The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued a new Notice of Violation (NOV) on November 16 concerning the recent frac-out and sinkhole. (See “Backyard frac-out and sinkhole near Exton”).

The sinkhole was caused by drilling for the Dragonpipe (the Mariner East 2 pipeline), and it turns out it was only the final event in a series of problems there. The NOV document reveals aspects of this story that we didn’t know about up to now. It concludes that Sunoco acted unlawfully.

Once again, it turns out that Sunoco disregards the law whenever it is convenient, just as it recently did in Berks County (“Sunoco drills where it is not permitted, then covers up the resulting frac-out”).

Here is the chronology that led up to the sinkhole event caused by the drill site that the DEP refers to as HHD Site S-3-0400, as revealed by the NOV. The indented quotes are taken directly from the NOV.

August 18: The first signs of trouble. Sunoco has run into areas where the drilling mud is disappearing and not circulating back to the drill site as it should. This is referred to in the NOV as “loss of circulation”. This means that there is some sort of large gap or crack in the rock, and he drilling mud is going there. Mud under pressure is required to lubricate the drill bit. If the pressure can’t be maintained,  forward progress will stop. The driller can try to use thicker mud to stop the leakage, but if the “void” is big enough, it won’t work and the hole must be abandoned. In our area, loss of circulation could well mean that the drill has hit an aquifer.

“Sunoco contacted the DEP and stated that, due to several losses of circulation the original pilot hole was going to be abandoned and grouted in and a new pilot hole was going to be drilled.”

August 24: The same problem occurs again.

“Sunoco reported loss of circulation at the site.”

 Is this still happening at the same pilot hole, or has Sunoco started a new one and immediately run into trouble? It is not clear.

September 24: A local citizen reported speaking to a Sunoco crew who were walking the right-of-way and discussing a possible problem under the nearby railroad tracks, used by SEPTA and Amtrak.

“DEP received a complaint about a potential ‘void’ under the SEPTA lines in the area.“

Could it be that drilling is undermining the rails? A sinkhole there would be very serious.

September 27: DEP sends out an inspector, resulting in a warning to Sunoco.

“Sunoco was reminded, once again, of the requirement to immediately notify the Department of losses of circulation. Sunoco was also advised to contact Amtrak about the possibility of voids under their tracks and to keep the Department apprised of any ongoing coordination with Amtrak. To date, no notice of any loss of circulation has been received from Sunoco, and Sunoco has not provided the Department with information about contacts they may have made with Amtrak on this issue. … ”

October 5: A frac-out occurs.

“Sunoco reported a release of drilling solution in uplands.”

Here, “uplands” just means no body of water is affected.

November 11: DEP is notified of a major frac-out by a third party. This was the frac-out and associated sinkhole in a residential backyard.

November 14: DEP sends out an inspector to look at the sinkhole. The inspector reports:

“The drilling solution…appears to have caused ground subsidence and the potential to pollute ground water…”

November 16: DEP issues the Notice of Violation. It is as highly critical of Sunoco as it possible to be in bureaucratic language:

“No notification for the above-described losses of circulation has ever been received from Sunoco. The Department is very concerned with Sunoco’s continued failure to provide required notifications for these incidents.”

“Sunoco’s failure to provide required notifications and reports …constitutes unlawful conduct…”

Things have gotten serious, and the DEP wants some answers. According to the NOV, by November 21, Sunoco is to provide:

  1. A detailed description of actions taking for frac-out containment and removal, and plans for remediation (including the subsidence area),
  2. A geologist’s assessment of what caused the problem, what measures were taken to prevent it, and what measures will be taken to prevent a recurrence,
  3. Answers to these five questions:
    1. Was the original pilot hole actually abandoned and grouted?
    2. Was the Aug. 24 loss of circulation at the new pilot hole?
    3. Were there any other losses of circulation?
    4. Why was the crew walking the right-of-way during the week of Sept. 18?
    5. Did any other anomalies happen?

We’ll see what the DEP has received come November 21.

My question is: now that it is crystal clear that Sunoco’s behavior is “unlawful”, who is willing to enforce the law? A fine will not stop Sunoco from violating the law. In the context of a multi-billion-dollar project, a DEP fine would be trivial. The only thing that will get Sunoco’s attention is the threat of shutting down construction of the pipeline. The DEP could do that. So could the courts. Or the Public Utility Commission. And the governor could make it happen. So who is willing to get serious with Sunoco?