More spills at Lebanon County Mariner East pipeline drill site earn Sunoco more violations

DEP recently ordered re-route of line in Chester County for similar problems

  • Jon Hurdle

The Department of Environmental Protection last month directed Mariner East pipeline pipeline builder Sunoco to find a new path for about a mile of its 20-inch pipeline at a site in Chester County, after a drilling spill of more than 8,000 gallons closed part of Marsh Creek Lake to the public.

The DEP order was the first in the troubled 43-month history of the pipeline’s construction to require a route change. It followed criticism that dozens of fines and notices of violation in response to earlier problems had done little to force Sunoco to improve construction practices.

Now, a string of spills and notices of violation at a horizontal directional drill (HDD) site in Lebanon County, at Snitz Creek in West Cornwall Township, are prompting questions about whether it’s technically feasible to run the pipeline under the creek, given the fragile karst limestone geology of the area, or whether another route for the pipeline is the only realistic option.

Sunoco reported five spills, or “inadvertent returns,” of drilling mud at the site between Aug. 13 and Sept. 18, according to the DEP’s Pipeline Portal, bringing to 12 the number of such incidents there since construction began in February 2017. In response, the DEP issued four notices of violation of two environmental laws, and told Sunoco that it could not restart the operation without approval from the department.

DEP spokesman Jamar Thrasher said the department has no rule for the number of spills that would lead to an order to reroute the pipeline. “We generally review each site on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

Chester and Lebanon counties share the karst limestone geology that creates problems for industrial projects that use underground drilling.

Sunoco did not respond to a request for comment, but the Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, which advocates for the industry, said that any rerouting of the pipeline would mean a further delay to the already years-late project.

“Any new route would require a major modification of the existing DEP permit,” said Kurt Knaus, a spokesman for the alliance. “This project is nearly complete, and these remaining drills are connecting parts of the line that are already finished and in the ground. What we need to do is get the job done.”

The project already carries natural gas liquids from southwestern Pennsylvania and Ohio through 17 counties to a terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia, where most of it is exported. Although not all sections of its three pipes are complete, different combinations of pipe have been carrying ethane, propane and butane eastward since December 2018.

Whether the repeated failure of HDDs at Snitz Creek means that Sunoco will be required to choose a new route at that site could depend on whether it can find a way of drilling through the fragile limestone without spilling fluid.

Rich Raiders, a land-use attorney whose clients include those fighting Sunoco over the pipeline project, said DEP should already have ordered a reroute at Snitz Creek because of its karst formation.

“Lebanon County is a patchwork of karst and related fractures, and the area along that stretch of Snitz Creek is notorious for subsidence events,” he said. “I think this entire problem speaks to the limits of what an operator can do to prepare for HDD given tough geology problems.”

But finding a new route anywhere in the county won’t be easy, because the fragile underground formation extends well beyond the creek, Raiders said. “If I were DEP, I’d make them show why this is an appropriate place to put in a pipeline. If they can’t, then make them come up with an alternative that works better than this.”

Raiders, who was a member of a DEP task force on trenchless technology, said the group concluded that there are some locations where HDD “just can’t be done.”

Porous geology has caused sinkholes in other parts of the line, notably at Lisa Drive, a suburban development in West Whiteland Township, Chester County, where construction was halted after several holes opened up near homes starting in late 2018.

Concerned Citizens of Lebanon County, an activist group that opposes the pipeline, said the spills have become a pattern that Sunoco appears unable to stop.

“After each IR at Snitz Creek, Sunoco was required to stop drilling until DEP approved its restart report, then another IR occurred almost immediately after drilling was resumed, and the cycle was repeated,” the group said in a statement.

Alex Bomstein, an attorney with the environmental group Clean Air Council, said it’s time for Sunoco to consider an alternative route at the site. “Continuing to repeat the same failure again and again is not an acceptable option,” he said.

Up Next

States are doing what big government won’t to stop climate change, and want stimulus funds to help