Area where Sunoco has been ordered to reroute ME2. The red line is the current route; the dashed orange line is the alternative.

In an administrative order issued today (September 11, 2020), the Department of Environmental Protection has told Sunoco that it must re-route the path of the Dragonpipe (20-inch Mariner East 2 pipeline) farther away from Marsh Creek Lake, the drinking-water reservoir into which Sunoco has spilled thousands of gallons of drilling fluid. This is a serious step for the DEP to take: it will entail serious costs and set back construction by months. It will require acquiring new easements and filing new plans with the DEP.

Although the major cause for this order was the polluting of Marsh Creek Lake in July-August of this year, Sunoco has a history of frac-outs (“inadvertent returns” or “drilling-mud spills”) at this site. The DEP cites two previous occurrences in 2017 during the installation of the 16-inch ME2X pipeline at this site. One occurred during the process of drilling the pilot hole, and one during the reaming (enlarging) process.

Because of those frac-outs, Sunoco was required by a 2017 legal agreement to file a re-evaluation of the route. In its re-evaluation, Sunoco argued that although there was a “technically feasible” alternative route, the existing route was preferable. Sunoco claimed that any frac-outs that might occur could be “readily contained and cleaned up with minimal affect to natural resources.” That turned out not to be the case.

The alternative route. In its re-evaluation, Sunoco outlined the alternative route that it then argued against using. This alternative route, Sunoco said, would leave the present route “prior to this HDD’s northwest entry/exit point to proceed north, cross under the Pennsylvania Turnpike, then proceed east for 0.7 miles parallel to the turnpike, cross Little Conestoga Road, then turn south, cross under the turnpike, and then re-intersect the existing project route just east of this HDDs southeast entry/exit point.” An approximation of that route (as best I can envision it based on Sunoco’s description) is shown as a dashed orange line on the map above. The red line on the map represents the existing route.

In arguing against the alternative route in its re-evaluation, Sunoco noted “The route would still cross two Waters of the Commonwealth [tributary creeks to Marsh Creek Lake] and possible forested wetlands, and would pass in near proximity or immediately adjacent to five residential home sites. Both crossings of the turnpike would require ‘mini’ HDD’s or direct pipe bores to achieve the required depth of cover under the highway.” Sunoco’s argument against the alternative route (and in favor of the current one) won the day back when the DEP’s reviewed Sunoco’s re-evaluation, but now the DEP has changed its mind.  

The damage. In support of the case for changing the route, the DEP’s administrative order goes on to list the damage that Sunoco has caused. The DEP noted that not only is Marsh Creek Lake a drinking water reservoir, Marsh Creek State Park (with more than 1,000,000 visitors each year) is one of the most popular state parks in Pennsylvania. 33 acres of Marsh Creek Lake had to be closed to the public because of the spill. The wetland near the frac-out and two tributaries to Marsh Creek Lake were “coated with a thick layer of drilling mud.” “A plume of drilling mud filled a cove of Marsh Creek Lake.”

In addition to the frac-out, there was a sinkhole (“subsidence event”). “The subsidence event allowed drilling fluids into the underground horizon and the wetland, adversely impacting the functions and values of the wetland, and constituting a discharge of industrial waste to groundwater…”

Sunoco’s restart request is not accepted. After a frac-out, Sunoco must submit a Restart Report, which the DEP must approve before construction can resume. This has generally been a routine process. Sunoco submitted this report on August 17 (a week after they had reported the frac-out). The company proposed additional sandbagging at the frac-out point. It asserted that if another frac-out were to occur, it would be contained and cleaned up.

This time, the DEP did not approve the Restart Report. Ultimately, it issued today’s Administrative Order instead, telling Sunoco to cease all construction at the site and re-route the pipeline.

What Sunoco must do now. The Administrative Order lays out the steps that Sunoco must now take.

  • It must stop all activity at the HDD site except what is required to stabilize the site, to prevent runoff, and to prevent additional drilling-mud pollution. “In no event shall Sunoco undertake any pipeline installation activities at the site…, including drilling or drilling-related preparation and drilling support activities, or the installation of casing, unless expressly authorized by the Department in writing.”
  • It must “take all steps necessary”, including submitting applications and plans to the DEP, to implement the alternative route.
  • Within 30 days, it must submit a report “that fully explains” how the frac-out and subsidence events occurred.
  • Sunoco must repair the damage caused to the lake and wetlands “by restoring and remediating impacted aquatic life, biota, and habitat, including the functions and values of the impacted wetlands resources, and all impacted recreational uses, to a condition equal to or better than that in place before the incidents occurred.” The company will be required to monitor and report on the state of the impacted areas of the wetland and lake quarterly for two years and annually for five years.
  • Sunoco must plug the borehole with grout, or the equivalent.

If Sunoco wants to appeal anything in this order, it has 30 days to do so.

The impact. Assuming Sunoco does not successfully appeal this order, it will have a significant impact on Mariner East construction. Any appeal would presumably go to the Environmental Hearing Board, which is often slow to act. (Sunoco has used this fact to its advantage in the past.)

If Sunoco does end up having to re-route the pipeline, it will have to secure easements from the landowners, which may not be quick or easy. It will have to file new plans with the DEP (which will require new studies of the geology involved) and it will have to get DEP approval of the plans. That will take time. The net effect will probably be many months of delay.

Meanwhile, the PUC will be making its decision on the Safety 7 case (final hearings for which are happening in a few weeks). Will that decision shut down the pipeline, or trigger major changes to it? That’s still unknown.

Sunoco’s parent company, Energy Transfer, has announced Mariner East completion delays on almost every one of its quarterly financial-analyst calls. This DEP Administrative Order will surely result in more delays, and more unhappy investors.

Energy Transfer faces uncertainty on many other fronts: the legal problems with the Dakota Access pipeline, the reduced oil and gas demand due to the pandemic (leaving much of the capacity of Energy Transfer’s pipelines unneeded), the ethane glut in the overseas markets that Mariner East depends on for its sales, and propane storage levels practically overflowing.

Energy Transfer’s financial situation is in flux and its future is uncertain. This promises to be a difficult time for the company.

What you can do right now. The final Safety 7 hearings begin on September 29. Although the lawyer is offering his services for free, funds are urgently needed for court costs and expert witness fees.  You can help through your financial support for the Safety 7 case. Any amount, small or large, is a help. Details are on the Safety 7 GoFundMe site here.