Pa. AG, Delco DA launch criminal investigation into Sunoco, Energy Transfer

Energy Transfer says the probe into the construction of the Mariner East pipelines "has no legitimate basis."

Tree-clearing in Delaware County to prepare for the construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline project. The builder, Sunoco Logistics, rejected an attempt by a township in neighboring Chester County to block the installation of a valve along the line. (Emily Cohen/StateImpact Pennsylvania)

Tree-clearing in Delaware County to prepare for the construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline project. The builder, Sunoco Logistics, rejected an attempt by a township in neighboring Chester County to block the installation of a valve along the line. (Emily Cohen/StateImpact Pennsylvania)

This story originally appeared on StateImpact Pennsylvania.

Delaware County’s district attorney and the Pennsylvania attorney general have launched a joint criminal investigation into the pipeline company Energy Transfer LP and Sunoco Logistics Partners, responding to increased opposition to the Mariner East pipeline project in the Philadelphia suburbs.

A spokesperson for Attorney General Josh Shapiro said Delaware County DA Katayoun Copeland requested assistance with the probe, which involves alleged criminal misconduct in building the Mariner East 1, 2, and 2x pipelines through the county. The lines carry or will carry, natural gas liquids from the Marcellus and Utica shale fields of eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania to an export facility in Marcus Hook, Delaware County.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Shapiro announced the probe on Twitter:

In a statement, Copeland said the pipeline “poses certain concerns and risks” to residents.

“At this time, we are thoroughly reviewing the evidence available to us, working with the Attorney General’s Office, and seeking action within our jurisdictional boundaries,” Copeland said. “We want residents to know that we have heard their concerns, and we are willing to hear any new concerns that they may have about the pipeline by contacting my Office.”

Copeland said her office has received formal complaints from residents including members of Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety and the Middletown Coalition for Community Safety, grassroots groups created to oppose the 350-mile project. She thanked the groups “and other residents for taking the time to meet with us and sharing their concerns and formal complaints.”

Copeland’s announcement follows a similar probe by the Chester County District Attorney’s office, which has impaneled a grand jury.

Residents says the natural gas liquids lines, which transport propane, butane and ethane, pose a risk of explosion in a densely populated region. Sunoco’s pipeline construction has resulted in dozens of drilling mud spills across the state, contaminated drinking water wells, and dangerous sinkholes in Chester County. Last September, a separate Energy Transfer natural gas liquids pipeline exploded in Beaver County just days after coming online. The fire burned one house to the ground.

The Department of Environmental Protection has issued more than 80 violations, halted construction at times along the route, and fined the company $12.6 million. The company has also faced shutdowns of the Mariner East 1 line after construction of the parallel Mariner East 2 line led to sinkholes in Chester County.

On Monday, a bipartisan group of almost all state lawmakers from Delaware and Chester counties sent a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf seeking a moratorium on shipping any natural gas liquids through the Mariner East pipelines.

“We have pipelines currently transporting highly volatile products through our communities, and our local first responders are not able to adequately plan their emergency response or mitigate our risk because the operator has failed to cooperate with repeated requests for their Emergency Response Plan,” said state Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, D-Chester. “Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco are risking a catastrophe, which is a criminal offense.”

Wolf’s spokesman J.J. Abbott said the governor’s office is reviewing the letter, but he said the governor doesn’t have the authority to halt transmission of natural gas through pipelines. That authority lies with the Public Utility Commission.

“The governor has already directed the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency to work closely with county and local leadership to develop emergency response plans, and has taken other significant steps to hold Energy Transfer and its affiliates responsible,” Abbott said.

During a quarterly earnings call with investors in February, Energy Transfer CEO Kelcy Warren said the company had made mistakes but promised not to make any in the future. The Texas company Energy Transfer merged with Sunoco in 2017.

Energy Transfer spokeswoman Lisa Dillinger responded to the news of the investigations in an email, stating the company is confident it has not broken any laws and is “committed to aggressively defending ourselves.”

“There is no legitimate basis for conducting a criminal investigation into our company and the Mariner East pipelines. We have worked closely with Commonwealth officials and inspectors to respond to citizen concerns as evidenced by the information that is readily available on the PUC and DEP websites.”

Dillinger said the company hopes to speak to the Delaware County DA to resolve the case.

Kurt Knaus, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, a coalition of industry and labor unions, criticized the multiple investigations as purely political moves on the part of Copeland and Chester County DA Tom Hogan.

“The two investigations come as Copeland and Hogan, both Republicans, face re-election this year in southeastern Pennsylvania counties where voters have started to lean left and recently sent several legislative incumbents packing in the 2018 general election,” Knaus said in a statement.

He defended the safety of Mariner East construction.

“The record here is clear,” he wrote. “This is a legally permitted project that underwent years of intense regulatory and public scrutiny.”

Pipeline opponents praised the DA for launching the new investigation.

“For far too long, we’ve seen elected officials putting the profit-driven interests of the Texas corporation Sunoco ahead of the safety and economic well-being of our township, and even the laws of our Commonwealth,” said Bibianna Dussling, with the Middletown Coalition for Community Safety. “We hope the launching of these multiple criminal probes will serve to protect the Pennsylvanians placed at risk of harm by Sunoco’s recklessly proposed export project.”

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal