Sinkholes Attributed to Gas Drilling Underline the Stakes in Pennsylvania’s Governor’s Race

As residents struggle with damage linked to the Mariner East II pipeline, many observe that the Democratic nominee is playing down his environmental bona fides. Is that simply a campaign strategy, they wonder, or could it have long-term implications?

Section of the SUNOCO Mariner II East Pipeline construction in Exton, Pennsylvania. Credit: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images
Section of the SUNOCO Mariner II East Pipeline construction in Exton, Pennsylvania. Credit: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

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CARLISLE, Pa.—Standing in her granddaughter’s yard in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on a recent fall day, Lynde Blymier pointed to a patch of ground where the grass was sparse. On this foot-wide spot, dead leaves were scattered over what looked like freshly overturned earth, the color of red clay. According to Blymier, it was a sinkhole, and although this one was filled in, it was only one of a series of such holes that stretched behind her granddaughter’s home, past her great-grandson’s swing set and toys, in a surprisingly neat line that marched toward the edge of the property. One of the craters had a chair positioned over it to prevent tripping. 

“Everything starts as a little hole, a perfect circle,” said Blymier, 70, “and then starts to get deeper and bigger and bigger. They expand over time.”

“My great-grandson is 7,” she said with a warm grit to her voice. “He is old enough to know what a sinkhole is. He’s afraid to go out and play because he’s thinking, ‘That hole is just going to go really big and swallow me up.’ His imagination is running wild. But the problem is, it may not be wild. It could come to reality.”

Blymier has lived in this mobile home park for more than 30 years and works as its property manager, so she has extensive knowledge of the utilities connected to the site and of its construction in 1987. She first noticed changes on the property after Sunoco, the Texas-based oil and gas company, began construction of a section of the Mariner East II pipeline in 2017 that cuts through the property. Since then, she said, engineers who surveyed the area have estimated that Sunoco has lost over 300,000 gallons of drilling fluid in the site, which includes the mobile home park, storage units, an office building and a parking lot and is bordered by the Appalachian Trail, the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate Highway 81. 

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Earlier this year, Blymier and her neighbors thought they had finally found someone in government who could help them: the current state attorney general, Josh Shapiro. Now the Democratic candidate for governor, Shapiro has earned a reputation as the rare Pennsylvania politician who was willing to openly challenge oil and gas companies, often citing the state’s constitutional right to clean air and pure water. 

Conventional political wisdom frames Shapiro’s commitment to protecting Pennsylvanians from pollution and damage caused by fracking and pipeline construction as a liability, not a strength, for a candidate for statewide office. As attorney general, he has sought to hold oil and gas companies accountable, using the legal tools available to his office in a swing state with a divided government. As a candidate, he has carved out a carefully calibrated set of positions on issues like fracking and carbon emissions. It may be that there is no other way for a Democrat to win the governor’s seat. But making those strategic choices can mean that the state’s most vulnerable people fall through the cracks.

The Mariner East II pipeline, carrying natural gas liquid from Ohio and western Pennsylvania, crosses Pennsylvania from west to east, passing beneath the central part of the state in Cumberland County before continuing to the Marcus Hook industrial complex on the Delaware River. In 2017, at the beginning of the project, FracTracker estimated that 162,330 gallons of drilling fluid had been spilled in Cumberland County alone. Construction ended in February. 

Horizontal directional drilling, the method used to install Mariner East II and similar pipelines, is carried out with high-pressure fluids. Usually composed of water, clay and other additives, the fluids help to cut through rock underground so the pipeline sections can be installed. When things go wrong, the high pressure fractures the rock, and the drilling fluid spreads underground instead of flowing back out of the pipeline pathway, leading to what are called losses of circulation. The fluid can end up in private wells and waterways and reach the land’s surface. 

