DEP officials won’t answer lawmakers’ questions on pipeline documents

  • Jon Hurdle
Acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell skipped  a meeting with lawmakers seeking answers on whether DEP had issued pipeline permits without all regulations having been met.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell skipped a meeting with lawmakers seeking answers on whether DEP had issued pipeline permits without all regulations having been met.

Pennsylvania officials declined on Wednesday to answer lawmakers’ questions on documents indicating that the state had issued permits for the Mariner East 2 pipeline before ensuring that it met all regulatory requirements.

A bipartisan group of three lawmakers met with three top officials from the Department of Environmental Protection in Harrisburg to discuss public concerns over the safety of the natural gas liquids pipeline, and to ask about documents showing that DEP issued the permits even though deficiencies remained in applications from the pipeline’s builder, Sunoco Logistics.

DEP Acting Secretary Patrick McDonnell did not attend the hour-long meeting despite saying in advance that he would, disappointing the lawmakers from Delaware and Chester Counties near Philadelphia. Lawmakers said they were told that McDonnell stayed away because he did not want to comment on the documents that are part of current litigation.

Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky, a Delaware County Democrat who arranged the meeting, said she was “frustrated” that the DEP officials declined to discuss the documents on the grounds that they are in litigation.

The officials assured the lawmakers that all regulatory requirements were met before the permits were issued, Krueger-Braneky said, but they were unable to explain why the documents said otherwise.

“They repeatedly told us that there were no outstanding deficiencies at the time of the permits,” she told StateImpact. “When I referenced the technical review documents … they told me that they couldn’t discuss that because the matter is currently in litigation at the Environmental Hearing Board.”

Three environmental groups are appealing the permits before the board but have failed twice to persuade the judge to block construction of the line – which is now underway —  pending a full hearing on their case.

Documents obtained from the environmental groups as part of the case show that, three days before the permits were issued, DEP acknowledged the existence of “many remaining identified deficiencies” but said that would not prevent permits being issued.

Krueger-Braneky said she was “a bit frustrated that we couldn’t discuss the documents that appeared to me to show outstanding deficiencies in detail, and I told them that. “I would like to have had that document explained to me.”

Despite the unanswered questions, she said she has little choice now other than to accept the officials’ assurances. “When the department tells me very strongly that there were no outstanding deficiencies, I need to take them at their word,” she said.

Construction equipment clears trees in Aston, Delaware County to make way for the Mariner East 2 natural gas liquids pipeline.

Construction equipment clears trees in Aston, Delaware County to make way for the Mariner East 2 natural gas liquids pipeline.

DEP officials at the meeting were Alexandra Chiaruttini, the DEP’s chief counsel; Ramez Ziadeh of the Bureau of Waterways Engineering and Wetlands, and Sarah Clark, director of legislative affairs, lawmakers said.

DEP spokesman Neil Shader said after the meeting: “As previously noted, those permits are subject to litigation, and DEP can’t comment on them.”

Residents’ groups in Delaware and Chester Counties have asked whether the population would be safe if there was a leak or explosion of the highly volatile liquids that would be carried by the line. The Middletown Coalition for Community Safety, a Delaware County group, recently issued a independent report concluding that anyone within 1,100 feet of a leak – which would include an elementary school — could be subject to “serious burns.”

Rep. Christopher Quinn, a Delaware County Republican who attended the meeting, said he too was disappointed by McDonnell’s non-appearance, which he only found out about when he arrived at the meeting.

“You would think that we would have had some notice, potentially to reschedule it,” Quinn said.

He said DEP staff had assured him that the department is able to protect the environment from major projects like the $2.5 billion, cross-state pipeline; that there would be constant monitoring the pipeline during construction, and that Sunoco had shown that it would be able to “properly respond” to any “risks or contamination.”

Quinn said there has been no proof so far of critics’ claims that DEP approved the permits after pressure from the office of Gov. Tom Wolf to approve them in time to meet Sunoco’s construction schedule.

“According to the Governor’s office and the DEP, the rules have been followed,” he said. “At this point, the evidence that’s out there hasn’t been proven in court, if it exists.”

Remaining questions about whether the permits were issued with outstanding deficiencies will now be settled in the courts, Quinn predicted.

But he said public concern over the safety of major pipelines like Mariner East 2 could be addressed by legislation that would give the state authority over where pipelines may be built, and over private water wells – neither of which are currently regulated by the state.

Krueger-Braneky said there are signs of an emerging bipartisan group of lawmakers who would support such legislation.

The meeting was also attended by Rep. Carolyn Comitta, a Chester County Democrat.

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