West Whiteland resident Thomas Allen suffered the consequences of a sinkhole that opened up in his backyard on Nov. 11 during a drilling for Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 pipeline.
The incident, referred to as an “inadvertent return,” was caused by Sunoco’s horizontal directional drilling (HDD) that released about 1,500 gallons of drilling mud—a mixture of bentonite clay and water—on Allen’s property, forming an eight-by-eight-foot sinkhole.
“This isn’t just a spill or inadvertent return, I might have to move out of my house,” said Allen. “My house may be condemned.”
Allen explained that after the incident, Sunoco’s cleanup crew came for one day to contain the spill but did not perform a complete cleanup. Sunoco fenced in the backyard and placed a piece of wood over the hole. “There’s still mud all over my yard. My backyard is unusable and I can’t even get to my shed,” said Allen.
Allen expressed dissatisfaction with the way Sunoco and the Department of Environmental Protection have been handling the situation.
“I haven’t heard from the DEP at all,” said Allen. “All I’ve got from the DEP was a Notice of Violation saying Sunoco knew about this since August and has been lying about it.”
In a Notice of Violation issued by the DEP to Sunoco on Nov. 16, the DEP claims that a third party, not Sunoco, notified them about the inadvertent return and that “there is a history of incidents with this drill.” The list of incidents date back to Aug. 18, when Sunoco reported to the DEP “losses of circulation” at the site.
The DEP also states in the notice that the drilling solution discharged on Allen’s property is an “industrial waste” and “appears to have caused ground subsidence and the potential to pollute groundwater, a water to the Commonwealth.”
Three years ago, Allen’s family allowed Sunoco to drill a trench in their yard to repair the original pipeline that had a crack in it. He said that since then Sunoco has not been transparent with their actions.
According to Allen, before the accident Sunoco would tell him nothing was wrong with his yard, but they would send unannounced employees to his property.
“I’d leave for work or to Wawa to get coffee and come back, and there were 15 Sunoco guys running around my yard,” said Allen. “They wait for you to leave.”
“I have to be a security guard in my own house,” said Allen. “Do you know how many hours I had to put in to make sure [Sunoco wasn’t] doing something illegal in my yard?”
Allen has not received any compensation from Sunoco thus far, nor a full assessment of the damage caused to his property.
“I asked Sunoco, ‘Is my house safe?’ And they couldn’t say yes or no. They have no idea,” said Allen.
Activists fighting to stop the pipeline have been concerned that the ground instability may affect Amtrak tracks, located near the back of Allen’s property.
In response, Sunoco Communications Manager Jeff Shields said: “The area is safe, it has been secured and will be fully restored at our expense. In regard to nearby properties and railroad tracks, we have encountered nothing in our studies or during construction that would adversely impact Amtrak tracks.”
According to Sunoco, drilling mud can rise through preexisting cracks in the soil to the surface during horizontal directional drilling. The company notes that HDD is “a less impactful method to install underground pipes rather than digging an open trench to bury the pipe.”
Shields said that Sunoco follows “contingency plans on how to respond as part of the environmental permits approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for the Mariner East 2 project.”
Mariner East 2, the 350-mile pipeline that will carry highly flammable natural gas liquids across Pennsylvania, is the second pipeline being built by Sunoco alongside the already existing Mariner East 1 pipeline.
Alyssa Wagner, English BSED major at West Chester University, believes the accident at Allen’s property may make people rethink where they want to buy their home.
“There are so many things that go into homeowning. Adding on top of that the fact that I’ll have to search and make sure there are no pipelines around my neighborhood in case something like that happens again?” said Wagner. “It definitely makes things more stressful.”
While the conclusion of Wagner’s search for the perfect home may not happen for a few years, others are currently on the same journey.
Maggie Whelan, who graduated in communication studies from WCU in 2014, is now looking to buy a house. Whelan is mostly looking for properties in Chester and Delaware counties, both areas affected by Sunoco’s pipelines.
Whelan said the incident at Allen’s property will change the way she looks for houses. “Especially where the pipeline is, I don’t necessarily want a home near there,” said Whelan.
Whelan believes Sunoco needs to be transparent and forward about everything that may affect homeowners and properties located near the pipeline.
“It’s not fair if anything is kept from a homeowner. If they are having a pipeline, they need to be clear about what could happen,” said Whelan. “We need to be informed of anything that could interfere with our home.”
Kelly Witman is a fourth-year student majoring in English with minors in linguistics and journalism. She can be reached at KW860698@wcupa.edu.