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DA in Philly suburb launches criminal investigation into Sunoco’s Mariner East pipeline project

Gov. Wolf bristles at suggestions that state officials failed to protect Chester County residents. Sunoco calls DA's allegations "baseless."

Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan announced Wednesday his office is opening a criminal investigation into construction of the Mariner East pipeline project, which in March caused sinkholes to form in the back yards of some homes near Exton.
Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan announced Wednesday his office is opening a criminal investigation into construction of the Mariner East pipeline project, which in March caused sinkholes to form in the back yards of some homes near Exton.Read moreCourtesy of TJ Allen

Chester County District Attorney Thomas P. Hogan announced Wednesday that his office is launching a criminal investigation into construction of the contentious Mariner East pipelines, putting the prosecutor directly into a political battle involving anti-pipeline activists and state officials he said have failed to step in to protect local residents.

Hogan accused Gov. Wolf and state agencies of failing to hold Sunoco Pipeline LP accountable, drawing curt responses from Wolf’s office and the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which have cited the company numerous times for environmental violations associated with pipeline construction and for safety concerns associated with the first Mariner East pipeline, which began operations in 2014.

Energy Transfer Partners LP, Sunoco’s parent company, called Hogan’s allegations “baseless” and questioned the legal grounds upon which he would base a criminal investigation.

“We are confident that we have not acted to violate any criminal laws in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and we are committed to aggressively defending ourselves against these baseless allegations," Vicki Granada, an Energy Transfer Partners spokesperson, said in statement.

Sunoco Pipeline is building three adjacent pipelines to transport natural gas liquids like propane across state from the Marcellus Shale region to a terminal in Marcus Hook, where much of the material is being exported by ship. The $5.1-billion project is a major link in the state’s effort to promote Pennsylvania shale-gas development, but it has provoked fierce opposition from construction problems, and aroused fears about pipelines transporting highly volatile liquid fuel near homes, schools, and nursing homes.

Hogan’s announcement, which cited a litany of spills, contaminated water wells, sinkholes, and alleged bullying by Sunoco representatives, was posted on social media and lauded by anti-pipeline activists.

“We expected the state regulators and the governor to step in and assure the safety of Pennsylvanians,” the prosecutor said in a news release. "They have not. So now the Chester County District Attorney’s Office will demand that every aspect of these pipelines be conducted safely, or we will bring into play all of the tools of the criminal justice system.”

State officials bristled, saying the PUC and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection have cited and fined Sunoco for the very problems that Hogan highlighted.

Gov. Wolf’s spokesperson, J.J. Abbott, said the state agencies have provided “unprecedented oversight” of the project — DEP alone has issued more than 80 violation notices on Sunoco’s construction practices, and collected more than $13 million in penalties.

“The commonwealth is living up to our promise to hold this project accountable to the strong protections in the permits and our abilities under existing law.” Abbott said in a statement. “We welcome any partners who want to constructively talk about improving state oversight.”

The PUC, which cited Sunoco most recently last week for a 2017 spill in Berks County, also listed a number of enforcement actions it has taken against Sunoco and its parent company, including shutting down the Mariner East 1 pipeline for nearly two months this year to address concerns about subsidence associated with sinkholes that developed in Exton.

“The PUC has a number of active and ongoing investigations and cases involving Sunoco and the Mariner pipelines, including complaints brought by the PUC’s Pipeline Safety Division as well as private citizens,” PUC spokesperson Nils Hagen-Frederiksen said in a statement. "Our experienced investigators remain focused on the mission of enforcing Pennsylvania’s safety regulations – which includes inspections, investigations and enforcement actions — and the commission will not hesitate to take appropriate action based on the facts, the evidence and the law. "

Sunoco announced plans in 2010 to repurpose an existing fuel pipeline to carry natural gas liquids to Marcus Hook, and took on the Mariner name to reflect its primary purpose as a virtual pipeline exporting gas liquids, used in petrochemical production. The project has attracted a litany of civil actions from residents and environmental groups led by the Clean Air Council, challenging the project’s public utility status and its authority to acquire easements by eminent domain. Sunoco has prevailed in most actions.

Hogan, a Republican who was elected Chester County’s DA in 2011, said his attention was drawn to the Mariner East project recently after a September explosion of a natural gas pipeline owned by Energy Transfer Partners in Beaver County, near Pittsburgh, which he said “changed speculation into tangible danger and destruction.” He also visited the homes of residents near Exton in November that were affected by sinkholes in March. “The concerns and fears of those citizens were both disturbing and heart-wrenching,” he said.

The prosecutor’s newfound understanding of the project and the pipeline industry was reflected in the news release, which repeatedly referred to the material that Sunoco transports in the pipelines as “natural gas.” The materials are actually propane, ethane, and butane — also called natural gas liquids — that are legally “petroleum products,” which behave differently than natural gas, and are regulated under different laws.

Hogan did not spell out specifically which laws Sunoco or its officials may have violated.

“Potential charges include causing or risking a catastrophe, criminal mischief, environmental crimes, and corrupt organizations,” he said in a news release. “Such offenses could include criminal charges directly against the individual employees involved, from workers on the pipelines through corporate officers.”

Sunoco said it was “surprised” to learn that the district attorney believes there is a legal basis for conducting a criminal investigation into the company and the project. “We vehemently deny any such wrongdoing and we take issue with the many factual inaccuracies contained in the district attorney’s press release,” it said.