News

08/24/2020 - The largest solar array of its kind in the U.S. now sits atop a former Pittsburgh steel mill

A 133,000-square-foot solar array is now functional at Hazelwood Green’s Mill 19. It’s a project that marries the story of Pittsburgh’s past with its future.

08/21/2020 - DEP fines Sunoco again for drilling mud spills, but Mariner East pipeline opponents say penalties aren’t fixing the problem

Environmental officials on Thursday announced their latest fine on Sunoco/Energy Transfer for spilling drilling mud along the controversial Mariner East pipeline route, less than two weeks after the company spilled some 8,000 gallons of the material into a Chester County lake. 

The Department of Environmental Protection fined Sunoco $355,636 for “unauthorized discharges” of drilling fluid used in horizontal directional drilling for the pipeline in eight counties between August 2018 and April 2019. Most of the money will be paid into the state’s Clean Water Fund; about $6,000 will be paid to county conservation districts to compensate them for the cost of investigating the spills. 

DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said the department would “continue to hold polluters of these waters accountable.” But critics say the company’s long history of spills despite fines and shutdowns imposed by DEP shows that the department’s fines have little or no effect on the company’s practices.  

“It is outrageous that PA DEP would settle these past violations for such minuscule civil penalties while ET/Sunoco continues to violate the Clean Streams Law in the same manner during construction of ME2X in 2020,” said Pam Bishop, an anti-pipeline activist who lives in Mount Gretna, Lebanon County, referring to Mariner East 2X, one of the pipelines in the system. 

The latest fine was levied for spills at 10 streams in counties across the state: Berks, Blair, Cambria, Cumberland, Delaware, Lebanon, Washington and Westmoreland.

Bishop said that means each incident cost the company about $35,000. At Snitz Creek, a Lebanon County site where drilling has been repeatedly interrupted by the spills, there were six separate incidents that each cost the company some $6,000, a sum that Bishop called “a slap on the wrist” for Sunoco/Energy Transfer.

Neil Shader, director of communications for DEP, said the new fines are “indicative of DEP’s continued oversight and enforcement of the permit conditions and regulations.” He said DEP will hold Sunoco accountable for the violations that occurred at Marsh Creek Lake.
Sunoco did not respond to a request for comment on the latest fine. 

Scott Blanchard / StateImpact Pennsylvania

The map shows the Mariner East 2 pipeline’s path across 17 Pennsylvania counties on its way to the Marcus Hook industrial complex in Delaware County, where the natural gas liquids it carries will be shipped overseas to make plastics. The map was built using state Department of Environmental Protection shapefiles of the route for which DEP issued permits. The line extends west into Ohio.

Bishop criticized the DEP for allowing the restart of drilling at Snitz Creek and other affected locations, following the department’s acceptance earlier this year of a “re-evaluation” report by Sunoco that was intended to show how it would avoid future spills. 

The pipeline project, which carries natural gas liquids some 350 miles from southwest Pennsylvania and Ohio to an export terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia, has been plagued by technical and environmental problems since construction started in February 2017. The DEP has issued more than 100 violations to the company for polluting wetlands, waterways, and destroying about a dozen private water wells.

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 Sunoco $12.6 million for multiple violations during Mariner East 2 construction.

The project has prompted strong protests in some communities along the route, especially in Philadelphia’s western suburbs, where opponents say there could be mass casualties if there was an explosion of natural gas liquids. 

Gov. Tom Wolf has repeatedly rejected calls to shut down the project. 

On Aug. 13, eight Chester County lawmakers, all Democrats, called on the state to withdraw Sunoco’s permits in the county because of the years-long series of spills, sinkholes and permit violations there. 

“Energy Transfer has continually demonstrated that they have neither the ability nor the motivation to build safe pipelines,” the lawmakers said in a letter to the DEP’s McDonnell, Department of Heath Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, and PUC Chair Gladys Brown. “They have failed. And by allowing them to restart over and over again with slap-on–the-wrist fines, we have failed the citizens of Pennsylvania, who have a constitutional right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment; as well as to public health, safety, and private property. It is time for real consequences.” 

