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Energy Transfer held criminally responsible for damage from Mariner East pipeline construction

  • Susan Phillips
A sign warns visitors to Marsh Creek Lake at the entrance of Marsh Creek Lake State Park in Chester County, Pa., where about 8,000 gallons of drilling mud spilled due to construction of the Mariner East pipeline.

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

A sign warns visitors to Marsh Creek Lake at the entrance of Marsh Creek Lake State Park in Chester County, Pa., where about 8,000 gallons of drilling mud spilled due to construction of the Mariner East pipeline.

The state attorney general says Texas-based pipeline builder Energy Transfer is “accepting criminal responsibility” for dozens of charges related to construction of its Mariner East pipeline project and the 2018 explosion of the Revolution pipeline in Beaver County.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced the company waived its preliminary hearing scheduled for Friday. Energy Transfer pleaded no contest to the charges, meaning the company will have a permanent criminal record for causing damage to drinking water, wetlands and waterways across the state during five years of construction on the liquified natural gas pipeline system.

“Every time Energy Transfer bids for a new project here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania or somewhere across this country their criminal conduct will stick with them forever,” Shapiro said at a news conference announcing the plea.

Energy Transfer did not contest the evidence, and Shapiro said the company agreed their case would lead to a conviction.

In October 2021, the Attorney General released a grand jury presentment dozens of pages long that detailed sinkholes, drilling mud spills, and drinking water contamination at 22 sites in 11 counties across Pennsylvania. Those 48 charges included a felony count of failing to report pollution. In February, the AG charged the company with nine additional criminal charges related to the 2018 explosion of the Revolution Pipeline in Beaver County.

The plea includes the charges related to the Revolution pipeline. It does not include the felony count related to Mariner East. The AG’s office did not say why that charge was not included in the plea.

From the outset, the Mariner East project faced roadblocks when its initial permit applications to the Department of Environmental Protection were deemed deficient and challenged by environmental groups. Almost immediately after the construction began, it created damage and further galvanized communities who had initially opposed the eminent domain takings required to build the 350-mile pipeline project that contains two new lines and a reconfigured third line.

Construction caused dozens of drilling mud spills into wetlands and waterways across the state, led to dangerous sinkholes in Chester County, and polluted drinking water supplies across the length of the project. The company purchased at least five homes in Chester County after its work damaged the aquifer and left gaping holes in resident’s backyards.

ÔÇťAfter many years of deceiving the public, Energy Transfer is finally being brought to justice for criminal conduct,” said Clean Air Council executive director Joe Minott, whose organization led litigation efforts challenging pipeline permits issued by the DEP. “A pipeline that has had so many criminal violations of the law should not even be allowed to operate.”

Shapiro acknowledged that much of the damage would not have been known without documentation by local residents.

“We have reached this achievement in large part because of citizens, because of the good people of Pennsylvania,” he said. “The women and men who served on these grand juries and the many neighbors who brought us evidence from their backyards and from nearby streams. To every member of the public who helped us bring about this conviction I want to truly say ‘Thank you.'”

Environmental groups that have fought the project from the start praised the result.

“It’s about time this company was held accountable for the damage they inflicted on residents and the environment,” said Delaware Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum.

Energy Transfer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The charges it faced were against the company itself, not individuals at the company. Before the charges were filed, the company acknowledged in an earnings report that the attorney general had been looking at ÔÇťalleged criminal misconduct involving the construction and related activities of the Mariner East pipelines.ÔÇŁ The company said it was cooperating but that it intended ÔÇťto vigorously defend itself.ÔÇŁ

As part of the plea, Energy Transfer is required to remediate and restore damaged water supplies. People who believe their water to be impacted will get free testing from an independent party. The Attorney General will hire independent professional geologists with no connection to the company to perform a review.

The state Office of Victim Advocacy and the Attorney General’s office sent letters to residents along the length of the pipeline in July informing them about the free testing and water restoration. Anyone who thinks their water may have been damaged by the pipeline can email watertesting@attorneygeneral.gov.

Energy Transfer will also pay $10 million to restore waterways damaged by its construction. The Attorney General’s office says that is more than six times the maximum penalty required under state law. Under the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law, penalties for these charges would have amounted to just $1.45 million.

Community and environmental groups will be eligible to apply for grants from that funding.

When announcing the October charges, Shapiro called on the state legislature to toughen enforcement standards and fines, and said the Department of Environmental Protection ÔÇťat times failedÔÇŁ to protect residents.

The case had originally been referred to the Attorney General’s office by the Delaware County District Attorney, where construction through densely populated suburban Philadelphia led to pollution and strong opposition from local residents who continue to fear the operating pipeline is unsafe. Shapiro reiterated on Friday the need to strengthen the state’s environmental laws and again hinted at lax enforcement.

“We fought hard to require this defendant pay for these tests for residents in the area because it really goes to the heart of this criminal case and gives power back to the people pushed aside by this company,” he said. “They’ve been ignored by powerful institutions that were supposed to help them.”

Over the course of five years, DEP fined Energy Transfer more than $20 million for more than 120 violations that stretch along the 350-mile-long pipeline, which travels through 17 counties, crosses 2,700 properties, and cuts beneath 1,200 streams or wetlands.

It carries volatile natural gas liquids from Marcellus Shale fields in Ohio and western Pennsylvania to the Marcus Hook industrial complex in Delaware County, Pa. Construction of the three-line project began in February 2017 but became mired in legal challenges and mishaps, was subject to a number of consent decrees resulting from citizen lawsuits, and was completed in February, several years behind schedule.

Shapiro said these results should be a warning to corporate polluters that the state will prosecute them if they run afoul of environmental laws.

When companies break the law and put public safety at risk, we here in the Office of Attorney General are committed to doing our best to hold them accountable, no matter how big they are, no matter how powerful they are, and no matter how complicated the case. If they’re powerful, if they’re entrenched, if they broke the law, we are going to hold them accountable.”

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