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Sunoco faces $2.3 million DEP fine for Murrysville pipeline leak

| Wednesday, March 5, 2014, 12:28 p.m.
Evan R. Sanders | Tribune-Review
John Poister, a DEP spokesman in Pittsburgh, addresses the media during a press conference held at the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County building in New Stanton on Friday, October 25, 2103.

Sunoco Logistics Partners and Sunoco Pipeline may never completely clean up pollutants from a gasoline spill in Murrysville in 2008 that saturated the soil, homes and businesses with 12,000 gallons of fuel and polluted a 3-mile section of Turtle Creek, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.

The state agency is seeking more than $2.3 million in civil penalties from the companies for allegedly violating the Clean Streams Law, states a complaint filed last week with the Environmental Hearing Board.

An improperly installed valve “blew out” in the pipeline behind Hoss's Steak & Sea House on Route 22, shooting gasoline 20 to 30 feet into the air on Nov. 25, 2008. The spill leached into the soil, seeped into water and coated nearby buildings, vehicles and parking lots.

Route 22 was shut down for five hours, and homes, businesses and Franklin Regional schools were evacuated.

Some businesses were closed for a month to decontaminate, the DEP said. Damage was estimated at $1.1 million.

DEP spokesman John Poister said Sunoco has been working on the cleanup since the spill and, even with its advanced technology, may not be able to completely remediate the area.

The gasoline atomized when it reached the air and polluted a large area near Walnut Hollow Plaza and surrounding businesses, he said.

“The extent of the contamination was such that they may never completely clean that up,” Poister said. “We want them to continue to do as much with it as they can. This will be long and ongoing.”

Poister said the two sides were negotiating a financial penalty until talks broke off last month.

“That will have no effect on the work being done on the site,” he added.

In 2010, Sunoco paid a $232,000 penalty to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for failing to properly maintain its pipeline. The company paid $99,000 to the Fish and Boat Commission in 2011 to settle the dispute over pollution of Turtle Creek.

Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields disputed the DEP's allegations listed in the complaint.

“Sunoco Logistics acted quickly, aggressively and responsibly during this event, with human health, safety and protection of the environment our top priorities at all times,” Shields said. “We look forward to the opportunity to respond to the complaint before the Environmental Hearing Board at the appropriate time.”

About three weeks after the spill, Sunoco dug a trench parallel to Turtle Creek to intercept gasoline, and the state ordered the company to continuously pump gas from the trench. The complaint alleges that Sunoco ignored the order and “periodically” pumped out the residual fluid with a vacuum truck.

From 2009 through June 2013, the state continued testing the soil and water for benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, all chemicals contained in gasoline, and continued finding residue, the complaint states.

The DEP is seeking nearly $2 million in fines, $300,000 as a deterrence to violations and $100,000 to cover the cost of the state inspections and response to the spill.

The sides have been embroiled in a legal dispute over the spill since 2009, according to hearing board filings.

The company charged that DEP's cleanup requirements exceeded its authority and were delaying Sunoco's “good faith efforts” at cleaning up the site.

Sunoco said state attorneys were “out of step” with DEP headquarters and its regional offices in its cleanup demands.

The DEP said it had the legal authority to force the company to change its cleanup plan, according to a hearing board filing.

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 724-830-6292 or at rgazarik@tribweb.com.

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