Pa. attorney general announces criminal charges against Mariner East pipeline owner for leaks
The spills polluted water in residents’ homes and forced the closure of Chester County’s 535-acre Marsh Creek Lake in August 2020 when up to 28,000 gallons of fluid spilled into the lake.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro on Tuesday announced 48 criminal charges against Energy Transfer LP for a series of drilling-fluid leaks over years of construction on the Mariner East 2 pipeline, the use of unapproved additives to those fluids, and failure to report numerous incidents.
The charges were the result of a statewide grand jury investigation.
“Today, we are filing 48 comprehensive criminal charges against Energy Transfer,” Shapiro said in the announcement. “Forty-five of those charges are for illegally releasing industrial waste at 22 sites in 11 different counties across Pennsylvania.”
Some of the spills polluted water in residents’ homes in various communities, and also forced the closure of Chester County’s 535-acre Marsh Creek Lake in August 2020, when up to 28,000 gallons of fluid spilled into the lake — far more than initial estimates of 8,100 gallons, the grand jury found.
More than 80,000 gallons of fluid were released into the lake and surrounding waterways and wetlands between 2017 and 2020.
Though work has stopped as a result of the Marsh Creek Lake spill, and others in that immediate area of Chester County, Mariner 2 is nearly finished. It was built to cross 17 Pennsylvania counties to transport natural gas liquids from Ohio to Marcus Hook in Delaware County.
“This was a major incident,” Shapiro said regarding Marsh Creek Lake. “But understand it wasn’t an isolated one. This happened all across the commonwealth.”
Though the grand jury’s charges were ready days ago, two charges were added Monday after the state’s Department of Environmental Protection received additional information.
Shapiro said that all charges applied to the corporation and that no individuals were named. But he said investigations were continuing into the pipeline’s construction. Sunoco Pipeline LP started the project but is a unit of Energy Transfer.
A representative from Energy Transfer could not be reached immediately for comment.
Shapiro said that if found guilty after a trial, Energy Transfer would face penalties, though they would be limited by state law.
The project is already one of the most penalized in state history since construction began in 2017. The DEP says it has collected more than $20 million in civil penalties over polluting waterways and drinking-water wells. That included a $12.6 million fine in 2018 that was one of the largest ever imposed by the state DEP.
By state law, a driller and its subcontractors must report all spills to the DEP. The spills usually come during the horizontal drilling process, when a mix of water, bentonite clay, and other additives are injected into a bore.
“The grand jury heard testimony, and saw evidence showing that releases of this fluid were frequent and damaging and largely unreported,” Shapiro said. “And then hundreds of thousands of gallons of contaminated drilling fluid found its way out of the drill path into our waterways and into some Pennsylvania homes.”
He said grand jurors heard evidence that Energy Transfer knew about some releases but failed to report them unless the fluid rose to the surface and was apparent for the public to see.
“Contractors used, in addition to the bentonite, unapproved chemicals for this type of drilling, including chemicals that can irritate the skin and eyes,” Shapiro said.
He also took aim at the DEP for its enforcement over the years, and the state legislature, which he said needs to increase penalties.
“The oversight provided by DEP at times failed,” Shapiro said. “The laws we have to stop these crimes are simply not enough. We can’t rely on these out-of-state companies to police themselves.”
However, DEP spokesperson Jamar Thrasher later responded that the department “has been consistent in enforcing the permit conditions and regulations and has held Sunoco LP accountable.”
Local residents who have been calling for an end to the pipeline for years supported the charges. However, it was unclear what impact the charges would have on further construction.
Jerry McMullen, who lives near pipeline construction, said the area around his Meadowbrook development in West Whiteland Township has been subjected to 14 sinkholes the last several years caused by construction, some of which caused flooding in homes.
“We have expressed concern for some time,” McMullen said. “But the agencies don’t seem to have much muscle. It’s been stressful. ... I think what Josh Shapiro did here today steps up the accountability.”
Environmental groups also renewed calls for the pipeline to be shut down.
“This company has no respect for Pennsylvania’s laws, our communities, and our shared natural resources,” said PennFuture president and CEO Jacquelyn Bonomo.
The criminal charges have support from both Chester County District Attorney Deb Ryan and Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer.
Stollsteimer said the investigation was initiated by a referral from his office.
“For years, the residents of Delaware County have suffered as a result of the actions of Energy Transfer,“ Stollsteimer said in a statement. “Today’s announcement ... is a critical first step in seeking justice for the thousands of Delco residents whose quality of life has been negatively impacted by the pipeline.”
Chester County Commissioners Marian Moskowitz, Josh Maxwell, and Michelle Kichline issued a statement saying they are repeating a request they made after the Marsh Creek Lake spill for Gov. Tom Wolf to suspend Energy Transfer’s authority to construct the pipeline.
“Holding Energy Transfer accountable for their actions is long overdue,” the commissioners said, echoing a call by Shapiro of any property owners who believe their drinking water has been impacted by construction to call the Attorney General’s Environmental Crimes section at 570-904-2643 or email Environmentalcrimes@attorneygeneral.gov.