comment.
Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields said the company has decided that open-trench construction will “best protect the area’s water resources” at the sites. He said the company awaits approval from DEP, and does not expect the changes to affect the pipeline’s overall construction schedule, which is due to end sometime in the second quarter of 2018. He declined to respond to Dinniman’s criticism.
When complete, the $2.5 billion pipeline will carry ethane, butane and propane from the Marcellus Shale of southwestern Pennsylvania to a terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia, where most of it will be exported. It has been under construction since February.
David Mano, a West Whiteland resident whose well water turned cloudy after drilling went wrong in the summer, said there’s now a “major uproar” in the community over Sunoco’s plans. Open-trench construction means the company would dig a trench, lay the pipeline in the trench and cover it. The pipeline would be closer to the surface than if the company used horizontal drilling.
If the new plan is approved, the trench will run next to suburban housing lots, under a little league baseball field, near a seniors’ assisted-living center, and through a wetland next to the local library, he said. Residents who signed easements allowing the pipeline to be built beneath their land would have a trench they did not expect.
Mano’s neighbor Ginny Kerslake, who lives a few yards from a drilling site on Shoen Road, said burying the pipeline in a shallow trench rather than 60 or 70 feet underground would increase residents’ exposure to any possible explosion of the highly pressurized natural gas liquids that will be carried by the pipeline through the densely populated suburban area.
“The danger of it being just a few feet underground is that it puts it at risk of being hit by somebody who doesn’t know the pipeline is there. It could be a catastrophe. It could kill thousands of people,” she said.
The West Whiteland locations are among only three of the 63 re-evaluation sites where Sunoco proposes to stop HDD altogether and substitute other means of pipeline construction, according to Alex Bomstein, an attorney for the environmental group Clean Air Council, which led the challenge to Sunoco before the Environmental Hearing Board.
By Monday, only 12 of the sites were recorded as being in the re-evaluation process, according to a spreadsheet on the DEP’s website, suggesting that Sunoco has its work cut out to re-evaluate the remaining 51 drilling sites, and obtain DEP approval for its plans by the middle of next year.
Asked if Sunoco is still working on plans for the remaining sites, Shields said he would defer to DEP on that question.
It’s not clear whether the re-evaluation process will cause yet another delay in the pipeline schedule, which is now some 18 months behind its original target for completion, but progress looks slow so far, Bomstein said.
“I’m surprised that it has gone as slowly as it has, but I don’t know what it’s like internally on their end,” he said.
State Rep. Carolyn Comitta, a Chester County Democrat, said she wasn’t familiar with the details of the re-evaluation plan but said regulators should take whatever time they need to ensure the safety of the pipeline project.
The new plan should be “thoroughly and completely vetted” by environmental engineers who can determine its safety, and help to overcome continuing public concerns, Comitta said.
The changes and their resulting delays might have been avoided if Sunoco had done its due diligence more thoroughly in the first place, argued James Schmid of Schmid & Co., a consulting ecologist who has worked for Clean Air Council and other environmental clients.
“They are supposed to have done their geological borings, and documented their reasons for using or not using horizontal directional drilling, and all that was supposed to be done before they put this stuff into the DEP for approval,” Schmid said.
A more thorough examination would have allowed the company to know that they would have the problems that led to the re-evaluation, he said. “I would think that the rocks haven’t changed in the last three years. What Sunoco has learned may have changed dramatically.”