DEP refuses to allow pipeline drilling to resume at Snitz Creek

Written by Daniel Walmer/The Lebanon Daily News | Oct 31, 2017 11:22 AM

This view from N. Cornwall Rd. shows the progress of pipeline construction. A bridge spans Snitz Creek. (Photo: Michael K. Dakota, Lebanon Daily News)

(Lebanon) -- Mariner East 2 pipeline builder Sunoco needs to work harder to prevent "drilling mud" spills, not just treat them after the fact.

That's the gist of a notice of violation the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued against Sunoco Friday that doesn't accept its plan to resume drilling after "unlawful" spills at Snitz Creek in West Cornwall Township.

Sunoco has spilled "drilling mud" twice at the pipeline's crossing of Snitz Creek between Zinns Mill and Quentin roads, according to DEP records: 50 gallons on Aug. 31 and less than one gallon on Sept. 20.

"Drilling mud" is a mix of bentonite clay and water that is considered non-toxic. However, drilling operations may have been a factor in turning wells cloudy and reducing water flow in Chester County in July.

The Snitz Creek notice was one of six that DEP issued against Sunoco last week. They all addressed the issue of "inadvertent returns" (IR) of drilling mud in different locations throughout the state.

The DEP learned about an IR at Snitz Creek on Aug. 31, but authorized drilling to resume on Sept. 20, according to a letter DEP sent Friday to Sunoco and contractor Welded Construction. The regulatory agency then received notice on the afternoon of Sept. 20 that another IR had occurred.

The IR "constitutes unlawful conduct" under the Clean Streams Law and the Dam Safety and Encroachment Act, the letter states.

Sunoco plans to contain and treat future IRs rather than prevent them, according to the letter, but DEP rejected that approach. 


Snitz creek runs under Tice Lane near N. Cornwall Rd. (Photo: Michael K. Dakota, Lebanon Daily News)

"(T)he Department requests you to develop and submit for Department review a more rigorous exploration of alternatives," the letter says. "If (Sunoco) cannot develop a plan for preventing IRs which concludes that further drilling will not result in additional returns of 50 gallons or greater, then alternative construction methods for completing the pipeline installation should also be incorporated into this analysis."

Sunoco is not permitted to resume drilling operations until it receives DEP approval, according to the letter.

Company spokesman Jeff Shields told StateImpact Pennsylvania in July that some IRs are "not unexpected" but Sunoco has followed its contingency plan and contained the spills to prevent any "long-term" environmental impacts.

Shields provided a written statement Friday in response to a request for comment about the DEP notice of violation.

"We will continue to abide by the strict conditions of our permits and work with the DEP to follow best practices when using horizontal directional drilling, as construction continues on the Mariner East project throughout Pennsylvania," Shields wrote.

In July, State Representative Leanne Krueger-Braneky, D-161 of Delaware County, told StateImpact Pennsylvania that the number of incidents was "shocking" and sent letters to DEP and Governor Tom Wolf asking them to halt construction of the pipeline.

When completed, the Mariner East 2 pipeline would transport natural gas liquids from Ohio, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania to the Marcus Hook refinery near Philadelphia. 

This story is part of a partnership between WITF and The Lebanon Daily News. 

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