Large shale gas pipelines like Mariner East tend to skirt densely-populated urban centers, instead snaking through rural areas to avoid large numbers of people. This strategy makes sense from a PR perspective, but the impacts are no less real for those who live in rural areas alongside the pipelines. Many of these residents are too geographically isolated to rally much backup against massive industry heavy-hitters like Sunoco in the event of property damage or pipeline malfunction.
Patrick Robinson, a resident of Hutchinson Hollow who hosts the Mariner East pipeline on his property, is one such impacted rural resident. Robinson once worked on pipeline construction himself, and is generally pro-pipeline, but has had nothing but trouble with Mariner East 2, which bisects the northwest part of his property. When I asked him about his experience with the pipeline, he laughed.
“We’ve been dealing with bad water since 2017,” he said, referring to his private well. “I’ve lived here since 2004. I had twelve years of living here with no water problems. Within a day and a half of the pipeline being dug, it went to crap.”
Robinson’s well, which he once used for all his fresh water needs, now can only be used for the toilet and shaving. Tests done by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) reported high levels of harmful bacteria, e. coli, and turbidity in his once-pristine resource. Now, Robinson’s 30-micron filters in the well clog every two or three days—before the pipeline was installed, he would change out 5-micron filters every ninety days.
Robinson has had little aid in holding the project accountable for its damages. Despite the evidence, DEP’s investigation into the matter came up “indeterminate,” meaning that they cannot say for certain that the pipeline ruined the well. The main barrier, they claim, is that Robinson did not test his well water before the pipeline installation began. In the meantime, Robinson has been forced to adapt his lifestyle.
“For water, I buy plastic bottles and gallon jugs for coffee and cooking,” he explained. “I buy a pallet or two whenever it goes on sale. Go downstairs in my house and you’ll see eighty cases of water. The well water we now use just for washing or anything causes molds and fungi everywhere. It’s bringing up organics, decaying matter.”
Mariner East entered Robinson’s property in 2015, when he leased a plot to Sunoco, deciding that he would rather steer their development to a certain section of the land than have eminent domain decide for him where it would be placed. When subcontractors arrived, they estimated the project would be finished by 2018. Now, six years later, they’ve just renewed another 6-month lease with Robinson.
And it’s not only the private well that has been contaminated. Since Mariner East 2’s construction, approximately an acre of Robinson’s property has transformed into a swamp. Previously, he mowed his grass there, but now can’t walk without sinking up to his knees in mud. Even four-wheelers fail in the terrain. “I pay property taxes and I can’t use the property. I can’t even cross the pipeline anymore because it’s so wet.”
Having worked on pipeline construction projects in the past, Robinson also has technical expertise and informed theories on what went wrong. “They didn’t put the soil back in the way they dug it up,” he said. “You can’t mix pea-gravel with clay and dirt. It forms an underground dam. They channeled the water down and put plugs in the creek so that it has nowhere to go but through soil.
“You go out to where the pipeline comes down, the way the water flows through there has changed. The pea-gravel is all mud now, there’s so much sediment gummed up in it. So it’s basically the same thing as having two French drains on both sides of a hill and letting it run into a basin where bacteria eat the waste. That’s how a septic tank works. That’s a swamp now, you can see the color of that water, orange-brown with rainbows on the surface, that’s not fuel oil, that’s from bacteria—from dead stuff being washed down.”
Trinity, a sub-contractor hired by Sunoco, did most of the construction linked to the changes in his property. Robinson described his shock at their on-the-job practices, including open hostility to his presence on his own private land. He explained that he saw workers throwing cans and bottles on the worksite, wrecking a truck into a bulldozer, and neglecting to wear proper personal protective equipment or “PPE.” When he complained, they flipped him off.
“Their trucks leaked oil and diesel fluid on the ground—I know things leak sometimes, but c’mon. They’d spin their tires in my grass and claim they were told to do that to get rid of mud. We had clumps of mud the size of basketballs that they never cleaned up. They’d block the gate into my shop area with their vehicles. It became hostile by the end. I’ve never seen anything so screwed up in my life.”
Sadly, thus far Robinson has had trouble earning the remediation he deserves. The land agent asked him to sign an agreement that would void Sunoco of any responsibility for the problem in order for them to fix it, which he politely refused. The DEP’s tests have shown the water to be contaminated, but, without a prior baseline test, they will not state that the water loss was anything more than coincidence. The Attorney General’s (AG’s) office, which monitors DEP, has noted “irregularities” in DEP’s investigation, but Robinson has little faith that they will solve his troubles.
“Trinity won’t talk to you. The land agents have a week-long drag. Sunoco and the DEP push it off from one person to another but nothing really happens. They say the next crew will take care of it, or that ‘we didn’t do this,’ or ‘there wasn’t prior testing done.’ I imagine things at the AG’s office work like molasses too. I’ll be waiting for that like I’m waiting for the Easter Bunny. When are they all going to do something for the landowners they’ve been screwing over?”
Meet Patrick and see his property in this video from Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services created in 2019.