The letter said construction should not be allowed to restart until an independent inspection of the pipeline project, and until Sunoco has paid all outstanding fines and paid for testing of private water wells and septic systems. 

Since the period for which the latest fine has been imposed, DEP has issued 17 “notices of violation” for infractions including the spill of drilling fluid, according to the department’s “Pipeline Portal.” Since May 2017, about four months after construction started, the DEP has issued 108 notices of violation for the project. 

On Aug. 10, the 530-acre Marsh Creek Lake in Chester County was polluted by the latest spill into a nearby creek, causing officials to block off access to the lake for recreational users, and prompting a protest by several dozen kayakers. 

Ginny Kerslake, a Chester County resident who was part of the protest, said the impact of the partial lake closure was heightened by the large number of people who are now using it for outdoor recreation because of restriction on other forms of recreation during the coronavirus pandemic. 

She said the DEP’s continuing fines and violations have little or no effect on Sunoco’s practices. “They keep issuing these fines, they keep issuing these notices of violation, and at the same time, Sunoco just keeps going on with more and more violations.

“Nothing changes,” she said.

In June, sinkholes began appearing along the pipeline route at West Whiteland, a Chester County township that attracted widespread media attention from an earlier series of sinkholes at Lisa Drive, a suburban development, in 2018. 

On Thursday, the DEP issued a notice of violation for the Marsh Creek spill and said Sunoco has not yet “provided an immediate or long-term restoration plan to address impacts to waters of the Commonwealth.” 

08/21/2020 - No ‘bomb trains’: 14 states aim to take new rule on LNG transport off the rails

Fourteen states — including Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware — and the District of Columbia have filed a legal challenge to a new federal rule that would allow trains to carry liquefied natural gas (LNG) across the country.

The states’ move coincides with a petition filed by environmental organizations that also hope to block the rule, which was approved in late July by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Both petitions say the rule, set to take effect Monday, Aug. 24, should be overturned because it poses health, safety, and environmental risks.

Environmental advocates have nicknamed the proposed LNG rail cars “bomb trains,” for their potential explosive capacity.

For Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the rule could prove to be particularly important. That’s because an LNG terminal in Gibbstown, New Jersey, for which approval is pending would use rail cars to carry liquefied natural gas from Wyalusing in northeastern Pennsylvania to a Delaware River port in Gloucester County.

It would be the first route in the nation to allow such rail transport, meaning residents of those states would be the first potentially exposed to the level of danger the legal challenges say the new rule represents.

No safety studies

Federal safety and environmental studies on the impact of LNG rail transport — the kind that are typically carried out before the implementation of new regulations — have not yet been conducted.

“There’s never been a full risk assessment done, there’s never been a quantitative risk assessment done on the use of these rail cars for carrying LNG,” Tracy Carluccio of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network said Thursday.

Given that, she said, the Gibbstown route would mean “everybody exposed along the railways are put in the position of guinea pigs … [They] would be part of a big experiment that could potentially cost them their lives.”

The petition filed by the states does not lay out the full legal argument in its text, but a release from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office said that the coalition plans to argue that “PHMSA’s failure to evaluate the environmental impacts of the rule is unlawful … the rule lacks the necessary safety requirements to minimize the risk to public safety associated with transporting LNG by rail.”

“The admin has fast-tracked a plan to haul explosive liquefied natural gas by train through communities nationwide. Without adequate safety and environmental studies,” New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal tweeted. “We’re fighting back to protect our residents.”

The Admin has fast-tracked a plan to haul explosive liquefied natural gas by train through communities nationwide.

Without adequate safety and environmental studies.

We're fighting back to protect our residents. pic.twitter.com/CVuXYfQlc7

— AG Gurbir Grewal (@NewJerseyOAG) August 18, 2020

In a statement, Pennsylvania Attorney Josh Shapiro said, “Liquefied natural gas has almost never been allowed on rail cars in bulk, because it’s extremely dangerous — it’s explosive! Look, there are laws on the books to ensure safety, and the Trump administration must follow them.”

