I recently wrote about Sunoco/ETP’s plan to install the Dragonpipe (the Mariner East 2 pipeline) via an open trench instead of horizontal directional drilling (HDD) in the vicinity of the Chester County library. If that goes ahead, it will destroy much of the forest and wetland that gives the library its pleasant environment. Sunoco/ETP used the excuse that the local water utility, Aqua, was concerned about damage to aquifers from which it draws drinking water.

That’s a good cause for concern. But it could also be just an excuse for something Sunoco/ETP wants to do anyway.

Sunoco’s HDD problems. At least half of the pipeline in Delaware and Chester counties (and virtually all of it in residential areas) is planned to be installed using HDD. But Sunoco/ETP has been stymied by HDD problems. In some areas, it is chronic frac-outs. In others, it is punctured acquifers. And in others, it is apparently just drilling problems, perhaps due to drillers working in unfamiliar rock formations.

The company was already having problems prior to the August settlement agreement with Clean Air Council and two other groups. That agreement requires geological reports at dozens of HDD sites, either where frac-outs have occurred or where the geology suggests there may be problems. The reports have to be filed, followed by a public comment period, before drilling can resume. To date, Sunoco/ETP has filed only 8 of those reports, five in September and three in October. And as new frac-outs occur, new sites requiring reports are added to the list.

If you can’t drill ‘em, trench ‘em. Sunoco has recently been approaching landowners where it previously had planned HDD to try to get their consent for open-cut trenching. There are signs that this may be Sunoco’s strategy from now on. In a recent issue of the Cumberland Valley Sentinel there is a guest editorial by Bob Godsey, a Texas geologist and Sunoco/ETP surrogate. In the editorial, Godsey argues that having to start and stop HDD is hurting construction of the Dragonpipe. He writes:

“Inadvertent returns [frac-outs] have been blown out of proportion, which has pressured regulators to halt drilling to revise drilling plans. Once plans are approved, HDDs are allowed to resume. That approach works well in a vacuum, but it ignores the environmental risk of idling a drill underground. It is difficult to speculate what the worst case scenario could be, but the start-and-stop approach could risk increased harm via collapse of the borehole. At the end of the day, the environmental risk could be even greater than simply using an open-cut approach.”

 Is open-cut trenching environmentally safer? Godsey never explains why collapse of the borehole would cause environmental risk. I suspect that he really means it could force Sunoco/ETP to bore a new hole. They would rather just cut a trench through streams, wetlands, and everyone’s back yard. At least that way, they wouldn’t need any do-overs.

Godsey complains that “A pipeline company should not be overly punished because it sought to employ a more environmentally friendly approach to building a pipeline project, but this could be the case with Mariner East 2.” He concludes, “let’s do things by the book: Write the rules and stick to them. Quit moving the goalposts on the Commonwealth’s energy producers.”

But Sunoco/ETP brought this on themselves. If they had started out paying attention to the rules (like residential zoning and setbacks) instead of ignoring any restriction that didn’t suit them, they would be in far less trouble now. And by the way: since when is this pipeline a “Commonwealth energy producer”? It’s a funnel to a European plastics operation, nothing more.

We should take Godsey’s editorial as fair warning: wherever Sunoco/ETP finds resistance to HDD, they will attempt to switch to open cut. If they are allowed to do that, it is a step backward in terms of safety (because a pipe 40 feet down is safer than one 4 feet down), and a disaster in terms of our trees and wetlands.