How a Pennsylvania pipeline highlights Minnesota’s regulatory failings

Minnesota prides itself as being a state that cares about protecting the environment. Lax state permitting and oversight of the construction of Enbridge’s Line 3 tar sands pipeline shattered that self image.

Minnesota citizens are missing key information about Line 3 construction damage, the kind of information used by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office to get convictions against Energy Transfer for environmental crimes while building its Mariner East 2 and Revolution natural gas pipelines.


Frac-out near the Mississippi River headwaters. Drone photo: Ron Turney.

Crude oil and natural gas pipelines need to be buried underground. The easiest thing to do is dig a trench and backfill the dirt. In some cases, trenches don’t work, such as when the pipeline route crosses roadways, wetlands, or waterbodies. In such cases, companies use a tunneling technique called horizontal directional drilling, or HDD.

HDD uses a drill and high pressure fluids, called drilling mud, to bore an underground tunnel through the rocks and soil. The drilling mud lubricates the drill and can help keep the tunnel from collapsing.

Problems occur when the pressurized drilling mud gets into weak spots in the soil and rocks around the tunnel wall. The pressure can create blow outs, releasing drilling mud out of the tunnel into the surrounding environment, including wetlands and streams.

These incidents are called “frac-outs,” and they are permit and state law violations.

The drillers keep track of how much drilling mud they put in the tunnel and how much they recapture. Comparing those two numbers tells how much drilling mud escaped into the environment.

MN state legislators push for information

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) said Line 3 construction resulted in 28 frac-outs at a dozen Enbridge Line 3 river crossings, MPR reported in February. “Those included 13 releases into wetlands and one into a river …”

But we don’t know how much drilling mud was released into the environment.

State Sen. John Marty

“This was information repeatedly requested from both Enbridge and the state agencies by Sen. John Marty, Sen. Mary Kunesh, and a group of scientists and water protectors,” said Christy Dolph, a research scientist at the University of Minnesota, a member of Science for the People-Twin Cities, and one of the people requesting the information.

Marty wrote Enbridge last year asking for frac-out details. Enbridge responded, but didn’t provide the data. It tried to minimize the issue, writing that frac-outs are “a generally known and common risk.”

[Update: Enbridge’s Feb. 1 response continued: “… there is no regulatory or permitting requirement to maintain or report the specific data you have requested.”]

Marty called the response “dismissive.”

This isn’t top secret stuff. Regulators should have — and failed to — require Enbridge to provide such frac-out data. It should be public information.

Recipes for disaster

State regulators face systemic problems that allow polluters to avoid accountability. Neither Minnesota nor Pennsylvania had sufficient staff to monitor pipeline construction. Neither had adequate penalties on the books to punish environmental crimes.

In Minnesota, state regulators allowed Enbridge to hire and train the “Independent Environmental Monitors” that were supposed to be the state agencies’ eyes and ears on the ground. Roughly half of those “Independent” Monitors had worked for Enbridge in the past.

(Further, Enbridge broke three aquifer caps, releasing hundreds of millions of gallons of groundwater. The sanctions were minimal compared to the crimes committed.)

In Pennsylvania, Sunoco Pipeline L.P., a subsidiary of Energy Transfer, built the Mariner East 2 pipeline. Sunoco wanted to start construction quickly and “hired HDD subcontractors from across the country who were unfamiliar with Pennsylvania geology and water features as well as the regulatory landscape that existed in the state,” according to a Grand Jury report that led to 48 criminal charges against Energy Transfer.

Getting it done took priority over doing it right.

Not surprisingly, frac-outs were common on Mariner East 2.

In addition to Energy Transfer, HDD operators should bear responsibility. They kept doing the same thing over and over and getting frac-outs over and over. When do they have an obligation to stop drilling? Getting it done took priority over doing it right.

Compounding the problem, Sunoco failed to report the frac-outs to Pennsylvania regulators as it was supposed to.

“There is no jail time for these environmental crimes, and fines are not enough,” Pennsylvania’s Attorney General Josh Shapiro said last year in a media release. “That’s why we are, once again, calling for stronger laws to hold these companies accountable.”

Michels Directional Drilling

Michels Directional Drilling (Michels) was one of Sunoco’s HDD contractors on Mariner East 2.

Michels is of particular interest because it was one of two general contractors Enbridge selected to build Line 3 through northern Minnesota. Further, Tim Michels, co-owner of Michels Corp, is the Republican-endorsed candidate in Wisconsin’s governor’s race. Just this month he threw his support to the controversial Enbridge Line 5 pipeline through Wisconsin and Michigan, raising of interest concerns.

[Update: Enbridge signed a letter of intent with Michels Pipeline, Inc. to build the proposed 41-mile Line 5 reroute around the Bad River of Lake Superior Chippewa Reservation, according to a Feb. 1 article in BusinessNorth.]

According to the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, Michels had its problems in Pennsylvania.

Raystown Lake

Mariner East 2 plans called for an HDD tunnel to run 0.4 miles under Raystown Lake. (The first contractor had eight frac-outs releasing 780,000 gallons of drilling mud into the environment.)

Michels took over the contract.

Investigation revealed that Michels had lost drilling fluid 22 different times during the drilling of the 20-inch line and another nine times during work on the 16-inch line. The contractor reported these losses to Sunoco, but Sunoco only reported two of them to DEP [Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection]. The volume of fluid lost totaled close to 3 million gallons

Grand Jury report

Divers collected samples from the lake bottom. The drilling mud covered approximately 3.7 acres, with the mud two-feet deep in some areas.

Marsh Creek Lake

Frac-out spilling into Park Cove. Image: Grand Jury report.

Michels was hired in 2020 to install the 20-inch pipeline under a tributary to Marsh Creek Lake, surrounding wetlands, and several roads.

In March, 500 gallons of drilling mud escaped, the Grand Jury report said. A week later it happened again. In June, over a four-day period, HDD work released 4,784 gallons of drilling mud; then 6,400 gallons; then 2,250 gallons; then 2,000 gallons.

“Drilling continued until August 2020 when fluid emerged from the ground and spilled into Park Cove and nearby wetlands …” the Grand Jury report said. “Sunoco estimated approximately 400 gallons escaped into Marsh Creek Lake, but a DEP engineer calculated the loss to actually be between 21,000 and 28,000 gallons.”

North Zinns Mill Road

A section of Mariner East 2 in Lebanon County required HDD to go under Snitz Creek and two roads. Michels replaced the original contractor.

Between May and August, the drill lost circulation of fluid totaling approximately 100,000 gallons. These losses were not reported to DEP. From August through September, drilling fluid flowed into Snitz Creek five different times, resulting in five more Notices of Violation from DEP.

Piney Creek

Efforts to clean up spills in Piney Creek. Image: Grand Jury report.

Mariner East 2 used HDD to run under a wetland, a road, and a portion of Piney Creek. Michels again replaced the original HDD contractor.

By October 2018, however, drilling fluid was observed in two springs, one of which flowed directly into Piney Creek. DEP issued a Notice of Violation.

Drilling continued, but so did the inadvertent returns into Piney Creek. DEP issued another Notice of Violation, but the cycle repeated, with more fluid flowing into waterways, over and over for several weeks.

Sunoco began installing pipes in Piney Creek in order to divert all of the water out of the stream and around the areas where the fluid was surfacing within the stream.

But leaks continued in the creek bed and in areas nearby on an almost daily basis…

Grand Jury report

Michels also had frac-outs at the Blacklog Creek site, the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River site, and Loyalhanna Lake.

Knowing what we know now, would the state regulators allow Michels, or other HDD operators with this kind of frac-out history, to work in Minnesota?

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