DEP fines Sunoco again for drilling mud spills, but Mariner East pipeline opponents say penalties aren’t fixing the problem

Fines for 2018-2019 violations come less than two weeks after spill in Chester County

  • Jon Hurdle

Environmental officials on Thursday announced their latest fine on Sunoco/Energy Transfer for spilling drilling mud along the controversial Mariner East pipeline route, less than two weeks after the company spilled some 8,000 gallons of the material into a Chester County lake. 

The Department of Environmental Protection fined Sunoco $355,636 for “unauthorized discharges” of drilling fluid used in horizontal directional drilling for the pipeline in eight counties between August 2018 and April 2019. Most of the money will be paid into the state’s Clean Water Fund; about $6,000 will be paid to county conservation districts to compensate them for the cost of investigating the spills. 

DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said the department would “continue to hold polluters of these waters accountable.” But critics say the company’s long history of spills despite fines and shutdowns imposed by DEP shows that the department’s fines have little or no effect on the company’s practices.  

It is outrageous that PA DEP would settle these past violations for such minuscule civil penalties while ET/Sunoco continues to violate the Clean Streams Law in the same manner during construction of ME2X in 2020,” said Pam Bishop, an anti-pipeline activist who lives in Mount Gretna, Lebanon County, referring to Mariner East 2X, one of the pipelines in the system. 

The latest fine was levied for spills at 10 streams in counties across the state: Berks, Blair, Cambria, Cumberland, Delaware, Lebanon, Washington and Westmoreland.

Bishop said that means each incident cost the company about $35,000. At Snitz Creek, a Lebanon County site where drilling has been repeatedly interrupted by the spills, there were six separate incidents that each cost the company some $6,000, a sum that Bishop called “a slap on the wrist” for Sunoco/Energy Transfer.

Neil Shader, director of communications for DEP, said the new fines are “indicative of DEP’s continued oversight and enforcement of the permit conditions and regulations.” He said DEP will hold Sunoco accountable for the violations that occurred at Marsh Creek Lake.
Sunoco did not respond to a request for comment on the latest fine. 

Scott Blanchard / StateImpact Pennsylvania

The map shows the Mariner East 2 pipeline’s path across 17 Pennsylvania counties on its way to the Marcus Hook industrial complex in Delaware County, where the natural gas liquids it carries will be shipped overseas to make plastics. The map was built using state Department of Environmental Protection shapefiles of the route for which DEP issued permits. The line extends west into Ohio.

Bishop criticized the DEP for allowing the restart of drilling at Snitz Creek and other affected locations, following the department’s acceptance earlier this year of a “re-evaluation” report by Sunoco that was intended to show how it would avoid future spills. 

The pipeline project, which carries natural gas liquids some 350 miles from southwest Pennsylvania and Ohio to an export terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia, has been plagued by technical and environmental problems since construction started in February 2017. The DEP has issued more than 100 violations to the company for polluting wetlands, waterways, and destroying about a dozen private water wells.

In January, the agency fined Sunoco $2 million for spilling more than 200,000 gallons of drilling mud into Raystown Lake. In 2018, the DEP penalized Sunoco $12.6 million for multiple violations during Mariner East 2 construction.

The project has prompted strong protests in some communities along the route, especially in Philadelphia’s western suburbs, where opponents say there could be mass casualties if there was an explosion of natural gas liquids. 

Gov. Tom Wolf has repeatedly rejected calls to shut down the project. 

On Aug. 13, eight Chester County lawmakers, all Democrats, called on the state to withdraw Sunoco’s permits in the county because of the years-long series of spills, sinkholes and permit violations there. 

Energy Transfer has continually demonstrated that they have neither the ability nor the motivation to build safe pipelines,” the lawmakers said in a letter to the DEP’s McDonnell, Department of Heath Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, and PUC Chair Gladys BrownThey have failed. And by allowing them to restart over and over again with slap-onthe-wrist fines, we have failed the citizens of Pennsylvania, who have a constitutional right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment; as well as to public health, safety, and private property. It is time for real consequences. 

The letter said construction should not be allowed to restart until an independent inspection of the pipeline project, and until Sunoco has paid all outstanding fines and paid for testing of private water wells and septic systems. 

Since the period for which the latest fine has been imposed, DEP has issued 17 “notices of violation” for infractions including the spill of drilling fluid, according to the department’s “Pipeline Portal.” Since May 2017, about four months after construction started, the DEP has issued 108 notices of violation for the project. 

On Aug. 10, the 530-acre Marsh Creek Lake in Chester County was polluted by the latest spill into a nearby creek, causing officials to block off access to the lake for recreational users, and prompting a protest by several dozen kayakers. 

Ginny Kerslake, a Chester County resident who was part of the protest, said the impact of the partial lake closure was heightened by the large number of people who are now using it for outdoor recreation because of restriction on other forms of recreation during the coronavirus pandemic. 

She said the DEP’s continuing fines and violations have little or no effect on Sunoco’s practices. “They keep issuing these fines, they keep issuing these notices of violation, and at the same time, Sunoco just keeps going on with more and more violations.

“Nothing changes,” she said.

In June, sinkholes began appearing along the pipeline route at West Whiteland, a Chester County township that attracted widespread media attention from an earlier series of sinkholes at Lisa Drive, a suburban development, in 2018. 

On Thursday, the DEP issued a notice of violation for the Marsh Creek spill and said Sunoco has not yet provided an immediate or long-term restoration plan to address impacts to waters of the Commonwealth. 

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