The slippery clay slurry used to ease drills under waterways and highways for the Mariner East 2 cross-state natural gas liquids pipeline was also, ironically, the thing that brought a significant part of construction on the project to a wrenching halt last week.
Eruptions of that slurry — a mixture of bentonite clay and water — that escaped through fractured rock onto land and into water, now number roughly 90 over a three-month period, according to environmental groups analyzing state Department of Environmental Protection reports.
The accumulation of incidents led a judge to halt directional drilling for Sunoco Pipeline’s $2.5-billion twin pipelines on July 25 until he can hold a hearing beginning next Wednesday to evaluate the environmental groups’ challenge to the permits.
The court order stopped work at 55 sites, but Sunoco convinced the judge to gradually relax restrictions at places where the abrupt shut-down could damage equipment or the environment — first by lifting the ban at three sites and then, on Thursday, at 13 more.
Drilling has been allowed to resume at two sites in Westmoreland County and two sites in Indiana County in southwestern Pennsylvania. Drilling is still not allowed at 168 sites where it had not started at the time the judge halted drilling or at 39 other sites where drilling had started, said Alex Bomstein, an attorney for Clean Air Council, one of the environmental groups appealing the permits.
When the slurry escaped from its path in southwestern Pennsylvania over the last three months, it showed up in several places.
It disrupted a private drinking water well, burbled out of an unused well next to a home, seeped through the exposed bedrock along State Route 837 near the Monongahela River in Washington County, and emerged roughly 40 times from the ground around Loyalhanna Lake in the middle of the summer camping season, the documents show.
Horizontal directional drilling is used to bore under rivers, roads and populated areas where open trenches are impractical or, presumably, more disruptive. While such drilling has been disrupted by the judge’s order, other forms of construction on the project have continued throughout the delay.
Documents made public as part of the court appeal detail 25 drilling mud releases in four counties in the southwest region — Allegheny, Indiana, Washington and Westmoreland — while an updated tally by DEP lists 31 spills in the four counties, some as small as 5 gallons and the largest 20,000 gallons.
There is some discrepancy and overlap between the lists, but the Clean Air Council and the FracTracker Alliance, which analyzed the data, estimate 202,000 gallons have spilled across the pipeline project. Nearly 28,000 gallons of that was in southwestern Pennsylvania.
On July 28, DEP issued eight new violation notices to Sunoco for the southwestern region spills, requiring the company to comply with its approved plan for dealing with what the industry calls “inadvertent returns” and to detail its initial response to the incidents.
DEP also asked for more information about a private water supply complaint from a home on Bush Road near Loyalhanna Lake, where Sunoco’s boring operations intersected a particularly troublesome patch of ground.
The well’s water turned cloudy, but the issues have been resolved in cooperation with the landowner, Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields said. Water quality tests did not detect problems. The company is continuing to monitor and has provided the resident with a temporary water supply.
It was the only drinking water disruption reported to Sunoco in Western Pennsylvania, Mr. Shields said. In Chester County along the eastern half of the pipeline project, DEP determined Sunoco’s activities harmed the well water for 14 homes.
Sunoco has already “responded to, contained, documented and fully reported” the releases detailed in the southwestern Pennsylvania violation notices, Mr. Shields said.
Not toxic, but potentially damaging
The bentonite mixture is not toxic and environmental regulators have said they do not expect the spills to cause lasting effects. But, loosed from its planned course, the substance can still be damaging.
“It is a fine sediment,” said James Schmid, a Media, Pa.-based ecologist who has consulted with the environmental groups in the case. “When it gets into the macro-invertebrates, it clogs their gills. It muddies the water and wrecks the habitat for fish.”
Plus, he said, “There is obvious damage to people’s water supply and the quality and the quantity of their water.”
The Pittsburgh District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates Loyalhanna Lake and Bush Recreation Area around it, expects to receive water quality test results from samples taken from the lake in a few weeks, but the effects of the boring operations on facilities, trees and the enjoyment of visitors are already apparent.
“A lot of the impacts were to the recreational users. Just noise and mess,” Kristen Hoesch, the district’s environmental compliance coordinator, said. “A lot of work that you don’t want to see when you go to a park to have a picnic.”
The fluid releases began within days of the start of drilling at the site in May, Ms. Hoesch said. In all, there were about 40 distinct locations where the fluid came out of the ground and about 25 of those reached the water because they weren’t contained in time or overtopped the barriers contractors set up to catch them. There were no reports of fluids emerging directly from the lake bottom.
Fluid returns are an expected part of directional drilling for pipelines — Sunoco had to submit response plans to regulators and the Army Corps before it began drilling — but it was surprising to have so many so spread out at the site, which apparently had to do with the fractured sandstone geology at the depth of the drilling, Ms. Hoesch said.
“You would expect [the fluid returns] to be along the path of the drill, for the most part. But we were getting these way off, 1,500 feet away. That was unusual,” she said.
There were also impacts to a second Army Corps’ property along the Conemaugh River in Westmoreland County, where there were three releases to a wetland and stream.
Sunoco finished work for one pipeline at Loyalhanna Lake and agreed to postpone returning to bore under the lake for the second, narrower pipeline until after the recreation season ends in September.
When the company comes back, it intends to make changes to avoid the same errors, Ms. Hoesch said. “They will be deeper and further back from our property. They have redesigned this drill section, basically because of all of the issues they had with the first one.”
Mr. Shields said Sunoco is “continually evaluating our drilling plans, including Loyalhanna Lake.” He said the company “will continue to fully cooperate with the Army Corps of Engineers to address impacts to Bush Recreation Area from our construction activities.”
The hearing scheduled for Wednesday is expected to last three days. The judge will consider the environmental groups’ petition for a longer ban on directional drilling until there is a final decision in the broader case.
The groups have appealed more than a dozen state environmental permits authorizing construction for the pipeline, which has also spurred court challenges and protests because the company condemned some private land along the right-of-way through eminent domain.
Sunoco Pipeline, a subsidiary of Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, designed the twin 350-mile-long lines to carry an initial combined capacity of 500,000 barrels per day of propane, butane and ethane from the Marcellus and Utica shales to terminals near Philadelphia.
Most of it will be shipped overseas to make plastics, but the lines will also connect to terminals to supply domestic needs.
Staff writer Don Hopey contributed.
Laura Legere: firstname.lastname@example.org.
First Published August 4, 2017 3:30 PM