The fluid losses can also cause sinkholes; the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection notes that drilling is a typical cause of their formation. The mobile home park in Carlisle is just one location where sinkholes appear to be connected to Mariner East II; they have also been documented in Chester County and Westmoreland County. 

The porch at Blymier’s granddaughter’s home sags in the middle, and the house’s marriage joint, which holds the roof together in prefabricated homes like these, is coming apart. At Blymier’s own home, the patio tiles she installed herself outside her back door are rippled and undulating, as if something sleeping underground were trying to buck them off its back. Her yard is pocked with depressions in the grass deep enough to sink your foot into. 

Holes are seen in the yard of a home in a mobile home park in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Credit: Kiley Bense
Holes are seen in Lynde Blymier’s backyard in a mobile home park in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Credit: Kiley Bense

“We have an area where the pipeline crosses our main electric lines that feed the mobile home park” where the ground is shifting, Blymier said. She worries that an explosion could be the end result: “If that happens, we’re all dead.”

She said that whitish-gray puddles of sand in the gravel parking lot next to the mobile home park contain bentonite, a material used in horizontal directional drilling. In an ongoing dispute between Sunoco and the landowners, the Carlisle Pike Self Storage and Regency South Mobile Home Park, Sunoco has denied that the patches are related to Mariner East and argues that they predate the installation of the pipeline. 

Subsidence is damaging mobile homes in the development, causing sinking foundations, ceiling cracks and misaligned doors, windows and cabinets that won’t shut. In an appeal form related to Sunoco’s denial that was submitted to the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board, the owners of the mobile home park attributed the damage to the company’s drilling activities, asserting that they had “caused significant damage” including “cracking in building and residential foundations and the formation of sinkholes that threaten infrastructure on their property.” 

The owners appealed to the state board after the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) ruled that Sunoco did not need to further investigate or take any action to clean up the site, even though the department had originally ordered Sunoco to submit a plan for “cleanup and remediation of all affected areas.” The DEP is known by some Pennsylvanians by the nickname “Don’t Expect Protection,” and it has long been plagued by criticism that the agency is a revolving door for officials who have worked in the oil and gas industry.

Blymier is afraid that she, her husband and the 86 other families who live in the park will lose their homes. The cost of fixing their houses—let alone solving the underlying land issues caused by the drilling—is simply too high, and the families are tenants, paying rent to landowners who also own the storage-unit facility. “This was a nice place to live,” Blymier said, glancing at the quiet, narrow streets, where the speed limit is 10 miles per hour and the only sound was the slow purr of a lawn mower. A black cat watched, motionless, from a few feet away while American flags fluttered from flagpoles, porches and awnings. Yellow pipeline markers were visible throughout the development, indicating the path of the pipeline underground.

 “I don’t know what’s going to happen to all these people,” Blymier said. Almost half of the residents are elderly or disabled. “How do you start over?”

Hoping for Help From the State

Earlier this year, before the primary elections that officially made him the Democratic candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, Blymier said she had spoken with state Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office about her neighborhood’s troubles. “They told us they were interested,” Blymier said. “The agents said that this is worse than Chester County, as far as damage goes, because of what’s happening underground.” 

In Chester County, where the Mariner East II pipeline runs close to Marsh Creek Lake, drilling from 2017 to 2020 led to the leaking of  thousands of gallons of drilling fluid, a situation that was outlined in a 2021 grand jury report on the pipeline. But Blymier said that interest from the attorney general’s office seemed to end in August.

That month, Shapiro’s office announced that Energy Transfer (which merged with Sunoco in 2017) had pleaded “no contest” to 48 criminal charges related to construction of the pipeline. Shapiro said the plea deal also settled nine more criminal charges against another Energy Transfer unit after an explosion of its Revolution Pipeline in 2018 in Beaver County, in western Pennsylvania. In the case of Mariner East, the charges were related to drilling fluid contamination of water at 21 drilling sites and the company’s failure to report violations. 

