How much does the Mariner East Pipeline threaten Lebanon’s Snitz Creek aquifer?

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As construction of the Mariner East Pipeline proceeds throughout Pennsylvania, a quiet crisis may be emerging underneath Snitz Creek, the tributary of the Quittapahilla that runs through downtown Lebanon.

Mariner East 1 and Mariner East 2 run much of their course along the same right of way across the Commonwealth. Construction of the second pipeline has been intermittent as the courts and government parlay with Sunoco, which owns the project. As this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette illustration shows, Lebanon lies in the pipeline’s path, and has received its share of drilling fluid spills so far. StateImpact PA has reported that Sunoco is encountering a high frequency of spills and DEP violations at the site.

Snitz Creek lies in the path of the pipeline and so the Sunoco engineers must thread underneath the creek through karst, a geological formation of carbonate bedrock (limestone and dolostone) that dissolves relatively easily with water. In addition to the spills of drilling fluid which add sediment to an already sediment-laden creek bed, environmental advocates worry that the disturbing of the karst could lead to unanticipated disruptions in local geology.

Previously Philly.com’s Andy Maykuth has reported on how Philadelphia-area homeowners were disturbed by Sunoco’s Mariner construction, with some saying that their wells had been contaminated by the activity.

Philly.com interviewed David Mano, who says that the well at his Exton home became contaminated as seen above after Sunoco began construction on the second pipeline.

Pennsylvania’s geological surveyors described the Snitz Creek geology as follows: Thick-bedded, medium- to coarsely crystalline dolomite, in part oolitic, containing laminated limestone and sandstone interbeds. They assessed the risk of encountering a void, or sinkhole, as “low”. But what happens if they’re wrong?

Local activist group Concerned Citizens of Lebanon County has been raising the issue, as have numerous other entities protecting the Delaware watershed. The Lebanon Daily News has written about their concerns, as well as the West Cornwall residents who believe that Sunoco had in fact already contaminated the local aquifer.

As construction proceeds, Snitz Creek could face existential threats – further aquifer contamination, accelerated sinkhole activity, and additional sediment flow. Not to mention the more intrinsic threats that come with carrying high volumes of combustible material across such distances and landscapes.

As Pam Bishop of Concerned Citizens of Lebanon County told StateImpact PA:

This is outrageous. How many times will DEP allow the restart of HDD at this site when — obviously due to the limestone karst geology — the same result occurs, endangering the creek, the groundwater system and private drinking water wells in the vicinity?

Should construction of Mariner East 2 be halted? Or is this the natural cost of progress? For consideration here are some old images of Snitz Creek from times long gone by, collected by the Quittapahilla Watershed Association.

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