raystown lake 1-19-20
Raystown Lake, with the Mariner East right-of-way shown in red. Over a million of gallons of drilling mud disappeared here, with much of it ending up in the lake.

The $30 million fine associated with the Revolution pipeline explosion grabbed the January headlines, but the details of the pollution Sunoco caused at Raystown Lake are just as important: they show Sunoco’s willingness to ignore environmental regulations if it suits their business goals. The “Consent Order and Agreement” that the DEP issued on January 3 in the Raystown case lays out a sequence of events in which Sunoco hid its violations in drilling under the lake and failed to correct them, time after time.

About Raystown Lake. Raystown Lake, in a rural part of Huntingdon County, is the largest lake that is entirely within Pennsylvania’s borders. Because the Army Corps of Engineers built the dam and owns the surrounding land, there are no private lakefront homes and there is forest to the water’s edge in most places. The lake and surrounding area is a popular place for boating, fishing, camping, hiking, and scuba diving. According to Wikipedia, the lake gets about 1.5 million visitors annually. It is a prized part of Pennsylvania’s parklands.

Raystown Lake stretches along a north-south valley for more than 25 miles, and the Mariner East right-of-way cuts across the middle of it.

The problems at Raystown Lake. HDD drilling for the 20-inch pipeline began in early 2017. Drilling for the 16-inch pipe began in the fall of 2017. It was only in December of 2017 that Sunoco reported any problems, but the DEP was to learn that the problems had started far earlier.

On December 11, 2017, Sunoco reported a “loss of circulation” (LOC) in which 2,000 gallons of drilling mud were lost into the borehole for the 16-inch pipe. (For readers who are unfamiliar with LOCs, there is a more detailed description at the end of this post.) On December 20, Sunoco reported an “inadvertent return” (IR, or “frack-out”) on the ground surface near the lake.

It was only months later, in a report submitted on March 5, 2018, that Sunoco admitted to more LOCs prior to the December 20 IR. There had been LOCs on December 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 19, and 20. According to the plan that Sunoco had filed with its permit application, each of these should have been reported at the time it occurred. And these were not small events: almost 1,000,000 gallons of drilling mud was lost down the borehole, and Sunoco had no idea where it went.

Then, nine months later, Sunoco filed a report on December 6, 2018, revealing that a lot of the drilling mud had ended up in the lake, presumably via an underwater inadvertent return. The December report indicated that an area of 2.55 acres of the lake bottom was a “possible impact area.”

Wait, there’s more. But that turned out to be only the beginning of the revelations. On February 18, 2019, Sunoco reported that similar problems had occurred with the HDD for the 20-inch pipe, dating back to the spring of 2017 (almost two years earlier). There had been 39 separate LOCs between April 9, 2017 and October 30, 2017, which Sunoco had never reported, all in violation of Sunoco’s permits. 30 of the LOCs had occurred after Sunoco had filed a revised HDD plan (on August 8, 2017) which required Sunoco to notify the DEP whenever an LOC occurred. The DEP had been notified of only one.

On July 16, 2019, Sunoco filed another report about drilling mud on the lake bottom. At this point, it covered an estimated 8.06 acres. Sunoco estimated that it represented 208,555 gallons of drilling mud (but given that 3 million gallons had disappeared down the boreholes, it seems likely that the amount was far greater).

All of this is clear evidence that Sunoco had chosen to cover up its problems. Sunoco must have known that if the DEP had been aware of what was happening, it would likely have shut down drilling and pressed for a new plan that would avoid the LOCs and IRs. Rather than risk that outcome and slow down construction, Sunoco decided not to make its required reports and just kept drilling. As a result, a large section of the lake bottom has been polluted. We don’t know to what extent the lake water itself has been tainted by components of the drilling mud.

Penalties and corrective actions. The DEP is fining Sunoco almost $2 million for its violations at Raystown Lake. Half of the money will go into the state’s Clean Water Fund and half into the Dams and Encroachment Fund. In addition, Sunoco is to submit a “Fish Habitat Improvement Plan” which will help to restore the lake bottom to a useable state for the fish population. The value of the plan is to be “no less than $1,155,000”, but if Sunoco wants to skip preparing it, the company can just contribute that amount of money to the Pennsylvania Lake Management Society, the Friends of the Reservoirs, or another non-profit that the DEP is willing to approve.

In other words, Sunoco will spend a maximum of about $3 million by way of atonement for its violations. That is a trivial sum for Sunoco, amounting to about 2-3 days of revenue from Mariner East, once it is fully operational. To me, this case is a textbook example of regulatory failure. The message to Sunoco, and anyone else regulated by the DEP, seems to be that you can do whatever you feel like if you are willing to pay a few million dollars after the fact.

Explanation of “Loss of circulation”.  The term “loss of circulation” is prominent in the discussion of Sunoco’s violations at Raystown Lake. Here is an explanation of what that means.

Sunoco used horizontal directional drilling (HDD) to drill a tunnel under the lake through which the pipe could be pulled. The HDD method involves pumping drilling mud down the drill pipe to its leading tip, where the pressure of the mud turns the drill bit, creating the pilot hole. The mud leaves the pipe and circulates back to the drill site along the outside of the drill pipe. The hole is drilled slightly larger than the drill pipe to allow for this return circulation. Back at the drill site, rock chips and debris are filtered out of the drilling mud, which is then re-used. After the pilot hole is complete, it is enlarged to the diameter needed for the pipeline.

Normally, the amount of drilling mud returning to the drill site is approximately the same as the amount sent down the drill pipe. However, if the drill bit hits a large crack or void, the drilling mud will flow into that space instead of returning to the drill site. That is known as “loss of circulation” (LOC). If the mud is lost into a crack or an area of loose rock that leads to the surface, the loss of circulation will cause an “inadvertent return” (IR) or “frac-out” and the mud will emerge at the surface.