NOV 8-24-20

On August 20, the Department of Environmental Protection sent Sunoco two “Notices of Violation” related to construction of the Dragonpipe (Mariner East pipeline system). One Notice (the really significant one) concerned the release of drilling mud into Marsh Creek Lake and the other concerned the frac-out at the Shoen Road drill site. Both sites are in Chester County.

On the same day (presumably by coincidence) the DEP also issued a $355,000 fine for previous violations at other locations. This is a minor matter which I will touch on again at the end.

The Marsh Creek spill got the DEP’s attention. The Marsh Creek NOV letter is quite different from all the DEP’s recent NOV letters. The letter is five pages long — unusual, if not unique, for one of these NOV letters. It goes far beyond the DEP’s typical “boilerplate” (copy-and-paste) language to require a lot of information specific to the Marsh Creek incident. It suggests that the DEP is paying closer attention to this particular situation.

The letter outlines the basics of the frac-out, the associated sinkhole (“subsidence event”), and the pollution of Marsh Creek Lake. It lists 16 items for which a response is required. Some are simple questions (What are the “super sacks” noted in the drilling logs? What is a “donut” and a “washover tool”?) But most of the items are more substantive.

Some items point to errors or inconsistencies in Sunoco’s reporting:

  • Some of the drilling logs kept by Michaels, Sunoco’s contractor, seem to be missing. Are they?
  • The calculation of how much drilling mud was lost seems to omit some important factors and must be redone.
  • Explain why a 500-gallon loss of drilling mud was reported on March 3 (as required by regulations), but a loss of 20,000 gallons in the first week of June was not.
  • Explain how Bentonite-based mud was mixed on some occasions with no reported use of water.

Other items require actual work on Sunoco’s part. Some of it could take a while. The company must provide:

  • Detailed descriptions, photographs, and monitoring data of the site and the cleanup actions it has taken so far
  • A detailed plan describing planned steps for remediation of the wetland at the frac-out and sinkhole site, the stream leading to the lake, and the reservoir itself
  • “Among other things, data collected documenting the initial and current site conditions, separated as specified by wetland, tributary, and reservoir should detail:

(a) A geospatial representation of the survey area, impact area, remediation area, and other limits of disturbance, investigation, or ingress/egress.
(b) Characterization of the reservoir substrate, tributary substrate, linear and longitudinal profiles, and pool/riffle complexes.
(c) Quantification and characterization of nutrient, carbon, and trace metal flux between the reservoir substrate and water column.
(d) Quantification and characterization of aquatic plantonic and macrophytic plant communities and terrestrial plant communities.
(e) Quantification of hydrologic impacts, including surface/groundwater flowpaths and subsurface aquifers/hyporheic zones.
(f) Delineation and mapping of the floodway.
(g) Delineation of the floodway along both trib and wetland, including delineation of pasture, shrub coverage, and tree coverage with identification of dominant species within the delineated floodway.”

  • A detailed schedule of assessment and cleanup activities
  • A detailed description of geophysical testing to be conducted at the site, including resisitivity, seismicity, and gravity testing; as well as a survey of the local geology for underground channels that may have been involved

This represents a significant escalation in enforcement, compared with other recent NOV letters. It remains to be seen what the result will be in practice.

The hundreds of people and dozens of organizations who have raised their voices in protest over the Marsh Creek Lake pollution may have been a part of the reason for the DEP’s more aggressive stance. The number of people viewing the Marsh Creek-related Facebook posts is approaching half a million—unheard of in the context of Mariner East. People are out protesting in the midst of a pandemic. This event has unleashed a public furor unlike anything that happened previously.

The Shoen Road NOV. The Marsh Creek and Shoen Road NOVs bring Sunoco’s total to at least 113 by my count. Most of them are utterly routine. Sunoco spills drilling mud into a stream or wetland, the DEP issues an NOV letter asking Sunoco what caused it and how it will be avoided if work continues, Sunoco replies with a boilerplate report that describes its “best practices”, and the DEP responds by sending a form letter allowing work to resume.

The NOV letter relating to the frac-out at Shoen Road merely follows that standard pattern. It requires three items from Sunoco:

  • A report that “examines the cause of the discharge and evaluates strategies to be implemented to avoid a recurrence.”
  • “Details of all of the alternative steps considered/analyzed to prevent future IRs.”
  • Since groundwater has been flooding the drill site, the DEP also wants “the average daily flow rate of the groundwater discharge.”

The three-page letter is mostly boilerplate that contains the same text as previous NOVs (which have almost always been two or three pages long). One hopes the DEP will now be keeping a more watchful eye on this drill site, but their past performance doesn’t give grounds for optimism. It continues to be up to local citizens to call violations to the DEP’s attention.

And then there’s the fine. As noted above, the DEP also issued a fine of $355,000 for violations documented in previous NOVs. This is the result of a “consent agreement” negotiated with Sunoco and finalized earlier in August.

The violations occurred between August 2018 and April 2019. By my count, there were 21 violations in 8 counties during that period.

The fine is trivial, in the context of a multi-billion-dollar project that, if completed, will generate three or four times the amount of this fine in revenue every single day. We can assume it will have no effect on Sunoco’s practices (which has been the case with previous DEP fines). Sunoco has been refusing to pay DEP fines issued in connection with the Revolution pipeline explosion in western Pennsylvania. It is unclear whether previous fines involved with Mariner East have been paid.

Support Safety 7. I don’t think we would have this action from the DEP without the support of this community. Now we need the PUC to act. You can help by supporting the Safety 7 case. Details are here.