Rail transport’s track record: iffy

Under current federal law, it’s considered too dangerous to transport liquefied natural gas in regular tank railcars. LNG can be transported only by truck or — with special approval by the Federal Railroad Administration — by rail in small United Nations tanks mounted on top of railcars. That would change when the new rule takes effect.

In January, the same attorneys general voiced “strong objection” to the proposed change. But the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration chose to approve it July 24, authorizing bulk shipments of LNG by rail provided the transporting cars had certain enhanced outer tank requirements.

That wasn’t enough for the states or the environmental groups, which include the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Clean Air Council in Philadelphia, and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. Their petitions, filed Aug. 18, ask the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to find PHMSA’s rule unlawful under the Administrative Procedure Act, the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Representatives from the Standards and Rulemaking Division of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the legal challenges.

The petitions are not without precedent. After the derailment and explosion of crude oil trains in Quebec and North Dakota in 2013, as well as multiple incidents involving crude oil trains in Pennsylvania, advocates urged more stringent safety standards around rail transportation of hazardous and potentially explosive materials, both locally and nationwide. Some of those implemented regulations took effect as recently as 2019.

But the Delaware Riverkeeper Network’s Carluccio and other environmental advocates are worried that LNG — which can simultaneously combust and explode into vapor more than 600 times its volume — poses an unprecedented level of risk that far surpasses a crude oil shipment.

“We’re not talking about the usual hazardous material that are unfortunately [carried] every day across the nation’s railways,” she said. “We’re talking about a new breed of danger, danger that we’ve never faced before.”

08/20/2020 - Report: Clean energy jobs among fastest-growing in state from 2017-2019

The Clean Energy Employment Report says jobs in that sector grew by 8.7 percent, or almost 7,800 jobs, during the two-year period covered in the report. But since then, the pandemic has caused an estimated 55,000 lost jobs in the overall energy sector.

08/17/2020 - Sampling confirms Harrisburg’s sewage overflow is polluting the Susquehanna River with E. coli

(Harrisburg) — Scientists found unsafe E. coli bacteria levels in the Susquehanna River during a third of the days this summer that samples were collected, according to a report from the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper.

The annual testing, coordinated by the York County-based environmental nonprofit, also confirmed what it had suspected last year—that the city’s combined sewage and stormwater overflow system is adding significant pollution, according to Riverkeeper Ted Evegeniadis. Levels downstream of the city were almost triple what they were upstream.

“It’s a serious problem, and we’re calling on the city of Harrisburg to fix it,” Evegeniadis said. The office of Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse did not respond to a request for comment.

The city’s combined system dumps sewage into the Susquehanna River during periods of heavy rain—something Ilyse Kazar has seen first-hand.

Kazar lives in Harrisburg and is one of the volunteers who collected water samples for the project. She said, while collecting samples she often saw “a scum of sewage” along the river—sometimes in the same areas where children were playing or people were fishing.

“Meanwhile I’m seeing the results come back with horrific levels of E. coli and fecal contamination,” Kazar said, referring to the potentially dangerous pathogen that can be transmitted through human and animal waste.

The water quality update was made public along with a new report, titled “Stormwater backup in the Chesapeake Region,” from the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project. That report says Pennsylvania has “gone backwards” in its efforts to reduce runoff that flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

Environmental Integrity Project spokesperson Tom Pelton said the Pennsylvania state government owns 40 percent of the property in Harrisburg and should fund a sewage and stormwater modernization project.

Pelton said he recognizes that the economic fallout from the coronavirus leaves states with less money to spend. However, infrastructure spending adds jobs at a time when many people are out of work.

“It’ll go to construction workers,” Pelton said. “It’ll go to engineers. It’ll go to construction firms right here in Pennsylvania.”

Brett Sholtis / WITF

Environmental Integrity Project spokesperson Tom Pelton stands for a portrait in front of the state Capitol, which, he points out, routes its sewage into the Susquehanna during periods of heavy rain.