The charges followed a grand jury report from October 2021, which focused on Mariner East II and detailed how Sunoco had hired subcontractors who were “young and with limited actual experience” and “unfamiliar with Pennsylvania geology and water features.” The mobile home park in Carlisle, for example, sits on karst, a type of topography characterized by the dissolution of bedrock underground, causing gaps, hollows and voids. Karst is known to cause “environmental and engineering problems” and has led to complications with the Mariner East II pipeline in other parts of Pennsylvania. The report stated that Sunoco had reported fewer  than 100 losses of circulation out of 397 documented instances “that were beyond the amount of fluid expected to lose on those drills.”

As part of the August conviction for environmental crimes, Energy Transfer agreed to pay for “​​independent evaluations of potential water quality impacts for homeowners” as well as contribute $10 million to “projects that improve the health and safety of water sources along the routes of the pipelines.” Because the agreement focused on water quality rather than property or environmental damage in general, Blymier and her neighbors fear they will not see any of the money set aside to help people affected by the pipeline’s construction. Their homes use public water, not private wells, and they do not own the land their homes were installed on. 

Energy Transfer did not respond to a request for comment. 

The residents cannot sell their homes without disclosing the landowners’ ongoing battle with Sunoco, which the residents are not a party to, and the damage done to their homes. “We’re kind of in limbo here,” Blymier said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen to the mobile home park.” 

Blymier is not alone: Others who have suffered from the impacts of the Mariner East II pipeline construction elsewhere in the state are not happy with the conclusion of the case against Energy Transfer, viewing the punishment as a “slap on the wrist” and wishing they had had a chance to share what happened to them in a full-blown trial. 

Christina DiGiulio, who is running as the Green Party’s candidate for governor in Pennsylvania and lives near Marsh Creek Lake in Chester County, said she wondered whether the case had been closed in August for political reasons related to Shapiro’s campaign for governor. “I don’t want to speculate,” she said, “but I think he did it just for the election.” 

Blymier said she was disappointed in the attorney general’s office. In the spring, she was hopeful that Shapiro’s aides would help her and her community. “It seemed like he was doing the right thing,” she said. “But now, he’s running for governor, and it’s like nobody has time for this anymore. It’s time to sweep it under the rug.”

A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office responded that state law severely limits the office’s criminal jurisdiction on environmental matters, which has repeatedly criticized. “In the Mariner East II case, the charges we could bring primarily related to violations of our Clean Streams Law and other water quality impacts,” the spokesperson said. “Unfortunately, some significant impacts of the project can not be addressed by the current criminal laws in Pennsylvania, despite our office’s best efforts. Some of these matters are within the purview of the Department of Environmental Protection under state law. Helping every citizen impacted by this project in any way we can remains a priority of the Office of Attorney General.” 

Sizing Up the Attorney General

In his six years as attorney general, Josh Shapiro has worked to investigate and charge oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania and put the environment and pollution at the forefront of his agenda. In 2020, his office issued a grand jury report on the harmful effects of fracking that focused especially on public health. He appointed a chief deputy attorney general for environmental protection. He joined 10 other state attorneys general in suing the U.S. Department of Energy under Donald Trump over a failure to finalize federal energy-use standards. 

John Smith, a Pennsylvania attorney who is a leading expert on oil and gas law, said that Shapiro’s tenure was marked by a responsiveness to his clients’ cases, something he had never seen. “Prior to Josh Shapiro taking over, we would contact the attorney general’s office all the time, didn’t matter who was in there, seeking assistance or investigations,” he said. “And if we received a return phone call, it was to tell us that they weren’t going to ever investigate anybody. It was a dead end. It was where complaints went to die.” 

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After Shapiro was elected, Smith said, phone calls were returned, investigators were hired and companies were indicted. That didn’t mean that oil and gas companies immediately or dramatically changed their behavior. But Smith said it was meaningful that “somebody was watching them” now.

