Sunoco Pipeline has paid the state Department of Environmental Protection a penalty of nearly a half-million dollars for numerous violations during construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline in eastern Pennsylvania.
The penalty, which was announced last week, involved a series of unauthorized discharges of drilling fluids, also known as inadvertent returns, into a creek in Lebanon County and the company’s failure to notify regulators of multiple losses of circulation, where drilling fluids don’t return to the surface. Between May and August, Sunoco failed to notify DEP of 32 losses of circulation, and between September and October the company did report 12 inadvertent returns.
An October inadvertent return affected about 20 locations along Snitz Creek, and Sunoco then installed a sandbag dam and took other measures to contain the discharges without obtaining a permit.
The Mariner East 2 is being built across the state by Sunoco, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer, to carry natural gas liquids (NGLs) such as propane, butane, and ethane from the Marcellus and Utica plays in the western part of the state to the Marcus Hook NGL hub in eastern Pennsylvania. However, it has had a series of environmental incidents during construction and faces continuing opposition from eastern Pennsylvania residents and environmental groups. In August, approximately 10,000 gallons of drilling mud spilled into a Chester County Creek, and then flowed into a lake, forcing a portion of it to be closed. There have also been issues with sinkholes opening in residential areas, and Sunoco agreed last year to change its construction methods and not use horizontal directional drilling in several areas after spills of drilling fluid.
Drilling mud is used for lubrication of cutting tools, like drill bits, and is used widely in the oil and gas industry. It is a mixture of chemicals and additives, but is largely comprised of bentonite clay, which is nontoxic. It’s unique in that when mixed with water, it expands and creates a gel-like substance that serves as a lubricant. However, it can be disruptive to plant and wildlife species when spilled into waterways.
In addition to the $497,000 in penalties paid to DEP, Sunoco also paid $25,855 to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. From the $497,000, a portion, $490,200 went to the Clean Water Fund, and $6,800 went to the Dams and Encroachments Fund.
Sunoco must submit a cleanup and restoration plan with a proposed implementation schedule for Snitz Creek. After paying the penalties, Sunoco was permitted by DEP to resume activities in the area the next day.
While this spill was in Eastern Pennsylvania, Western Pennsylvania has also seen similar incidents. In 2014, Sunoco was cited for a large spill into Little Mingo Creek in Washington County, which resulted in a fish kill.