TJ Allen, a resident of West Whiteland Township in Chester County, stands in front of sinkhole enclosures in his back yard. Allen said he's worried about the sinkholes, and the fact that Sunoco has been ordered to make sure an existing pipeline that runs through his neighborhood is safe.
Jon Hurdle / StateImpact Pennsylvania
‘It’s crazy, man’: Sinkholes, Sunoco’s pipeline inspection stir safety fears in Chester County
Jon is an experienced journalist who has covered a wide range of general and business-news stories for national and local media in the U.S. and his native U.K. As a former Reuters reporter, he spent several years covering the early stages of Pennsylvania’s natural gas fracking boom and was one of the first national reporters to write about the effects of gas development on rural communities. Jon trained as a general news reporter with a British newspaper chain and later worked for several business-news organizations including Bloomberg News and Market News International, covering topics including economics, bonds, currencies and monetary policy. Since 2011, he has been a freelance writer, contributing Philadelphia-area news to The New York Times; covering economics for Market News, and writing stories on the environment and other subjects for a number of local outlets including StateImpact. He has written two travel guidebooks to the European Alps; lived in Australia, Switzerland, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, and visited many countries including Ethiopia, Peru, Taiwan, and New Zealand. Outside of work hours, Jon can be found running, birding, cooking, and, when weather permits, gardening in the back yard of a Philadelphia row home where he lives with his partner, Kate.
T.J. Allen, a resident of West Whiteland Township in Chester County, stands in front of sinkhole enclosures in his back yard. Allen said he’s worried about the sinkholes, and the fact that Sunoco has been ordered to make sure an existing pipeline that runs through his neighborhood is safe.
Sunoco scrambled to inspect an ageing pipeline on Friday in the backyards of Chester County homes where drilling for two new pipelines has caused several sinkholes to open up.
Yellow backhoes dug holes in several places among homes along Lisa Drive and Lynetree Drive in West Whiteland Township after the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission ordered Sunoco to temporarily halt operations of the Mariner East 1 pipeline. The PUC cited the risk of what it called “catastrophic results” if the pipeline leaks any of its natural gas liquids.
The risk to the older pipeline stemmed from the sinkholes that have appeared during the construction of the Mariner East 2 and 2X pipelines, the PUC said. The first holes appeared in late 2017 and have multiplied over the last week, prompting the regulator’s order that Sunoco stop operating the line while it ensures its integrity for a mile on either side of the sinkholes.
The PUC, in its order on Wednesday, said the sinkholes developed because of unstable geology in the area.
Lisa Drive resident T.J. Allen’s backyard is dominated by a fenced enclosure which he says contains two sinkholes. About 10 feet from his house, another hole surrounded by orange fencing had been filled with concrete by Sunoco in an attempt to protect Mariner East 1 from the sinkholes a few feet away, Allen said.
The combination of sinkholes and a pipeline from the 1930s, which is when Mariner East 1 was built, makes Allen fear for his safety and that of his 72-year-old mother, who lives with him.
“They put us all in danger, didn’t evacuate us, didn’t even tell me, didn’t knock on our door,” said Allen, 46, an independent construction contractor. “It’s crazy, man.”
Allen said he’s ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
“It feels as though at any minute I might have to run out my house and get my valuables together,” he said. “I have a go bag in there with my medication, my mom’s medication, my deed, everything.”
Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields said there are only three holes, all of which have been grouted and secured.
Shields rejected complaints from some residents who say that people are asked to leave the area where Sunoco and its contractors are working.
The suspension of Mariner East 1 operations for an estimated 10-14 days will allow Sunoco to show that the pipeline is safe, as it has been since it was built, Shields said.
“This period should allow us to share what our professional geologist has established to date – that the Mariner East 1 pipeline is stable, is located in suitably safe geology, and will continue to operate safely as it has done for decades,” Shields said in a statement.
He said the company has no reports of structural damage to homes on Lisa Drive.
A backhoe excavates part of the Mariner East 1 Pipeline in Chester County’s West Whiteland Township following this week’s order by the Public Utility Commission that Sunoco must temporarily shut down the pipeline to make sure it’s safe despite sinkholes that have developed in the area.
But Andrew Neuwirth, an attorney for Allen’s next-door neighbor, Russell March, said there is damage to drywall, a chimney and a fireplace in his client’s home that has coincided with the appearance of the sink holes.
“All these homes have lost a tremendous amount of value as a result of this,” Neuwirth said in an interview on Lisa Drive. He said he is in touch with Sunoco’s lawyers but will be taking “further action.”
John Mattia, whose home also backs on to the sinkhole site, says he doubts he could sell his house if he wanted to.
“I’m not sure selling is a realistic possibility at this point,” said Mattia, 48, who has lived in the house for 17 years and raised his children there. “I am not sure what action we are going to take at this point. The whole thing is very depressing.”
Mattia said he had agreed to Sunoco’s compensation for taking an easement on his land, but said the sum was lower than he wanted and that the company had threatened to take the land by eminent domain if he did not accept the offer.
The sinkholes and the remedial work on the older line are taking place about 200 yards from a rail line carrying Amtrak and Septa passenger trains. The new pipelines are due to run underneath the rail line.
The PUC said it identified three sinkholes and an unspecified number of additional holes that on March 5 were “developing” on the south side of Lisa Drive. Shields said the additional holes were identified before construction started and so are not related to the drilling.
In response, the water utility Aqua sent a crew to Lisa Drive on Friday to prepare its main there to be shut off in the event that it was compromised by a sink hole.
“Aqua is taking precautionary steps to reduce to the impact to our infrastructure and the surrounding community should the Mariner sink holes cause a failure of our infrastructure,” said Aqua spokeswoman Donna Alston.
Sunoco resumed construction on the new Mariner East lines in February after a month-long shutdown ordered by the Department of Environmental Protection in response to multiple violations.
Mariner East 2, carrying propane, ethane and butane across southern Pennsylvania, is due for completion by the end of the second quarter of this year.