Sunoco’s Mariner East pipeline is, yet again, the cause of a major environmental incident. The 350-mile long pipeline project is being built to move natural gas and gas products from the Marcellus shale basin across the Commonwealth, and to neighboring states.
In this most recent accident, approximately 10,000 gallons of drilling mud was spilled into Marsh Creek in Chester County, Pa., which then flowed into Marsh Creek Lake. Residents noticed a milky consistency and appearance of the lake water, which prompted an investigation by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
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 “thixotropic fluid”. Thixotropic fluids, when disturbed, such as by shaking or stirring, change into a gel-like consistency, which makes bentonite clay a perfect lubrication additive for drilling fluids. It is a nontoxic substance, and is classified as a “special waste” by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, but can be disruptive to plant and wildlife species in instances such as this spill.
This accident could not have occurred at a much worse time. The natural gas industry has become a major target for PA Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who has recently filed criminal charges against several natural gas operators in the state. While Sunoco and its subsidiary Energy Transfer have not been charged, Shapiro announced last year that he was joining with the Delaware County district attorney to investigate numerous incidents, including spills and sinkholes. Most recently, a welding technician who worked on the pipeline pleaded guilty to falsifying welding documents on his work, which could have had disastrous consequences if a weld were to fail. For his crime, the technician could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Many citizens in the east of Pennsylvania have been outspoken about their issues with the Mariner East project, and have called for its construction to be halted, putting pressure more pressure on state agencies to investigate the project thoroughly for other criminal acts. DEP has not yet issued notices of violation against Sunoco, but continues to investigate the spill.