“​​He’s the only person that stood up to anything,” said Lois Bower-Bjornson, the Southwestern Pennsylvania field organizer for the Clean Air Council. “To do that politically in the state of Pennsylvania, it just doesn’t happen,” she said. “So I value that more than anything else, but he still needs to do a lot more.” 

Bower-Bjornson leads tours to show legislators and journalists the effects of fracking in the region firsthand, something she and her family are all too familiar with. The family lives within a few miles of more than 20 active fracking well pads. As part of an investigation in 2019, Environmental Health News tested Bower-Bjornson’s urine along with samples from her husband and her four children for traces of industrial chemicals.  Compared with samples taken from the average American, the family’s urine showed elevated levels of substances like phenylglyoxylic acid, a biomarker for ethylbenzene and styrene, which can be found in fracking and drilling chemicals.

Still, the Mariner East II case—and what is still happening to Lynde Blymier and her neighbors—is an example of the limits of the Pennsylvania attorney general’s power to take on the fossil fuels industry and the challenges that await Shapiro if he is elected governor. Pennsylvania is the second-largest natural gas producer in the United States after Texas, and it is a swing state with a Republican-controlled state legislature. Recent polling shows Shapiro ahead of his Republican opponent, Doug Mastriano, by 13 percentage points, though other polls have his lead at something more like 2 or 3 percent. 

As a candidate, Shapiro has assembled a middle-of-the-road platform on environmental and climate issues, particularly when it comes to fossil fuels. A statement from the campaign highlighted his intention to “enact a bold, comprehensive climate and energy plan” as governor. “I refuse to accept the false choice between protecting jobs or protecting our planet,” it reads. As governor, Shapiro wants to set new standards for renewable energy and enact the recommendations laid out in the 2021 grand jury report on fracking. 

Yet Shapiro does not support the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cooperative multistate cap-and-trade effort to reduce carbon emissions from the power industry. He does not support a ban on fracking despite the outsize effects of such drilling and its emissions on climate change and the disturbing nature of the findings of the grand jury report. That investigation included testimony about children who had suffered from symptoms like insomnia, vomiting, headaches, nosebleeds, bruising, cramping, twitching and tremors while living near a fracking well and being exposed to polluted air and water. “We all call it a frack rash,” one parent told the grand jury about his son’s condition, a recurring rash that was “like alligator skin.” The report also concluded that “our government and the shale gas industry currently have no long-term sustainable solution to managing the toxic waste generated by fracking operations.” 

“There is no way to frack without causing harm to people,” said DiGiulio, the Green Party candidate. “​​He can’t say that he actually cares about our health and safety and our water” while supporting fracking, she said. “It’s hypocritical.” 

Despite his accomplishments on the environment and industrial pollution as attorney general, Shapiro seems wary of showcasing these victories in his campaign. Bower-Bjornson, for one, has observed that something is missing from his television ads, which feature Pennsylvanians praising the attorney general’s willingness to take on predatory loan companies and the Catholic Church. “If you notice, on all of his ads of the people that he helped that are running on TV now, none of them are about the people that he helped with oil and gas,” she said.

“At least he had the guts to stand up” to the industry, she said, “but even he knows that that cannot be part of his campaign.”

The paradox of this electoral strategy, which is probably intended to avoid driving off moderate voters, is that many if not most of the people whom Shapiro helped on such issues—the Pennsylvanians suffering from the effects of fracking or natural gas infrastructure—are Republicans. 

“What’s interesting to note is that everyone that I’ve represented who has been involved with the attorney general’s office, either through the criminal grand jury process or investigations, are Republicans,” said Smith, the attorney specializing in oil and gas law. Most of the people affected by fracking or pipeline construction live in rural Pennsylvania, and they typically vote Republican, he noted. In Washington County, where Bower-Bjornson lives and more than 1,800 fracking wells exist, more than in any other county in the state, voters chose Donald Trump over Joe Biden by a margin of 23 points in the 2020 presidential election, down only slightly from Trump’s 24.5 point margin in 2016. 

