Drilling mud mixed with the mineral bentonite leaked from the hole that Sunoco Pipeline L.P. was boring underneath the lake in May 2017. It bled into the aquifer that their 95-foot-deep well had tapped into for decades. The crystal-clear water turned cloudy gray with little white blobs floating around.
“Within a short time, it went to hell,” Alice Mioduski said. Before that, their water was “the nectar of the gods. We never ran out of water.”
Now, they have a 1,500-gallon plastic tank in their backyard that provides water for showering and washing clothes — when it doesn’t freeze in the winter — paid for by Sunoco. A filtration system inside the house provides water for drinking and cooking.
The damage to streams and water supplies by the leaks and lost fluids during construction of the 307-mile Mariner East II pipeline is outlined in a 64-page indictment handed down last week by a statewide investigating grand jury. Energy Transfer L.P. of Dallas, a successor to Sunoco Pipeline, was slapped with 48 criminal violations of the Clean Streams Law. Fluids that were to return to the surface and be dumped into a drill pit for reuse simply disappeared underground or bubbled up to the surface.
The grand jury alleges Sunoco “criminally failed” to report and resolve the environmental hazards created by Mariner East II across the state. The energy giant is accused of failing to report environmental violations or underreporting those problems, permitting horizontal drilling where it did not have permits and having its drilling subcontractors use drilling fluids not permitted in Pennsylvania. The grand jury found Sunoco hired subcontractors for horizontal directional drilling who were not familiar with the state’s geology or regulations, and that those companies hired workers who were young and inexperienced.
The Mioduskis had a hand in that indictment against Energy Transfer, which has a Berks County address in the criminal complaint. Company officials did not respond to a request for a comment.
In the spring, the couple sat on a weathered picnic table in their backyard with an agent from the state Attorney General’s Office and told the story of what happened to their water, Alice Mioduski said.
They want Sunoco to drill another well on their property rather than having to maintain a filtration system to remove the pollution from their existing well for what could be years and years.
“We’re retired. We’re in our 70s. We just want to get our water back,” Ed Mioduski said.
‘Enforcement is critical’
The Mioduskis were not alone in having their water supply impacted by the pipeline project. The state Department of Environmental Protection received 183 complaints about water supply issues from the drilling, according to the attorney general’s report.
In some instances, those problems were created when high pressure used to force fluids into the bore hole while drilling beneath streams and lakes resulted in fractures in the rocks that allowed the fluids to flow into the aquifer used for well water. The fluids were to return to the surface and be dumped into a drill pit for treatment and reuse. Instead, they disappeared underground or bubbled up to the surface, according to the report.
The attorney general’s criminal complaint alleges six offenses — one felony and five misdemeanors — with multiple counts that occurred between February 2017 and August 2021. Under state law, the company would only pay a fine and restitution if it is found guilty, Attorney General Josh Shapiro said.
From the perspective of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, the charges against Energy Transfer for alleged Clean Stream Law violations should be applauded by drillers who are abiding by the state’s environmental regulations.
The state’s environmental regulations were not created for oversight of long linear industrial projects such as a statewide pipeline, said Davitt Woodwell, president of the council, a nonprofit based in Pittsburgh.
Even though the DEP had levied large fines because of violations, the “fairly aggressive” action by the attorney general shows that “enforcement is critical,” Woodwell said. “The attorney general is on point here.”
Mariner East II, one of three Mariner East pipeline systems traversing the state, cuts across 17 counties. It stretches from Washington County to the Marcus Hook natural gas refinery complex south of Philadelphia. In Westmoreland, the pipeline was laid from Rostraver Township through South Huntingdon, Sewickley, Penn, Salem, Loyalhanna and Derry townships.
Construction on the pipeline in Westmoreland County in 2017 resulted in 17 spills of an estimated 202,000 gallons of drilling fluid into various streams, according to FracTracker Alliance, a Camp Hill-based environmental organization that tracked spills caused by the project.
The grand jury accused Sunoco of failing to report multiple leaks along the eastern side of Loyalhanna Lake in 2017. An estimated 3,650 gallons of drilling fluid were lost during the operation, some of which polluted the lake, but the state accused Sunoco of frequently failing to report most of the losses.
There were more spills and lost drilling fluid in the Loyalhanna area than were reported to the DEP, the grand jury report found.
Over four years of the Mariner East II project, the DEP’s civil penalties against companies like Sunoco came to about $20 million. That figure amounts to “a slap on the wrist,” said Loyalhanna Watershed Association Executive Director Susan Huba. Sunoco generated $11.7 billion in 2017.
Sunoco and the DEP agreed to a consent decree in December 2017 requiring Sunoco to pay $790,250 in fines to the state. DEP said Sunoco had about 1,400 gallons of fluid discharges impacting a 17-acre section of the lake and surrounding area, or the fluids were “lost” underground.
But some good came out of the fine assessed for what happened at Loyalhanna Lake, Huba said. The state directed $30,000 of the money to an environmental initiative where the violation occurred.
Working in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, a protected fish habitat was placed in the lake last year, Huba said. Five hundred vertical plank boxes were dropped to the bottom of the lake to serve as protected places for fish to spawn, she said. An additional 20 wooden channel catfish-spawning boxes also were put into the lake.
The thousands of gallons of drilling mud that spilled from hundreds of places along the Mariner East II across Pennsylvania waterways over the past four years was a potent killer of aquatic life when it polluted streams, said James Pillsbury, hydraulic engineer for the Westmoreland County Conservation District.
“The sticky, very fine clay would coat the bottom of the stream and would smother the aquatic life,” Pillsbury said.
Spills around the region
An “inadvertent return” to the surface of the drilling fluids polluted Boatyard Run, a cold water fishery, and Spruce Run, a high-quality cold water fishery, both in northern Derry Township, the attorney general’s report said. The streams flow into the Conemaugh River.
The Forbes Trail Chapter of Trout Unlimited, based in Westmoreland County, was not notified of the drilling fluids spill when it occurred about four years ago, said Larry Myers, chapter president.
If the drilling fluids were oil-based, Myers said, it could have placed a sheen on the water that would have trapped the aquatic life, which trout depend upon. If it were a chemical base, it could have killed the aquatic life, Myers said.
An unnamed tributary of Sewickley Creek in Hempfield was polluted by a spill, according to the DEP consent decree.
Other spills occurred along the Pennsylvania Turnpike in North Huntingdon and along an unnamed tributary of Turtle Creek in Murrysville.
With all of the pipeline problems highlighted in the grand jury report, Woodwell of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council said it is clear that the environmental regulators need more funding. The attorney general’s report found that the department did not have the resources to hire geologists for review of the project, “nor did it respond to that reality.” Inspectors were needed to patrol the pipeline work.
“We need to give the DEP support,” Woodwell said.
To read more about what is happening with the Texas-based company, Energy Transfer Partners, check out the article titled ”