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After Sunoco pipeline drilling taints private Chester County wells, critics worry: What’s next?

Pa. Environmental Hearing Board meets this week to hear water contamination concerns and Sunoco's defense of drilling for the Mariner East 2 project.

David Mano holds a sample of his private well water from the first day he realized it was tainted.
David Mano holds a sample of his private well water from the first day he realized it was tainted.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

When David Mano bought his home on Valleyview Drive in Exton in 2008, it was primarily for three reasons: the ranch-style house itself, its swimming pool and the water well.

For years, the water flowing from the well was "nearly perfect," Mano said.

"It was basically spring water," he said. "But now it's a moot point."

That's because the well and several others in the neighborhood of $300,000-$400,000 homes were tainted last month – possibly with groundwater and sediment – by Sunoco Pipeline LP's horizontal drilling for the $3 billion Mariner East 2 pipeline project.

Because of that water contamination and related spillage concerns, drilling for the Mariner East 2 pipeline in Exton and 54 other locations around the state was suspended last month by an environmental judge. On Friday, a judge ruled that Sunoco can resume work at 16 of 17 locations where Sunoco had specifically requested to continue drilling. Before drilling can resume at other locations, including in Exton, the state's Environmental Hearing Board in Harrisburg has set three days of hearings that begin Wednesday.

The judge ordered Sunoco to halt its horizontal drilling in response to a filing by environmental groups that the process has polluted local waterways in Pennsylvania.

The hearings pit the Clean Air Council, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and the Mountain Watershed Association against the state, Sunoco and the state's Department of Environmental Protection. Mano plans to testify at the hearings.

Mariner East 2 is a 350-mile expansion of Sunoco's current Mariner East pipeline system, designed to carry natural gas liquids from the vast Marcellus and Utica shale gas fields — through 17 Pennsylvania counties to Sunoco's Marcus Hook Industrial Complex on the Delaware River. The project has a long and complex legal and regulatory history, including Sunoco's contentious court victory designating it as a public utility and eligible to take land for the project by eminent domain.

Residents in the region, advocates and local politicians are concerned that more problems are imminent if Sunoco resumes drilling. Late last month, a coalition of local environmental groups from suburban Pennsylvania said it had gathered about 1,200 signatures of residents who want the Mariner East 2 project halted because of water contamination fears.

State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D), who represents Chester County, is among pipeline opponents. He said he has lost confidence in Sunoco and the DEP because of the Exton water contamination — and worries that will happen again.

"I have significant concerns of whether they're up for the job and able to do the task," said Dinniman. "They certainly haven't shown it so far."

Sunoco initially reported to West Whiteland Township around June 23 that its drilling caused water to drain from the private aquifer and lower the water table, causing the contamination, said Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields. But the company continued drilling and didn't notify residents because, at that point, there was no indication of water contamination, Shields said.

But at a Fourth of July party on July 3, Mano, his fiancée Diane Salter and a friend drank some of their well water and realized it tasted "terrible." Mano, who described the cloudy, brown water as"dirty-tasting," and other residents called West Whiteland Township's Board of Supervisors. The officials notified Sunoco and Sunoco voluntarily halted drilling in the area that day.

The Sunoco spokesman said the company resumed drilling on July 8 but stopped again on July 13 out of precaution to ensure that no further contamination would occur.

Initially, the clouding of the water in Exton was suspected to be from non-toxic bentonite clay, commonly used in drilling as a lubricant. But Shields said the company's tests on the wells of 30 homes show only groundwater and sediment in their water, not bentonite clay. Independent tests on Mano's water at his expense are pending.

To obtain the permit, Sunoco was required to offer pre-drilling, private well testing to homeowners with wells within 150 feet of areas of proposed drilling. Shields said a number of homes across the state opted to have their wells tested, including some of the 14 affected Chester County households.

Shields said post-drilling water tests compared to the baseline results showed differences in turbidity, or cloudiness, and some elevated iron measures - changes that would affect the taste and smell of the water - but no changes in key health-affecting content.

Sunoco reacted quickly to help the Chester County residents reporting fouled water, supplying bottled water and household water filtration systems and offering hotel rooms for residents to use. The company also offered to connect the affected properties to West Whiteland's public water supply, operated by Aqua Pennsylvania.

Mano and Salter's home, along with the other 13 other homes known to be affected, will soon be connected to the public water system. The families are being supplied bottled water by Sunoco but have been told by the energy company that their water is safe for showering.

Sunoco sat down with concerned residents last month, offering each of the affected households $60,000, according to two people familiar with the negotiations. Shields declined to discuss details of the negotiations.

Mano said a reading of the agreement reveals a stipulation that residents taking the offer would agree not to take any legal action against Sunoco. He said Sunoco representatives had said in the meeting, though, that there was no such condition.

"They straight-up lied to us," he said.

Shields, however, was emphatic that Sunoco was "very clear and explicit to the residents about what the agreement says and what it does not say."

Mano has no plans to sign the agreement but he said he believes many of the residents have already agreed to it. Several of the other affected residents declined to be interviewed for this story.

Other residents in the pipeline's path are concerned that their wells could also be contaminated — and some say they don't live near a public water supply to tap into if necessary. Take Karen Katz of Edgmont Township in Delaware County, whose home on Heather Hills Lane is near . Drilling has begun near her home on Heather Hills Lane, and she believes there is "a significant possibility" that her private well could become contaminated. But there is no public water source available in her township, she said.

"How long would I have to go without water? Nobody will address that," Katz said. "Nobody will tell me how they're going to protect us."

State Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky (D., Delaware County) has called for a halt to the pipeline construction. She said there were 61 spills of drilling fluid between April and June — and she expects more if drilling continues.

"We have a responsibility to show people that their water is safe," she said. "If Sunoco can't keep their water safe, then the permit should be revoked."

Shields acknowledged that there have been several bentonite spills along the drilling route. But he also noted that the drilling fluid being used for the pipeline is nontoxic, consisting of nontoxic bentonite and potable water.

Joseph Minott, the executive director of the Clean Air Council, said Sunoco's drilling permit was "problematic from the beginning" and called on the DEP to rescind it and reissue the permit with new requirements. Alex Bomstein, an attorney for the council, said the permit allows Sunoco to drill where it is unsafe because of the area's geology and population density – and that includes Exton.

"(The Department of Environmental Protection) should have focused on that and ensured that Sunoco took extra precautions," such as rerouting the pipeline away from such areas, he said.

Shields said that Sunoco is working closely with the DEP to ensure that private wells are identified in advance and protected going forward.

Mano, meanwhile, is simply concerned about when he and the other impacted residents will have clean water to drink. The aquifer that Aqua Pennsylvania pulls from for its public water is down the road from his home, he said.

Shields said that no public wells have been tainted by the drilling, but Mano said he's worried that if the Sunoco drilling could ruin his private well, it could also endanger that public-supply aquifer.

"If it can happen to our well, why can't it happen to an Aqua well? If they wreck public water, then nobody has water to drink," Mano said.