 

Without a fix, the problem is only expected to get worse. The Environmental Integrity Project report notes that higher average annual rainfall related to climate change is expected to increase annual nitrogen and phosphorus pollution by about 3.5 percent. The state of Virginia has adopted pollution-reduction policies in response to that, the report states.

“In contrast, Pennsylvania and Maryland retreated in their proposed efforts to reduce urban and suburban runoff. This is significant because Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia account for about 90 percent of the urban and suburban runoff pollution fouling the [Chesapeake] Bay.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is reviewing the report and declined to comment on its recommendations for statewide changes. In Harrisburg’s specific case, the situation is partly the responsibility of Capital Region Water, said DEP spokesperson Neil Shader. The company, which manages the city’s drinking water, is in a partial consent decree with federal agencies and is required to reduce stormwater runoff.

The state agency, along with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, “have been discussing long term control plan issues with Capital Region Water related to the requirements of the existing partial consent decree that is currently in effect,” Shader said.

Capital Region Water spokesperson Rebecca Laufer said the company “is committed to reducing combined sewer overflows that impact our waterways and is working towards a significant reduction that works within the financial constraints of city residents.”

“The challenges of maintaining and upgrading infrastructure that is more than a century old are difficult,” Laufer said. “We recognize the lack of past actions had detrimental impacts on the system, and Capital Region Water has been proactively addressing deficiencies.”

 

 

 

08/13/2020 - In Pittsburgh, EPA’s Andrew Wheeler announces methane rollbacks for oil and gas

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler came through Pittsburgh Thursday to announce a rollback of an Obama-era regulation on climate-warming methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.

The rule requires oil and gas companies to monitor and fix leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and applies to new wells, pipelines and other infrastructure. In making the announcement, Wheeler said it was redundant with rules that make companies fix leaks of smog forming volatile organic compounds.

“In reality, these emissions are already captured by other means,” Wheeler said, to a room of masked reporters, local Republican elected officials, and Trump administration officers at the not-for-profit Energy Innovation Center.

“Industry already has more than enough incentive to capture methane without reporting requirements and other obligations,” Wheeler said. “Methane is the key constituent of natural gas and a valuable commodity. So companies are motivated to keep it in the pipeline system.”

The rollback removes transmission and storage facilities from methane monitoring requirements, and rescinds emission limits for methane from the production and processing of oil and gas. It also reduces monitoring of leaks at compressor stations, which process oil and gas, from quarterly to twice a year, and exempts lower-producing wells from some monitoring requirements.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas — 25 times better at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide over the course of a century, and even stronger on shorter time scales. It’s responsible for around 17 percent of global warming to date, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The rollback is opposed by environmental groups, but also by large oil and gas companies, who argue it undercuts the climate benefits of natural gas use.

Shell US president Gretchen Watkins said in a statement the company has “consistently urged the Trump Administration to directly regulate methane emissions” from oil and gas operations.

“The negative impacts of leaks and fugitive emissions have been widely acknowledged for years, so it’s frustrating and disappointing to see the Administration go in a different direction,” Watkins said.

But, according to Wheeler, the rollback would save money for smaller companies, which he credited with creating a drilling boom around the country.

“The big multinational corporations are in a much better position than some of the small or medium-sized (companies)” to comply with the Obama-era methane rules, he said.

Wheeler said the rollback would save the oil and gas industry between $17 and $19 million a year.

“These are important savings, especially to small and mid-sized oil and gas operators,” Wheeler said. “It’s important, vitally important to remember that it was the small exploration companies, not the multinational corporations, that made the breakthroughs here in the Marcellus Shale.”

Environmental groups in Pennsylvania say the rollback increases the stakes for Governor Tom Wolf’s attempts to regulate methane leaks in the commonwealth.

“As the federal government is stepping back, it becomes even more important for states to step up,” said Matthew Garrington, senior manager of state campaigns for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Pennsylvania already has methane rules for wells that went into service after 2018. The Wolf administration is crafting rules that would apply to tens of thousands of existing wells in the state.

