Sunoco spills drilling fluid into Lebanon County creek for third time

  • Jon Hurdle
An aerial view of Sunoco Pipeline's Mariner East 2 construction in rural Pennsylvania. Plans for a new construction technique in some locations have prompted a new round of community resistance.

Jeremy Long/Lebanon Daily News

An aerial view of Sunoco Pipeline's Mariner East 2 construction in rural Pennsylvania.

Sunoco spilled more drilling fluid into a Lebanon County creek on Thursday as it resumed construction for its controversial Mariner East pipelines at that location.

The Department of Environmental Protection on Friday issued its latest Notice of Violation to Sunoco for the spill – officially called an “inadvertent return” or “IR” – after the company drilled under Snitz Creek in West Cornwall Township where it previously had two spills, in August and September 2017.

The DEP said the drilling fluids released into the creek were a form of industrial waste and therefore violated the Clean Streams Law and the Dam Safety and Encroachments Act. The notice said the DEP had not authorized any inadvertent release at that location.

The Department shut down the horizontal directional drilling (HDD) operation and ordered the company to submit a “restart report” containing an evaluation by an independent geologist on how and where the release occurred and on the risks of another spill if the drill is restarted.

“Department approval is required before restarting drilling operations,” the DEP’s notice said.

The spill was immediately condemned by local opponents of the pipeline project.

“I am completely dismayed and outraged that they started again and they got the same inadvertent return that they did two or three times before at the same site,” said Pam Bishop of the activist group Concerned Citizens of Lebanon County. “They need to do a very thorough study of the geology in that area, and how they’re going to avoid inadvertent returns in the future as well as the potential risk to private wells in the neighborhood from an HDD at this site.”

Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields said the spill was an estimated 50 gallons.

“Drilling was immediately stopped, the mud was contained and removed, and the DEP was notified,” he said.

The notice of violation is the 40th issued by DEP for Mariner East incidents since May last year, according to data on the department’s website. The latest spill brings to 106 the number of inadvertent returns during the project, the DEP said, in revised data released on Friday.

The long series of technical, environmental and legal challenges for pipeline construction over the last year have prompted temporary shutdowns ordered by the Environmental Hearing Board and the DEP. Last week, operation of the existing Mariner East 1 pipeline was suspended by the Public Utility Commission on concerns that it might leak volatile natural gas liquids because of its proximity to a number of sinkholes that have opened up during drilling for the new lines in Chester County.

Critics say the sinkholes show that the limestone geology in Chester County’s West Whiteland Township is unsuitable for the kind of drilling being done for the line. Sunoco, which plans to have Mariner East 2 operational by June, says there were only three sinkholes, and they have been filled.

For the Lebanon County site, the DEP said the geologist’s report should include “measures that will minimize the likelihood that further drilling will result in harm to the environment or impact any private or public water supplies.”