Pipeline developer accused of systematic contamination

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IN DEVELOPMENT … The story will be updated as new information can be verified. Updated 4 times

The promoter of a multibillion-dollar pipeline system that transports natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia was indicted on Tuesday after a grand jury found that he had flouted Pennsylvania’s environmental laws and polluted waterways and residential homes. water supply for hundreds of kilometers.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro broke the sprawling case at a press conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, where Sunoco Pipeline LP dumped thousands of gallons of drilling fluid last year. The spill, during construction of the troubled Mariner East 2 pipeline, contaminated wetlands, a stream and part of a 535-acre lake.

Energy Transfer, the owner of Sunoco, faces 48 criminal charges, most of them illegally releasing industrial waste at 22 sites in 11 counties across the state. One felony count accuses the operator of willfully failing to report spills to state environmental regulators.

Shapiro said the energy transfer has ruined the drinking water of at least 150 families statewide. He released a grand jury report that includes testimony from many residents who accused Energy Transfer of denying responsibility for the contamination and then refusing to help.

The Texas-based pipeline giant has been charged with “illegal behavior in connection with the construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline that polluted our lakes, rivers and water wells and endangered Pennsylvania’s safety,” he said. said Shapiro, speaking with Marsh Creek Lake. behind him.

Messages have been sent to Energy Transfer to solicit comments. The company has previously said it intends to defend itself.

The company faces a fine if convicted, which Shapiro says is not enough punishment. He called on state lawmakers to toughen penalties on corporate violators, and said the state’s Environmental Protection Department – which has spent free outside lawyers for its own employees over the course of of the Attorney General’s investigation – failed to provide adequate oversight.

In a statement, the DEP said it had “applied the permit conditions and regulations consistently and held Sunoco LP responsible.” The agency said it would look into the charges “and determine whether further action is appropriate at this time.”

Residents who live near the pipeline and some state lawmakers have said Mariner East should be shut down entirely in light of criminal charges, but the administration of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has long ignored such calls to pull the plug.

The August 2020 spill at Marsh Creek was one in a series of incidents that have hit Mariner East since construction began in 2017. Initial reports put the spill at 8,100 gallons, but the grand jury heard evidence that the actual loss was as high as 28,000 gallons. Some parts of the lake are still off-limits.

“It was a major incident, but understand, it was not an isolated incident. It’s happened across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, ”said Shapiro, a Democrat who plans to run for governor next year. He said drilling fluid spills were “frequent and damaging and largely unreported.”

The pipeline developer continued to rack up civil violations even after Mariner East became one of the most penalized projects in state history. To date, the DEP said Energy Transfer has paid more than $ 20 million in fines for pollution of waterways and drinking water wells, including a fine of $ 12.6 million in 2018, l one of the most important ever imposed by the agency. State regulators have periodically halted construction.

But environmental activists and homeowners who claim their water has been polluted say fines and shutdown orders haven’t forced Sunoco to clean up its act. They called for the revocation of Mariner East’s licenses.

Carrie Gross, who has lived with the construction roar of Mariner East in her densely populated Exton neighborhood all day, six days a week, for much of the past four years, fears criminal charges will be just as ineffective as the civil penalties of the DEP.

“I would say this is just another example of energy transfer paying to pollute, and it’s part of their cost to do business. Until someone stops this project for good, our environment and our lives will continue to be in danger, ”said Gross.

The dental hygienist lives about 100 feet from the pipelines and works about 50 feet from them. She said she worried about the lingering threat of sinkholes, catastrophic rupture or explosion even after construction is completed.

Shapiro’s press conference was initially postponed to Monday, but was abruptly postponed after the state’s environmental agency provided breaking news to the attorney general’s office. The new information led to the filing of two more charges, Shapiro said.

Energy Transfer acknowledged in a recent report of the findings that the attorney general had looked into “suspected criminal misconduct” involving Mariner East. The company said in the document that it was cooperating but “intended to vigorously defend itself.”

The various criminal investigations into Mariner East also consumed the DEP, which spent around $ 1.57 million on outside criminal defense attorneys for its employees between 2019 and 2021, according to invoices obtained by the Associated Press.

The money went to five separate law firms representing dozens of DEP employees who dealt with Mariner East. Together, the firms have submitted more than 130 invoices related to the Mariner East investigations, performing legal work such as reviewing subpoenas and preparing clients to testify, according to the documents.

When building permits for Mariner East were approved in 2017, environmental groups accused the Wolf administration of breaking the law and warned that building pipelines would cause massive and irreparable damage to the city. environment and residents of Pennsylvania.

“If we have a system where… punishment, fines, are basically seen as just a price to pay for doing business, then we will continue to have violations in the Commonwealth,” said David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, based in Philadelphia.

State officials “have a huge stick that they could wield,” he added. “Maybe they just need to stop hesitating and use it.”

The Mariner East pipeline system transports propane, ethane and butane from the massive Marcellus Shale and Utica Shale gas fields in western Pennsylvania to a refinery processing center and export terminal in Marcus Hook , outside of Philadelphia.

Energy Transfer also operates the Dakota Access pipeline, which entered service in 2017 after months of protests from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and others during its construction.


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