Those rules would apply mainly to deeper Marcellus shale wells. Garrington said they should also apply to shallow conventional wells, which the EDF estimates account for around half of Pennsylvania’s methane emissions.

Other states, like Ohio and Colorado, also have their own methane rules, but Garrington said there are plenty that do not.

“If we’re going to address climate change, we need a strong federal floor when it comes to requirements to reduce emissions across the oil and gas supply chain,” Garrington said.

Several environmental groups announced they will sue the Trump administration to prevent the rule from taking effect.

08/12/2020 - Paddle protest at Marsh Creek Lake calls for Mariner East shutdown

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Protesters of Sunoco’s Mariner East Pipline kayaked to a cleanup site on Marsh Creek Lake in Chester County, Pa., where about 8,000 gallons of drilling mud migrated into the waterways.  

As cleanup crews worked to remove thousands of gallons of drilling mud from a Chester County lake on Wednesday, residents gathered to protest the Mariner East pipeline project, citing a litany of environmental damage.

Construction on the line caused about 8,000 gallons of drilling mud to seep into a stream that feeds the lake, which is popular for boating, fishing and birding.

Following a rally on the banks of the 530-acre Marsh Creek Lake, several dozen protesters paddled out to the site of a plume of muddy water caused by nearby horizontal directional drilling (HDD). HDD uses bentonite clay, often referred to as drilling mud, to lubricate a large drill bit that bores beneath the surface, making way for the 20-inch pipe. The project, which is mostly complete, includes three separate pipes that carry natural gas liquids from the shale fields of western Pennsylvania to an export terminal in Delaware County.

Construction of the line has hit several snags in Chester County, where the karst, or limestone geology, creates difficulties for large-scale industrial projects that use underground drilling.

As the boaters paddled closer to the site, they watched as clear water became cloudier.

“It’s unbelievable that this actually happened,” said Chris DiGiulio, who lives nearby and regularly paddles on the lake. “We kind of knew it was going to happen though, it’s predictable actually, they’re not following good scientific practices, good engineering practices when it comes to mitigating the risks.”

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

The cleanup site on Marsh Creek where about 8,000 gallons of drilling mud was spilled. 

In the distance, a yellow boom was set up to prevent more mud from flowing from the creek to the lake. A helicopter and drone flew overhead.

Water from Marsh Creek Lake runs into the Brandywine River, which provides drinking water to residents of Chester County. The Brandywine flows into the Christiana River, and then into the Delaware Bay. The Department of Environmental Protection says there have been no known impacts to drinking water supplies downstream.

Still, DiGiulio, whose water comes from a private well on her property, worries about the impact these types of pollution incidents could have on the underground aquifer where she draws her water.

“I think it would be intelligent if the company that’s a billion dollar company would come out and say, ‘I really don’t want to kill their drinking water resources so I’m going to do proper geophysical testing before drilling because this is a very hydro-geologically unique area,'” she said.

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Aubrey Pool and her daughters Cassidy, 5, and Melody, 4, sometimes swim at Marsh Creek Lake, where underground drilling caused a spill of about 8,000 gallons of bentonite clay.  

The Department of Environmental Protection issued permits to Sunoco, now owned by Energy Transfer, despite documented deficiencies and warnings by DEP staffers that Chester County’s geology could create problems. Construction began in February 2017, and since then the $3 billion cross-state natural gas liquids pipeline project has faced 108 environmental violations, multiple fines, repeated delays, shutdowns and consent decrees ordered by regulators or the courts.

Citizen groups worry about the safety of the pipeline during and after construction, as the natural gas liquids are highly volatile should leaks occur. While both the company and DEP say the drilling mud is non-toxic, many residents worry about chemical additives.

Even without the additives, drilling mud in large amounts can smother aquatic life like macro invertebrates, which are an important part of the food chain.

The protesters called on Governor Tom Wolf to shut down all pipeline construction. It’s a call that Wolf has rejected on a number of occasions. The drilling site itself is shut down, along with a nearby site in West Whiteland Township that the DEP is also investigating.

