The $12.6 million penalty being paid by Sunoco for multiple violations during construction of the Mariner East 2 pipelines will be used to improve water quality and the safety of dams across Pennsylvania, and will be in addition to the company’s work to correct environmental damage caused during the project, current and former state officials said.
The Department of Environmental Protection’s penalty for dozens of permit violations over the last year was among the largest ever handed out by the agency, and was the price demanded by the state for its permission to resume construction after a month-long state-ordered shutdown.
The money will go to the Clean Water Fund and the Dams and Encroachment Fund, both of which are specified by state law to receive proceeds from penalties imposed by environmental regulators.
The Clean Water Fund will receive nearly all the money — $11.8 million – for “the elimination of pollution,” as required by the Clean Streams Law, according to Deborah Klenotic, a spokeswoman for the DEP. The rest will go to “protecting the citizens of the Commonwealth from the hazards to life, property, and the environment resulting from unsafe dams, water obstructions and encroachments” under the Dam Safety and Encroachments Act, she said.
Klenotic declined to say whether any of the money would be used to remediate environmental damage caused by dozens of spills of drilling fluid or the contamination of some private water wells during the year that the pipeline has been under construction.
But David Hess, who headed DEP in the early 2000s under Republican governors Ridge and Schweiker, said it’s highly likely that Sunoco will be required to clean up the damage caused by its botched construction, in addition to paying the penalty.
“Cleaning up the mess is company’s responsibility,” Hess said. “Only if the company for some reason could not pay those costs, then it would fall back on the public but I haven’t seen anything that says they’re not going to pay for whatever cleanup is needed. I can’t imagine a company the size of Sunoco not paying for the cleanup costs on their own.”
Hess argued that DEP needed to get Sunoco’s attention in view of the company’s apparent failure to heed a series of violations issued by the state. Officials did so first by imposing a rare shutdown on construction on Jan. 3 and then by imposing the penalty, which Hess said was the biggest ever imposed by Pennsylvania on a pipeline project.
The amount should induce Sunoco to comply with environmental rules after months of flaunting them, Hess said, but the penalty alone does not remove the need for continued vigilance by regulators – as pledged by current DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell in his announcement of the penalty, Hess said.
After the DEP announcement on Feb. 8, Sunoco said it strongly disagreed with DEP’s description of the company’s practices as “egregious” but said it would fully comply with permit conditions going forward.
Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania director for the environmental nonprofit Clean Water Action, said the penalty is much larger than most imposed by the state, and probably reflects an attempt by DEP to force compliance from a company that prompted regulators to issue dozens of violations during 2017.
He urged DEP to use a significant portion of the money to monitor Sunoco’s construction restart, and redouble its efforts to ensure compliance with permits conditions.
Alex Bomstein, an attorney for Clean Air Council, an environmental group that has led legal challenges to the Mariner East project, called the $12.6 million “small” by comparison with the number of violations and the size of the project, which the company says is costing more than $2.5 billion.
It’s not clear that the penalty is sufficient to deter Sunoco from further violations, Bomstein said.