In this 2018 file photo, Energy Transfer, the parent company of Mariner East 2 pipeline builder, Sunoco, works at Snitz Creek in West Cornwall Township, Lebanon County after a drilling mud spill during the summer.
Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania
New drilling-mud spill is Sunoco’s 10th at Lebanon County’s Snitz Creek since the Mariner East pipeline project began
DEP issues another violation as Mariner East struggles to cope with fragile limestone geology
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Another spill of drilling mud into Lebanon County’s Snitz Creek on Thursday brings to 10 the number of “inadvertent returns” at that site during construction of the Mariner East natural gas liquids pipelines, and to more than 150 statewide since the controversial project began in early 2017.
Turbid water appeared in the creek on Thursday shortly after Sunoco restarted its attempts to drill beneath the creek to create a pathway for its Mariner East 2X 16-inch pipeline, the operator, Sunoco/Energy Transfer confirmed in a note to West Cornwall Township supervisor David Lloyd.
The incident was the latest to hit the pipeline at a location where fragile limestone geology has allowed drilling mud to contaminate the creek, halting operations and in some cases prompting a notice of violation from the Department of Environmental Protection.
The problems at Snitz Creek began in August 2017 when 50 gallons of drilling fluid escaped, according to DEP data. The leak was stopped, drilling mud was cleaned up, and DEP allowed a restart about two weeks later. It issued a notice of violation the following month.
Another spill of about 50 gallons happened at the creek in March 2018, followed by four more incidents – one as small as one cup – that year, and two this year, including Thursday’s spill.
Lloyd said the data are based on self-reporting by Sunoco, and while he doesn’t doubt the company’s truthfulness, he faulted the DEP for failing to independently monitor the drilling.
“The common citizen would think that Pennsylvania DEP is there and is monitoring the situation, which we know isn’t true,” he said. “The DEP comes in after the fact.”
The township has become familiar with the succession of inadvertent returns, followed by notices of violation and then a brief halt to construction until Sunoco presents a restart plan that’s acceptable to DEP, Lloyd said. “That’s the confounding component to the regular citizen, thinking, ‘Where the heck is DEP in all this?’” he said.
The department issued a notice of violation on Friday for the latest spill at Snitz Creek but did not respond to a request for comment. DEP has previously said it is committed to “continued oversight and enforcement of the permit conditions and regulations.”
The repeated spills at Snitz Creek are the result of multiple attempts by Sunoco to drill under the creek through the fragile limestone, said Doug Lorenzen, a geologist and a member of Concerned Citizens for Lebanon County, an anti-pipeline group.
“This limestone obviously has lots of interconnected voids and channels,” he said. “When they start drilling it, they introduce a new hole and it could cause the collapse of the ground above.”
Sinkholes have occurred along the pipeline route, including Lisa Drive, a suburban development in Chester County’s West Whiteland Township.
Sunoco has filed dozens of “re-evaluation reports,” as ordered by the Environmental Hearing Board in 2017, to explain how it will avoid inadvertent returns in geologically challenging locations like Snitz Creek, but the incidents persist despite fines handed out by regulators.
On Aug. 10, an inadvertent return near Marsh Creek State Park in northern Chester County spilled 8,100 gallons of drilling fluid into a 535-acre lake there, resulting in 33 acres of the lake being ruled off-limits to the public while the spill is cleaned up, and prompting protests by residents and some lawmakers.
State Sen. Katie Muth (D-Chester/Montgomery/Bucks) urged the DEP to shut down a portion of the pipeline’s construction until there’s an independent investigation on the causes of the spill.
She called on the DEP to hold a public meeting to discuss the environmental damage, mitigation efforts, and the conditions that Sunoco would have to meet to be allowed to restart the horizontal directional drill (HDD) that caused the spill.
“My constituents are understandably extremely concerned and very distressed regarding the long-term environmental impacts caused by this event,” she wrote in a letter to DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell.
The multi-billion dollar pipeline project carries ethane, propane and butane some 350 miles from southwest Pennsylvania and Ohio through 17 counties en route to an export terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia.
Last week, the DEP issued its latest fine, $355,000, to Sunoco for drilling mud spills on 10 streams — including Snitz Creek — in eight counties in 2018 and 2019. The fine, less than two weeks after the Marsh Creek spill, prompted critics to say the DEP’s penalties have little or no effect on Sunoco’s behavior.
On Monday, the Environmental Hearing Board, a quasi-judicial panel that hears complaints against DEP policy, temporarily granted a request from Sunoco to overturn a DEP-ordered shutdown of a drilling site in Chester County’s West Whiteland Township, another area of fragile limestone geology, or “karst,” because of a “turbid groundwater discharge” in early August.
Sunoco did not respond to a request for comment on the latest spill in Lebanon County.