Energy Transfer will have to re-apply to drill at the Marsh Creek site, but a spokesperson says the incident will not impact scheduled completion of the line. The final phase of the project should be complete by the second quarter of 2021, several years behind schedule.

“We recognize the importance of this waterbody and are committed to allocating all necessary resources to fully remediate and restore the area, which includes removing the non-toxic bentonite clay and water mix—sometimes referred to as ‘drilling mud,’” said Energy Transfer spokesperson Lisa Coleman in an email. “The critical resources have been mobilized and the cleanup process is currently underway.”

Coleman said the spills, which the industry refers to as “inadvertent returns,” are expected and included as part of the permit process.

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources says visitors are still permitted in the park, aside from a 30-acre section of the lake where cleanup continues.

08/12/2020 - A new advisory panel on climate change starts work at DRBC

As Tropical Storm Isaias swept through last week, the Delaware River Basin Commission’s newest committee was convening for the very first time. Its aim: to help inform water resource planning efforts regarding climate change.

The panel is composed of 18 climate experts from a variety of backgrounds, including government officials, watershed advocates, academics, business leaders, and water users. At the inaugural meeting, members reviewed the commission’s past work and ongoing projects, elected a committee chair — Howard Neukrug, director of the Water Center at the University of Pennsylvania — and discussed next steps, which include the development of a future study on climate impacts to the basin’s water supply and water quality.

On the heels of a storm that destroyed property, displaced hundreds of people, and flooded the region’s waterways, the timing is particularly relevant. Although particular storms can’t wholly be attributed to the effects of climate change, experts say a warming Earth “intensifies the problems” and “increases the extremes” of catastrophic weather events, plus makes those events more likely to occur.

“Here in the Delaware River Basin, we have some unique challenges. This basin is prone to droughts and floods. Our main stem river is undammed and open to the ocean, meaning the bay and estuary are subject to sea level rise and storm surges,” Steve Tambini, the commission’s executive director, said in a statement last week.

“Bottom line – it’s complex, and we need this regional climate change expert committee’s help,” Tambini said.

The Delaware River Basin encompasses more than 12,700 square miles in four states —  Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Delaware. The Delaware River’s two major tributaries are the Schuylkill and the Lehigh rivers. Creeks and dozens of those rivers’ minor tributaries flooded during Isaias, and some reached the highest levels ever recorded, the National Weather Service reported.

Local environmental advocates are hopeful for the changes the new committee might bring, even as they express concern that it might frame climate change as an issue of the future, rather than address policies of the present.

“The truth is, we’ve been advocating for the DRBC to be thinking about climate change issues for over decades now,” said Maya K. van Rossum, leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. “And while an advisory committee is valuable, what we really need to see is DRBC thinking about climate change in every single decision it makes.”

She cited the DRBC’s consideration of the Gibbstown LNG pipeline as one example, then talked about fracking, dredging, and other issues that have come across the commission’s approval docket in the past. Seeing the commission prioritize climate change in its future planning is encouraging, van Rossum said, but “we don’t have the luxury of waiting for an advisory committee to meet, and talk, and think, and give advice. The DRBC is making decisions right now, today.”

Members of the new committee seemed to echo the sense of urgency and all-encompassing climate importance that van Rossum expressed.

“We’ve really only got one chance to get this right,” said Elizabeth Koniers Brown, a committee member and director of the National Audubon Society’s Delaware River Watershed Program. “I sensed an urgency in the meeting, on the part of both the staff and the committee members — I think that everybody recognizes that we want to move quickly, and we want to do it right.”

Brown said that bringing in experts and researchers from outside the commission “sets a tone that we can’t solve this alone, with the budget we have, with the myriad of work already on our plate.” She described that as “a really positive step.”

The new panel joins six other advisory committees for the DRBC, which is led jointly by the federal government and the four states in the river basin. The commission is tasked with watershed planning, water quality protection, conservation, regulatory review, drought management, flood mitigation, and more. Committee meetings are open to the public.

