The developer of the massive Mariner East 2 pipeline project across Pennsylvania was charged by the state attorney general’s office with 48 criminal charges, including one felony, for violating environmental laws during the project’s construction.
The 350-mile pipeline is being built across the state by Sunoco Pipeline, which is a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, to carry natural gas liquids (NGLs) such as propane, butane, and ethane from the Marcellus and Utica plays in the western part of the state to the Marcus Hook NGL hub in eastern Pennsylvania. However, it has had continuing environmental incidents during construction and has faced intense opposition from eastern Pennsylvania residents and environmental groups.
The Mariner East 2 Pipeline project crosses 17 counties in the southern part of Pennsylvania, including Washington, Allegheny, and Westmoreland, and was one of the first that involved horizontal directional drilling (HDD) as the construction method. Horizontal directional drilling employs high-pressure fluids that help a drill cut through an underground path to avoid disturbing the surface. The drilling fluid, which contains bentonite and other lubricants, is injected to help carry drill cuttings out of the hole, and the fluid flows back out with the cuttings.
While constructing the pipeline, Energy Transfer repeatedly allowed thousands of gallons of drilling fluid to escape underground, which sometimes surfaced in fields, backyards, streams, lakes and wetlands, an investigating grand jury determined. Energy Transfer failed to report the losses of fluid to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection numerous times, in spite of the legal requirement to do so. The grand jury found that there were multiple drill locations where the drilling fluid contained unapproved additives that impacted groundwater and residents’ water wells. At least 150 homes had drinking water supplies impacted.
The spills impacted a number of waterways, most recently Marsh Lake in Chester County, where a large spill forced a partial closure. Energy Transfer has been fined more than $20 million, including a $12.6 million fine in 2018 for polluting waterways and drinking water, and the project was shut down several times while environmental problems were addressed.
Because the project was such a huge undertaking, DEP did not have the resources to adequately oversee the project, and resorted to “borrowing” employees from other programs to help, but provided no special training on the HDD process, the grand jury presentment states.
“Under our state laws, if convicted, this company will be sentenced to fines and restitution,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said while announcing the charges. “There is no jail time for these environmental crimes, and fines are not enough. That’s why we are, once again, calling for stronger laws to hold these companies accountable and protect Pennsylvanians’ health, and demanding DEP toughen up the independent oversight we need them to provide for the industries they regulate.”
Several environmental groups, including PennFuture, called for the state to revoke the permits for the Mariner East pipeline. The attorney general’s office does not have that jurisdiction and that action would have to be taken by DEP and the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf.