At Lebanon County’s Snitz Creek, another Mariner East drilling spill and another DEP violation

Sunoco says incidents 'not unexpected' and that it follows DEP-approved spill plan

  • Jon Hurdle

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection issued its latest notice of violation for a spill of drilling fluid at a Lebanon County site where Sunoco has been plagued by at least seven spills in the last nine months during construction of the Mariner East pipelines.

The spill, at Snitz Creek in West Cornwall Township, was the third in June alone, and on Thursday prompted the DEP’s sixth notice of violation at the same site since October last year.

Many of the spills are minor – one reported by the DEP on June 1 was only two quarts – but their frequency in the same location has raised questions about whether the area’s geological structure is suitable for the horizontal directional drilling that is used at many places along the cross-state pipeline route.

The latest spill of drilling fluid was only five gallons but resulted in the DEP notice, which informed Sunoco that it had violated two clean-water laws, and ordered it to stop drilling and submit plans for cleaning up the spill and restarting the operation, if approved by DEP.

The department also ordered a re-evaluation of the surrounding geology by a professional geologist, as Sunoco was ordered to do last summer by the Environmental Hearing Board at more than 60 sites along the cross-state route after a string of spills into wetlands and over private property.

Sunoco said spills, known as “inadvertent returns,” are not unexpected and comply with DEP regulations. The drilling fluid uses nontoxic bentonite clay, which is also used in consumer products including makeup and water purifiers, the company said.

“While we take inadvertent returns and protecting the environment very seriously, these incidents are not unexpected,” said Lisa Dillinger, a spokeswoman for Sunoco’s parent, Energy Transfer Partners. “Our permit applications approved by the Department of Environmental Protection include compliance with an Inadvertent Return Contingency Plan, which we have followed by responding to and containing the inadvertent return to avoid any adverse impacts, and by reporting them to the DEP.”

Dillinger did not respond when asked why there have been so many spills at the Lebanon County site.

Local critics say the spills threaten the environment and show that the local karst geology, a porous limestone formation that is prone to fissures and sinkholes, is the wrong place for horizontal directional drilling.

“This is outrageous,” said Pam Bishop of the activist group Concerned Citizens of Lebanon County. “How many times will DEP allow the restart of HDD at this site when — obviously due to the limestone karst geology — the same result occurs, endangering the creek, the groundwater system and private drinking water wells in the vicinity?”

DEP spokesman Neil Shader said the department has allowed the restart of HDDs at Snitz Creek on all but the latest spill, on June 27, and is awaiting Sunoco’s response to the latest notice of violation. He said Sunoco has complied with the DEP’s plan on how to respond to inadvertent returns.

“DEP is and will continue to hold Sunoco accountable for any impacts to waters of the Commonwealth, and is requiring Sunoco to remediate all IRs to streams and wetlands,” he said.

In one indication of the frequency of the spills, a DEP notice in October last year said that it allowed the restart of a drill on the morning of September 20, only to be informed on the afternoon of that day of a second spill.

In the same notice, the DEP ordered Sunoco to propose a way of preventing spills rather than containing and treating them, as it had intended.

DEP issued notices of violation to Sunoco for two spills at Snitz Creek on Oct. 27, 2017, as well as single spills on March 16, April 20, and June 1, 11 and 28, according to the DEP’s website.

According to Rettew, a consultant to Sunoco on restarting drills that have created spills, the June 1 incident was likely the result of interconnected fractures in the bedrock, shallow groundwater, and the presence of worn water pathways in the rock. It said in a report that the same conditions may also have been responsible for spills on March 15 and April 20.

Karst was blamed for the appearance of sinkholes in a suburban development along the pipeline route in West Whiteland Township, Chester County, starting late last year. That prompted a judge to halt construction of the pipelines – as well as operation of an existing pipeline that runs along the same right of way – and order inspections to ensure there was no danger to public safety throughout the township.

In mid-June, the Public Utility Commission lifted the ban on operation of the existing line, Mariner East 1, but upheld the shutdown of construction on the new line.