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Pennsylvania launches criminal investigation into Mariner East pipeline project

The PA Attorney General's office and Delaware County joined forces to launch an investigation into alleged criminal misconduct related to Sunoco's controversial Mariner East pipeline project.

Sunoco's Mariner East pipeline, shown here on Boot Road in East Goshen, passes less than 75 feet from many structures in Chester and Delaware Counties.
Sunoco's Mariner East pipeline, shown here on Boot Road in East Goshen, passes less than 75 feet from many structures in Chester and Delaware Counties.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and the Delaware County district attorney’s office announced that they are conducting a joint investigation into Sunoco Pipeline LP and its parent company, Energy Transfer Partners, over allegations of criminal misconduct related to its Mariner East pipeline project.

The announcement Monday night by DA Katayoun M. Copeland follows a similar announcement in December by Thomas P. Hogan, the district attorney in neighboring Chester County. Hogan last month began empaneling a grand jury to investigate the pipeline company’s activities, according to the Delaware County Daily Times.

Copeland said she requested the joint investigation with the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office because the 350-mile pipeline project touches 17 counties across the state.

Energy Transfer, which has previously been cited by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and the state Department of Environmental Protection, said there is “no legitimate basis” for conducting a criminal investigation into the company or the Mariner East project.

“We have worked closely with commonwealth officials and inspectors to respond to citizen concerns as evidenced by the information that is readily available on the PUC and DEP websites,” Lisa Dillinger, an ETP spokesperson, said in an email Tuesday. "We are confident that we have not acted to violate any criminal laws in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and are committed to aggressively defending ourselves.

“We look forward to opening a dialogue with the Attorney General’s and District Attorney’s offices in the hope that we can bring this matter to an appropriate resolution,” Dillinger said. “The safety of all those who live and work along our pipeline is our first priority, and this project was planned and implemented based on that fact.”

Sunoco Pipeline is building three adjacent pipelines to transport natural gas liquids such as propane across state from the Marcellus Shale region to a terminal in Delaware County, where Sunoco is a major employer. The $5.1 billion project is a key link in the state’s effort to promote Pennsylvania shale-gas development, but its construction has provoked sharp opposition from residents, and aroused fears about pipelines transporting highly volatile liquid fuel near homes, schools, and nursing homes.

Copeland’s evening news release was less florid than Hogan’s December announcement, which accused Gov. Tom Wolf and state agencies of failing to hold Sunoco accountable, sympathized with the “disturbing and heart-wrenching” accounts of residents, and denounced “some subtle and not-so-subtle bullying of Chester County citizens by big corporate interests.” Hogan continued bashing Sunoco in public, issuing a news release in January after a union pipeline worker who worked for a Sunoco contractor used an obscenity in a social media spat with an anti-pipeline activist.

Copeland did not mention the governor in her announcement, which said only that there is “no question that the pipeline poses certain concerns and risks" to residents. "We want residents to know that we have heard their concerns, and we are willing to hear any new concerns that they may have about the pipeline by contacting my office,” she said.

Both Copeland and Hogan are Republicans, who typically have been more supportive of fossil-fuel projects than Democrats. But local Republican officials in Chester and Delaware County have lost ground in some elections in which they were targeted by anti-pipeline residents for not taking a harder line on the project.

Sunoco Pipeline and its parent, Sunoco Logistics Partners LP, were merged into Energy Transfer Partners in 2017, one of the final components of the family of companies linked to the storied Sun Oil Co. of Philadelphia that were absorbed by ETP following its 2012 acquisition of Sunoco. With the 2017 merger, the final remnants of Sunoco’s corporate headquarters were relocated to ETP’s home office in Dallas.

In addition to the Mariner East project, Energy Transfer is building the Revolution Pipeline to transport natural gas in Western Pennsylvania, which exploded last year shortly after shipments began. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in February suspended ETP’s work permits after the company failed to comply with an order following the explosion.

Kelcy Warren, ETP’s chairman and chief executive officer, acknowledged that the company had made mistakes in its Pennsylvania operations during a quarterly earnings call last month with investment analysts.

“We made some mistakes, and specifically now we’d like to talk about Pennsylvania and we’re going to take our medicine and fix those mistakes and complete good projects from this point forward.” Warren said. “Not insinuated that everything we’ve done has been bad. It’s just we’ve made some mistakes we’re not proud of. So you’ll see that improve and when we don’t make those mistakes again, that our costs are going to improve and the predictability of those costs are likewise going to improve.”

Copeland’s announcement was unclear about what alleged criminal behavior might be the focus of an investigation.

"Many residents in Delaware County have directly expressed concerns over the operations of the pipeline and made formal complaints and allegations of potential criminal misconduct,” her statement said. "Residents have also expressed concerns regarding the potential of catastrophes and property damage. "