Workers at Snitz Creek. The pipe used for illegally diverting the creek can be seen in the background.

A guest post by Pam Bishop and Doug Lorenzen of Concerned Citizens of Lebanon County

How many violations should Sunoco Pipeline L.P. be allowed before the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recognizes that enough is enough?

On October 21, the DEP issued a Notice of Violation (NOV) to Sunoco for an Inadvertent Return (IR) at Snitz Creek in Lebanon County. This was its sixth NOV at the site since mid-August. In the most recent IR, Sunoco lost 200 gallons of drilling mud into the creek, a “wild trout stream”.

Importantly, this latest NOV also noted that an inspection at the site on the day after the IR occurred (October 20) revealed that a sandbag dam had been constructed and a corrugated plastic pipe was installed for a distance of over 200 feet to bypass the stream – apparently a complete diversion of Snitz Creek.

The drilling mud constitutes Industrial Waste and its discharge to waters of the Commonwealth without a permit is a violation of the Clean Streams Law and the creek encroachment (that is, the dam and pipe) without a permit is a violation of the Dam Safety and Encroachments Act.

Please tell the DEP what you think about this situation. There are directions at the end of this post.

An NOV with a strong warning. With this latest NOV, the DEP indicated it may have run out of patience with Sunoco’s repeated violations. The NOV announced the scheduling of a Clean Streams Law Section 609 “Informal Hearing” to be held before November 6 “to determine if Sunoco has failed and continues to fail to comply with any relevant rule, regulation, permit or order of the Department and/or if Sunoco has a lack of ability or intention to comply with the law as indicated by past or continuing violations.” The NOV said, based on the information to be gleaned at the informal hearing, the DEP “will determine whether to withhold issuance, renewal or amendment of permits required by the Clean Streams Law.”

This strong language is unusual (perhaps unique) for a Notice of Violation. The DEP has indicated the “hearing” is not open to the public.

The NOV requires that Sunoco “remove the sandbag dam, and corrugated plastic pipe (stream by-pass) from the stream” and submit a “restart report” by October 28. The DEP must give its approval before Sunoco may resume drilling at the Snitz Creek site.

When is an IR not an IR? In previous restart reports submitted this year, Sunoco described the installation of containment structures in the creek to catch the IRs and three relief wells beside the Creek “intended to reduce the pressure in the borehole and to redirect the IR discharges to locations outside the stream.” Vacuum trucks, storage tanks and pumps are used to recover the IRs and recirculate the fluid.

It should be noted that the DEP does not issue NOVs for the IRs captured within the containment structures but does issue NOVs for IRs occurring outside the containment structures and for drilling mud that overflows them.

Question: if the drilling mud spills cannot be stopped from reaching the stream, then does moving the stream to a different location mean that the IRs don’t count?

This was predictable, and fines don’t fix it. Sunoco’s HDD installation of the 16-inch pipeline (ME2X) at Snitz Creek this year is following the same predictable pattern at its previous HDD installation of the 20-inch (ME2) pipeline at Snitz Creek in 2017 and 2018. Sunoco has been in an endless cycle of drilling short distances, experiencing IRs and waiting for DEP approvals to restart.  It experienced seven IRs for which NOVs were issued during that 20-inch ME2 pipeline installation.

The geology at Snitz Creek is simply not suitable for HDD. The drill boring is more than 100 feet under the Creek and lies within a porous karst limestone geology characterized by fractures, voids, solution channels, cavities, and subsidence features.

Sunoco agreed to pay civil penalties for past IRs at Snitz Creek, just as it has for numerous other IRs at HDD locations along the Mariner East pipeline system. But civil penalties are not adequate compensation for the environmental harm and obviously no deterrent to repeated violations of environmental laws. Sunoco should not be allowed to pay to pollute.

Even before this most recent NOV was issued, on October 5 Clean Air Council, Concerned Citizens of Lebanon County and more than two dozen other environmental organizations signed on to a letter submitted to DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell demanding that the DEP immediately and permanently revoke all Mariner East construction permits.

You can help. It is imperative that you write immediately to the DEP and demand a halt to the HDD construction of the ME2X pipeline at the Snitz Creek site (also called North Zinns Mill Road HDD). Time is of the essence because your comments, to be considered, need to be filed before the informal hearing is held.

Here is how to file your comments with the DEP:

Email or mail a letter to Secretary Patrick McDonnell

Email: pmcdonnell@pa.gov

Postal mail:
PA Department of Environmental Protection
Office of the Secretary
16th Floor, Rachel Carson State Office Building
400 Market Street
P.O. Box 2063
Harrisburg, PA 17105-2063

Updated 10-27-20 to correct Secretary McDonnell’s email address.