If it turns out that the “mystery odor” plaguing Delaware County is the result of nefarious or negligent activity, District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer is now equipped to build a case.

Stollsteimer, in one of his first acts in office, has established an environmental crimes unit, the first of its kind at the county level in state history.

“It’ll be like any other criminal investigation,” Stollsteimer said in an interview. “Once we get to the point where there’s reasonable suspicion that a crime occurred, we’ll keep following the evidence.”

Normally, cases involving environmental issues are handled by the Pennsylvania attorney general. But state law dictates that those prosecutors can’t act without referrals from such agencies as the Department of Environmental Protection or local district attorneys.

In Delaware County, one such referral came last year, when then-District Attorney Katayoun Copeland sent a criminal investigation into Sunoco’s Mariner East pipeline to the attorney general.

The backlog for those cases, if they even reach Harrisburg, is deep. And there’s nothing explicitly barring district attorneys from taking up the cases themselves.

So Stollsteimer, with assistance from Delaware County’s Office of Emergency Services, is hoping to close the loop, and address residents’ concerns about their air and water in-house. He has appointed Assistant District Attorney Melissa Muroff to lead the unit, and is having two county detectives trained in environmental law.

“For residents, there has to be a place where they can go and try to get some answers,” Stollsteimer said. “And if the hammer of the DA’s Office helps to get those answers, and it’s nothing, then that’s great. But if there is somebody that can be held accountable for something that is harming the quality of life in Delaware County, we want to be ready for it.”

Timothy Boyce, the county’s director of emergency services, said he welcomed the collaboration. Normally, his staff is focused on, as he put it, “response and prevention" whenever there’s an environmental concern.

“We tell people to stop, but we don’t really enforce that or get to the root causes. Frankly, we’re not experts on the law,” Boyce said. “For us to have, for instance, an ammonia leak at a facility that injures somebody — that responsibility for it, whether it was a criminal act or a civil act, the documentation, all these parts are being missed.”

Timothy Boyce, the director of Emergency Management of Delaware County, right, consulting with Quadirah Glover, of the Pa. Department of Emergency Preparedness, in a matter last year. He said the formation of an environmental crimes unit by county District Attorney Jack Sollsteimer will aid the work done by his office.
Michael Bryant / File Photograph
Timothy Boyce, the director of Emergency Management of Delaware County, right, consulting with Quadirah Glover, of the Pa. Department of Emergency Preparedness, in a matter last year. He said the formation of an environmental crimes unit by county District Attorney Jack Sollsteimer will aid the work done by his office.

Creating the unit might prove prudent, given the amount of industry crammed into the densely populated county.

Chester, Delaware County’s lone city, is home to Covanta’s garbage incinerator. At the county’s southern tip, Marcus Hook is dominated by natural-gas infrastructure, including 11 miles of the Mariner East pipeline.

To be clear, there’s no sign of any criminal activity at either location, according to Stollsteimer. But residents have routinely expressed concerns about both, as well as smaller-scale issues such as illegal dumping or industrial fires.

The unit is also poised to handle more vexing and pervasive issues, such as the mysterious, sulfur-like odor that has been reported throughout the county, and whose origin and cause remain a mystery.

Part of the new environmental unit’s purpose is to be a sounding board for those complaints, even if they don’t generate charges.

“It’s a very difficult situation to be in to speak to homeowners and say, ‘You have to call somebody else,' " Boyce said. “That’s not what people expect. County Council doesn’t expect that, the DA doesn’t expect that, and I think we’re going to see an awareness brought to many places that somebody cares.”

Stollsteimer’s new unit has supporters in high places, including State Attorney General Josh Shapiro. He said a lack of resources required to handle “complex, labor-intensive” environmental cases has been the main deterrent to localized units.

“These cases take a significant amount of time, and you’re often up against interests that have very deep pockets and very skilled lawyers, and it takes a lot of resources time to take these cases through fruition,” Shapiro said. “But when you do, they will have a meaningful impact on public health and public safety.”