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

When we last wrote about Sunoco’s pipeline work at the Snitz Creek HDD site back in October, the DEP had shut down drilling for one of the Dragonpipes there (ME2x) because Sunoco had had repeated violations at the site, and had dammed and diverted the stream without the required permits. In an unusually strongly-worded “Notice of Violation,” the DEP had told Sunoco it would not be permitted to resume work at the sight until an “informal hearing” had been held at which the DEP “will determine whether to withhold issuance, renewal or amendment of permits required by the Clean Streams Law.” (Only ME2x, the 16-inch pipeline, is affected. Work on ME2 was already completed at Snitz Creek.)

That hearing (which was not open to the public) has apparently been held and a resolution has been reached. Sunoco has agreed to pay $497,000 to DEP and $25,855 to the PA Fish and Boat Commission and to submit a cleanup and restoration plan and schedule for Snitz Creek.

Snitz Creek is classified as a “wild trout natural reproduction water” by the PA Fish and Boat Commission.  

A litany of violations. The “Consent Order and Agreement”, contains a long list of Sunoco’s violations of its drilling permit. The company is required to report both frac-outs (“inadvertent returns” in which drilling fluid escapes to the surface) and loss of circulation (volumes of drill fluid that disappear down the borehole and don’t return, ending up who knows where).

Drilling for ME2x at the Snitz Creek site began in May of 2020, and losses of circulation occurred almost immediately. Within three months, there had been 32 losses of circulation totaling 115,000 gallons of fluid, none of which were reported to the DEP. By September, frac-outs were reaching the surface. Between September 17 and October 19, twelve of them had been reported by Sunoco.

Then, on October 19, a massive frac-out occurred, involving 20 different locations. Sunoco constructed a sandbag dam and diverted the stream into a large corrugated pipe flume 200 feet long to bypass the affected area. It did this without the required permit or approval from the DEP. That’s when the DEP stepped in to shut down drilling.

Constuction can now resume, with conditions. Sunoco has submitted a “restart report” that satisfies the DEP and construction will resume. In addition to paying the fine and submitting the restoration plan mentioned above, Sunoco agreed to a series of measures designed to minimize future problems at Snitz Creek.

Among other things, Sunoco must submit daily drilling logs by noon the following day. These contain the data about how much drilling fluid went down the borehole and how much circulated back—the key to identifying loss of circulation and potential frac-outs. The company will also be required to file daily reports made by a “professional geologist”.

There will be additional fines for any frac-outs or unreported losses of circulation that occur: $5,000 per day for frac-outs within containment structures, $10,000 per day for frac-outs outside of containment structures, and $10,000 per day for unreported losses of circulation.

We may not have heard the end of Sunoco’s problems at Snitz Creek. The porous karst rock at the site has proved very troublesome for HDD drilling, and it’s not clear that Sunoco has solved that problem.