Suburban Philadelphia state senators seek answers from DEP chief over Mariner East pipeline

The lawmakers say Patrick McDonnell's re-appointment should be delayed until pipeline investigations are complete.

A Mariner East pipeline construction clearing in Delaware County. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A Mariner East pipeline construction clearing in Delaware County. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A bipartisan group of state senators from Chester and Delaware counties wants to put off the reconfirmation of Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell until multiple criminal probes of Sunoco’s Mariner East pipeline projects are complete.

Led by Chester County Democrat Andy Dinniman, the group asked Sen. Gene Yaw, majority chair of the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, and Sen. John Yudichak, the minority chair, to delay what is typically a routine hearing on reappointment, which is scheduled for Tuesday.

In the memo to Yaw and Yudichack, the senators, who represent areas impacted by Sunoco/Energy Transfer’s Mariner East pipeline project, pointed to four separate probes including criminal investigations by both the Chester County and Delaware County district attorneys as well as an investigation by the Pennsylvania Attorney General.

In addition to Dinniman, the senators on the memo include Democrats Daylin Leach, Katie Muth and Tim Kearney, and Republican Tom Killion.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The memo also points to an investigation by the state Ethics Commission into the actions of Gov. Tom Wolf’s aide Yesenia Bane who is married to a gas industry lobbyist, and who acted as Wolf’s liaison to DEP during the permitting of the project. The commission closed its investigation of Bane on April 19, clearing her of wrongdoing.

Documents and text messages revealed previously by StateImpact Pennsylvania have raised concerns that Wolf injected political pressure into a decision over environmental permits that should be based solely on environmental standards. Dinniman worries those standards and regulations were subverted by DEP to help Sunoco make its projected timeline on the project.

Although the criminal probes are of the pipeline company, Dinniman says such an investigation would have to include the actions of DEP.

“You cannot investigate Sunoco without asking about the role of state regulators, the DEP and the PUC,” Dinniman said. “Why did they grant these water permits the way they did? What was the rush in February, 2017? Did anyone put pressure on them to encourage that?”

The DEP and the Governor’s office have denied any such pressure. They say the flurry of messages back and forth between DEP and the Governor’s office reflect the complexities of permitting such a large project that includes a 20-inch diameter, high-pressure natural gas liquids line tunneling beneath 17 counties and crossing more than 1,200 streams or wetlands.

Since construction began in February 2017, the project has led to dozens of drilling mud spills, polluted water wells and sinkholes. Many of the issues have occurred in densely populated areas of Chester and Delaware counties.

The DEP has issued Sunoco more than 80 violations, and fined the company more than $12 million.

“We’re not condemning Sec. McDonnell,” Dinniman said. “There are a lot of questions unanswered.”

The group also sent McDonnell a list of questions related to the oversight of the project they want McDonnell to answer.

Dinniman said they are not opposed to McDonnell serving in an interim capacity. He says if the hearing does go forward, he and Leach, who are on the Environment Committee, will ask McDonnell those questions.

DEP Press Secretary Elizabeth Rementer said the agency is “reviewing the questions to determine whether there are any that have not already been exhaustively answered.”

“The department has only heard from Sen. Dinniman via his press releases,” Rementer said in an email. “He has not requested an in-person meeting with the Secretary to share his concerns or those of his constituents in well over a year.”

Told of the DEP’s response, Dinniman said the department has stonewalled him in the past.

Neither Sen. Yaw or Sen. Yudichack could be reached for comment.

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