backyard frac-out 11-11-17

Photo courtesy of Caroline Hughes

On Saturday, November 11, a serious frac-out occurred near Exton, PA. (I won’t give the exact location here, to protect the homeowners’ privacy.) It was caused by drilling for the Dragonpipe (Mariner East 2). Not only were residential yards flooded with drilling mud, but a sinkhole (in the foreground of the photo above) also opened up in one yard. Protect Penn-Delco posted a video documenting the frac-out and the associated cleanup efforts.

The photo also shows the wall of sandbags that were Sunoco’s first attempt to contain the mud. It continued to flow downhill, however, until a second wall of sandbags stopped it. The mud captured by the sandbags was pumped into the red truck in the background. For more detail on this event, please view the video. Among other things, it shows how the ground in the backyard has been turned into a spongy mess that yields when you walk on it (“almost like a waterbed”).

The homeowner reports that another frac-out had occurred three weeks earlier in the same area.

Residential frac-outs: happening all over. This is not the first frac-out on private, residential property in our area. Our very first frac-out, in Brookhaven, affected the front yards of homes along Chester Creek (in addition to the bed of the creek itself). Since then there have been frac-outs in people’s yards in Goshen, Middletown, Thornbury, and Edgmont Townships, and perhaps others.

And you don’t need to be right on the drilling route to have your yard affected. In at least two cases, the affected yards were 100 feet or more from the route of the drill. Frac-outs are caused because the drilling mud is under great pressure. Normally, the pressure causes it to flow back along the drill to the drill site. But if the mud can find an easier route to the surface, it will follow that route, which might cause it to surface somewhere other than directly above the drill. In the Brookhaven case, the drill was actually in the neighboring township of Aston when the frac-out occurred.

Normal and “anticipated”? In a recent guest editorial in a central-Pennsylvania newspaper, a Sunoco surrogate sought to play down the importance of frac-outs like these. He wrote: “It is not unusual for the drilling fluid to escape during operations and disperse underground following a path of cracks and fissures in the soil, which has been seen locally. This occurrence, known as ‘inadvertent return,’ is not uncommon. In fact, most builders and regulators alike anticipate and account for fluid migration during drilling…”

It is certainly likely that Sunoco anticipated these frac-outs, but residents apparently weren’t warned of this possibility. At least two that I know of who signed agreements with Sunoco have said this was not an issue they were made aware of. And homeowners without agreements, such as those in Brookhaven, never even knew that pipeline construction might affect them.

With lots a drilling still ahead, followed by “auguring” to enlarge the initial pilot hole, we can expect many more frac-outs to come.