Loyalhanna slurry spills messy but likely not toxic
About a half dozen of Bush Recreation Area's 44 campsites were occupied Friday morning, and campground host Art Cunningham hoped at least five more would be filled for the day — despite a rainy forecast and loud machinery moving earth after pipeline drilling ceased at the site bordering Loyalhanna Lake.
Workers repaired some of the damage done when a lubricating slurry used in horizontal drilling for Sunoco Pipeline's Mariner East II line broke through the ground at the Loyalhanna Township site, including near restrooms uphill from a boat launch and parking lot that isn't far from the drill pad just outside the park boundary.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the lake and recreation area, reported 40 such releases of the slurry — known in industry lingo as "inadvertent returns," when the material follows an underground fissure to the surface. As much as 80 gallons at a time of the muddy mix of water and bentonite clay came to the surface while drilling was under way for a 20-inch pipe from May through mid-July, the Corps said.
"There have been returns in the parking lot and in the hillside downhill from the drill point. Also within the unnamed tributary going into the lake," said Jessica Kane, erosion control specialist for the Westmoreland Conservation District. Kane, who has been inspecting the unintended slurry releases, said Sunoco's contractors "have done a fair job of containing them."
But, for Cunningham, "It was just a mess" that dissuaded many from using the recreation area. "I've had campers come in and turn around. People don't want to go camping and see a mess," he said.
According to the Corps, weekly campsite rentals have been down, averaging 22 per week compared to 28 in each of the previous two seasons.
"We lost so many campers. We're going to get them back, I hope," said Cunningham, who lives in Derry Township. "A lot of them go kayaking on the lake."
Weekend boater Bill Glunt Jr. of Delmont witnessed some of the more forceful releases of the drilling slurry.
"It was just pouring out like a geyser, coming out everywhere," he said, adding, "I've seen it when it dries. It's just like concrete."
Army Corps officials said 25 releases at Loyalhanna resulted in the bentonite slurry entering the local waterway. They reported no associated fish kills but noted results of water quality and sediment testing are weeks away.
"I just don't want to see it ruin the fish," said Glunt, who has been boating on the lake since the early 1970s. "I eat this fish all the time," he said, noting the lake setting is home to ducks, cranes and turkeys as well as such fish as walleye, pike, bass and crappie. "There's all kinds of wildlife that use this to live."
According to the Texas manufacturer's material safety data sheet, the form of bentonite used in the lake drilling is combined with crystalline silica and can cause irritation of the skin, eyes or, if inhaled, the respiratory system.
While Sunoco and government officials have referred to bentonite as nontoxic, the safety data sheet states acute fish toxicity is indicated at levels of 10,000 parts per million.
Bill Burgos, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Penn State, noted that's a very high concentration.
"When the acute toxicity is given as a really high level, that makes me believe it's not particularly harmful," he said.
Burgos pointed out bentonite also is used as an additive to help clear dirt particles from water and as a sealant around drinking water wells.
"When we use bentonite, it's in relatively small amounts so it's not going to impact the environment," said Sunoco Pipeline spokesman Jeff Shields. He said the standard procedure is to vacuum up the material when it comes to the surface.
When the bentonite dries, it also serves to seal any openings down in the pipeline drill hole, he said.
According to Kane, sandbags and rocks filled in a ditch also were used to contain slurry releases.
Pending an appeal of state permits for the pipeline project — to be heard Aug. 7 by the state Environmental Hearing Board — Sunoco had plans to return in September to drill for a second, 16-inch pipe under the lake, Shields said.
On Friday, he said, workers were removing the bentonite clay that had been contained at the Bush Recreation Area and planned to haul it to a landfill.
"Work also continued on restoration of the hillside and roads," Shields said. "The parking lot area will be resurfaced when all work is complete, and we will make sure that any other impacts to the park will be addressed to the satisfaction of the Army Corps of Engineers and park users."
Paul Toman, the resource manager for the Corps' Loyalhanna Dam project, said Sunoco will "have to do some major work in (the restroom) area, restoring the ground, seeding and mulching," with the assistance of a landscaping service.
He said he doesn't expect restoration of the parking area and any roads damaged by truck traffic until September.
According to the Army Corps, the majority of bentonite that made it into the water was removed by a Sunoco contractor.
Kane explained a turbidity curtain was placed near the surface of the water to help keep spills from spreading throughout the lake, but she noted it couldn't completely contain the material.
"With the bentonite, eventually it will sink and possibly coat parts of the lake bed," she said.
The state Department of Environmental Protection doesn't expect any long-term impact to the Loyalhanna Lake and creek from the inadvertent returns, spokeswoman Lauren Fraley said. She noted Sunoco's contractor followed a contingency plan it had filed with the agency.
"DEP has not issued fines or taken unilateral enforcement actions yet, but the matter is still under investigation," Fraley said.
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6622, email@example.com or via Twitter @jhimler_news.