08/11/2020 - Mariner East construction spills 10,000 gallons of drilling mud into Chester County lake

Sunoco’s Mariner East pipeline construction caused an estimated 10,000 gallons of drilling mud, or bentonite clay, to spill into Marsh Creek and Marsh Creek Lake at a state park in Chester County this week.

The Department of Environmental Protection has shut down two underground drilling sites, in West Whiteland Township and Upper Uwchlan Township, pending an investigation. 

West Whiteland resident Ginny Kerslake said that she began to notice drilling mud seeping up onto her yard on Saturday morning, and that by the afternoon it became “a full blown river of mud across my property.”

At Marsh Creek State Park in Upper Uwchlan, an estimated 10,000 gallons of drilling mud seeped into the creek and made its way into the lake, according to the DEP. The lake is a popular recreation site and provides drinking water for Chester County residents. It’s unclear whether any drinking water supplies have been or will be affected.

Kerslake, who is a member of the pipeline opposition group Del-Chesco United for Public Safety, said she went out on the lake with her paddle boat on Monday.

“And as I was going in, it was getting murkier and murkier, and then it looked milky,” she said.

Drone footage taken by a resident shows a plume of mud across the lake.

An aerial shot of Marsh Creek Lake in Chester County shows muddy water where drilling mud has leaked from pipeline construction. (courtesy of Chris DeGiulio)

Drilling mud, or bentonite clay, is nontoxic. But in large quantities, it creates cloudiness, which could impact smaller aquatic life like macroinvertabrates. DEP spokesperson Virginia Cain said that there have been no fish kills, but that an investigation into the effects on other aquatic life is ongoing. Officials with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Fish and Boat Commission are also on site and assisting with the cleanup using booms and vacuum trucks.

DEP said there are other affected sites under investigation at an apartment complex in West Whiteland Township.

The $3 billion, 350-mile-long natural gas liquids pipeline project began construction in February 2017 after the DEP identified hundreds of unaddressed deficiencies in its permits. Since then, the DEP has issued about 100 violations to the company for polluting high-value wetlands, waterways and private wells.

In summer 2017, Sunoco, which is now owned by Energy Transfer, agreed to a consent decree that governs how it must respond to spills. If DEP concludes that the spills are the result of what is known as an “inadvertent return” or “frac-out,” then the site will be shut down until the company produces a report that is approved by the DEP so it can restart.

As a result of construction mishaps and delays, which include the formation of sinkholes in Chester County, the company has used an older, smaller pipeline as a work-around to ship natural gas liquids to Marcus Hook. From there, the liquids are exported to a plastics manufacturer in Scotland.

A spokesperson for Energy Transfer said the company did cause an “inadvertent return” or spill into a stream that flows into Marsh Creek Lake.

“We recognize the importance of this waterbody and are committed to allocating all necessary resources to fully remediate and restore the area; which includes removing the nontoxic bentonite clay and water mix — sometimes referred to as `drilling mud,’” Energy Transfer spokesperson Lisa Coleman wrote in an email.  

“While IRs are not unexpected, we try to take all precautions to avoid them from happening and to minimize the impacts when they do. IRs are covered in our permit applications approved by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). We comply with an Inadvertent Return Contingency Plan by responding to and containing the inadvertent return to avoid any adverse impacts, and by reporting them to the DEP,” she said.

Environmental groups and citizens frustrated with continued incidents like the recent spill have called on the DEP to halt all construction on the Mariner East pipeline.

“Sunoco will keep on spilling and keep on polluting our water supplies until they shut down, and DEP has the power to do that,” said Alex Bomstein, an attorney with Clean Air Council, an organization that has sued the company over pollution. “There comes a point where you don’t give second and third and fourth chances.”

Del-Chesco United is planning a paddle-board protest on the lake Wednesday morning.

The DEP urged residents to report any suspected pollution events to a 24/7 hotline: 484-250-5900.

08/11/2020 - State regulators settle over proposed transfer of Three Mile Island’s Unit 2 reactor

State environmental regulators are withdrawing their objection to a proposed license transfer for Three Mile Island’s Unit 2 reactor, after raising concerns over an accelerated decommissioning at the site.