The corporate developer of a multi-billion-dollar pipeline system that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia was charged criminally on Tuesday after a grand jury concluded that it flouted Pennsylvania environmental laws and fouled waterways and residential water supplies across hundreds of miles.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced the sprawling case at a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, where Sunoco Pipeline LP spilled 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.
Texas-based Energy Transfer, Sunoco's owner, faces 48 criminal charges, most of them for illegally releasing industrial waste at 22 sites in 11 counties across the state. A felony count accuses the operator of willfully failing to report spills to state environmental regulators.
Shapiro said Energy Transfer ruined the drinking water of at least 150 families statewide.
The company was charged for "illegal behavior that related to the construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline that polluted our lakes, our rivers and our water wells and put Pennsylvania's safety at risk," said Shapiro, speaking with Marsh Creek Lake behind him.
Messages were sent to Energy Transfer seeking comment.
The company faces a fine if convicted, which Shapiro said was not a sufficient punishment in light of its conduct. He called on state lawmakers to toughen penalties on corporate violators, and said the state Department of Environmental Protection had failed to conduct appropriate oversight. The administration of Gov. Tom Wolf has ignored persistent calls to shut the project down permanently.
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The August 2020 spill at Marsh Creek was among a series of episodes that has plagued Mariner East since construction began in 2017. Early reports put the spill at 8,100 gallons, but the grand jury heard evidence the actual loss was up to 28,000 gallons. Parts of the lake are still off-limits.
"This was a major incident, but understand, it wasn't an isolated one. This happened all across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," Shapiro said. He said that spills of drilling fluid were "frequent and damaging and largely unreported."
The grand jury report released Tuesday includes testimony from numerous residents who said that Energy Transfer fouled their drinking water wells, then denied responsibility and refused to help.
The pipeline developer has continued to rack up civil violations even as Mariner East became one of the most penalized projects in state history. To date, Energy Transfer has paid more than $16.4 million in fines for polluting waterways and drinking water wells, including a $12.6 million fine in 2018 that was one of the largest ever imposed by the state Department of Environmental Protection. State regulators have periodically shut down construction.
But environmental activists and homeowners who assert their water has been fouled say that fines and periodic shutdown orders have not forced Sunoco to clean up its act. They have been demanding revocation of Mariner East's permits.
Energy Transfer acknowledged in a recent earnings report that the attorney general has been looking at "alleged criminal misconduct involving the construction and related activities of the Mariner East pipelines." The company said in the document it was cooperating but that "it intends to vigorously defend itself."
Shapiro's news conference was originally rescheduled for Monday, but was abruptly postponed after the state environmental agency provided last-minute information to the attorney general's office. The new information led to the filing of two additional charges, Shapiro said.
When Mariner East construction permits were approved in 2017, environmental advocacy groups accused the Wolf administration of violating the law and warned pipeline construction would unleash massive and irreparable damage to Pennsylvania's environment and residents.
The Mariner East pipeline system transports propane, ethane and butane from the enormous Marcellus Shale and Utica Shale gas fields in western Pennsylvania to a refinery processing center and export terminal in Marcus Hook, outside Philadelphia.
Energy Transfer also operates the Dakota Access oil pipeline, which went into service in 2017 after months of protests by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and others during its construction.