DEP orders Sunoco to reroute pipeline after Marsh Creek Lake spill

Mile-long alternative route will avoid area where 8,000 gallons of drilling mud escaped

  • Jon Hurdle

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

A sign warns visitors to Marsh Creek Lake at the entrance of Marsh Creek Lake State Park in Chester County, Pa., where about 8,000 gallons of drilling mud is being cleaned up due to construction of the Mariner East pipeline.

Pennsylvania environmental officials on Friday ordered Sunoco to reroute one of its problem-plagued Mariner East pipelines away from a site where construction spilled more than 8,000 gallons of drilling fluid into a lake and created a 15-foot sink hole.

The order from the Department of Environmental Protection was the first to demand a partial reroute of  the pipeline in its troubled three-and-a-half year construction history, and follows criticism that a series of fines and shutdowns previously imposed by the DEP have done little to improve Sunoco’s performance on the project — which has prompted the department to issue more than 100 notices of violation.

“These incidents are yet another instance where Sunoco has blatantly disregarded the citizens and resources of Chester County with careless actions while installing the Mariner East II Pipeline,” said DEP Secretary Patrick McDonell, in a statement. “We will not stand for more of the same. An alternate route must be used. The department is holding Sunoco responsible for its unlawful actions and demanding a proper cleanup.”

The DEP ordered Sunoco to immediately stop all construction on a horizontal directional drilling site in Uwchlan Township, Chester County, and to prepare to reroute its 20-inch pipeline over an approximately 1-mile section that the company previously identified as being technically feasible but which was not implemented.

The company was also directed to submit full reports on how it spilled some 8,100 gallons of drilling mud into a stream that fed Marsh Creek Lake on Aug. 10, and how its construction led to the sinkhole the next day. And it was ordered to submit an impact assessment and cleanup plan for the incidents by Oct. 1.

The order said Sunoco re-evaluated the site, as ordered by a court, following two spills there in 2017 while it was building a 16-inch pipeline along the same route, and concluded there was a “moderate to high risk” that drilling fluids would be lost and there would be inadvertent returns.

The DEP noted that 33 acres of Marsh Creek Lake, in a state park less than 40 miles west of Philadelphia, had been closed to the public because of the spill.

DEP spokeswoman Virginia Cain said the order had been issued because of the spill but also because Sunoco had not acted on earlier assurances that it would prevent further spills at the site, following “inadvertent returns,” or spills, there in 2017.

“It was the nature of the spill, and the things that they said they would do if there was a spill, which they didn’t do,” she said.

Sunoco issued a statement saying: “We are currently reviewing the DEP’s Administrative Order and will continue to work closely with the DEP on this issue as we have done throughout the duration of this project. Our first priority remains the safe completion and then operation of this important infrastructure project. Beyond that, we will decline to comment on the DEP’s press release.”

Rerouting the 20-inch line will further delay the project, which began in February 2017, and will add to construction costs. Even though the project remains incomplete, the company started operating Mariner East in December 2018 by pumping fuel through different-diameter pipes, leading critics to dub the project “frankenpipe.”

The Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, which advocates for the industry, said the order was a significant blow to the state’s biggest infrastructure project.

“DEP’s order to reroute this portion of the project is no small matter, especially when you consider the pipe in this area is meant to connect two existing pipes that are already in the ground,” said Kurt Knaus, a spokesman for the group. “Communities that thought this project was coming to an end now face potentially many more months of disruption, because this action has the potential of dramatically extending the construction life of a pipeline project that was nearly finished.”

Food & Water Watch, an activist group that opposes the Mariner East project, said the pipeline should be shut down rather than just rerouted.

“Sunoco’s negligence has created a series of entirely predictable disasters, the most recent being the massive spill at Marsh Creek Lake. This dangerous, unnecessary pipeline does not need to be re-routed. It must be shut down entirely,” said Sam Rubin, an organizer with the group.

Ginny Kerslake, a Mariner East opponent who lives near another drilling site in West Whiteland Township, Chester County, also called for the project to be shut down.
“This action by the DEP is the least they could do,” she said.

The multi-billion dollar pipelines carry natural gas liquids from southwestern Pennsylvania and Ohio through 17 counties to a terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia, where most of the fuel is exported. The project has been plagued by legal, technical and environmental problems, and has aroused strong opposition along the route because of disruption to private water supplies and concern about threats to public safety.

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 the company $12.6 million for multiple violations during pipeline construction.

 

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