From the first commercial oil well in the United States, drilled in 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania, to coal mines and natural gas pipelines, wells and plants, the state has a long history of reliance on fossil fuels. Some residents can’t imagine how its economy would function without those industries, and some of them don’t want to. 

Doug Mastriano, Shapiro’s Republican opponent in the race, is among them: His campaign website promises that he will “unshackle our energy sector,” “encourage” investment in natural gas and coal and lift “unreasonable regulations, taxes and fees on those industries” that are in effect under the current governor, Tom Wolf. “Under Mastriano,” the site reads, “Pennsylvania will drill and mine like it should, and Pennsylvania will prosper.” 

“I think the difference is very stark between the two gubernatorial candidates,” said Katie Blume, the political director for the environmental advocacy group Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, which endorsed Shapiro. Faced with the choice between Shapiro and Mastriano, such organizations argue, anyone concerned about the environment or climate change has only one option. “Heaven help us if Mastriano gets in office,” Bower-Bjornson said. 

If Mastriano is elected and Republicans retain control of the legislature, a rollback in regulations related to the fossil fuel industry would be likely, and more lands would be opened to drilling. “If we allow Doug Mastriano to become governor of Pennsylvania,” said Steve Hvozdovich, the director of Pennsylvania campaigns for the group Clean Water Action, “it’s going to clearly be a bad thing for the environment, with his denial of climate, his pledges to roll back environmental protection, his self-professed policies of ‘drill, baby, drill.’”

Bower-Bjornson is guardedly hopeful that Shapiro will stay tough on the oil and gas industries if he wins the election. “Do I get nervous? If he becomes governor, that that changes? Yes,” she said. “But I think he will always come back to people. ​I intend to really hold his feet to the fire if he’s elected.” 

Still, she recognizes the challenging reality of campaigning and governing here: “It’s just the state of Pennsylvania,” she said. In a divided state like this one, there is a wide gulf between what it is possible for government to accomplish and what it would take to truly protect natural resources, public health and citizens’ property and safety. 

Where Would the Residents Go?

For now, Blymier and her community in Carlisle are stranded in that political no man’s land, through no fault of their own. 

When I arrived at the mobile home park in Carlisle, Blymier and I walked through the grasses by the drainage pond in front of the neighborhood where a 200-year-old oak tree grows, its limbs stretched and gnarled overhead. We swatted at clouds of swarming gnats, and Blymier, petite and white-haired with black glasses, picked burrs out of her checkered flannel coat. “I’m only going to take you in so far,” she said, “because it’s not safe.” 

We waded through the brush, with weeds grazing our shins, and came to a stop in front of a sinkhole measuring many feet across. Its reddish-clay walls were steep and studded with loose stones and broken roots. A tangle of goldenrod obscured the abyss, but Blymier estimated that the hole was 16 to 20 feet deep. “It keeps getting bigger, and it’s going toward the pipeline,” she said. She wondered if it was even possible to repair destruction on this scale. 

“If this mobile home park closes, and we have to move, a lot of these people are going to be destitute,” she said. “They’re just going to be told they have to leave. And then, where do they go?” 

Even if a settlement is reached between the landowners and Sunoco, she fears that the residents will again be left out because no one is really advocating for them. She spoke of a neighbor whose wife is recovering from a stroke and who had come to her, distraught, because he didn’t know how they would survive if they lost their house if a settlement allowed Sunoco to purchase the property. He was terrified by the prospect that he would have to put his wife in a nursing home.

“Why should he have to face that because of Sunoco’s negligence?” Blymier asked, her voice hardening. “And I told the AG’s office the same thing,” she said, staring at the edges of the sinkhole. “These people need help.”

Kiley Bense is a writer and journalist whose work has previously been published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Believer, and elsewhere.