On October 5, the Pennsylvania Attorney General unveiled criminal charges against the Mariner East 2 pipeline, a long-distance natural gas pipeline that traverses the state.
Stemming from a grand jury investigation, Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced 46 environmental crimes, plus an additional two charges that were referred to his office by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
“There is a duty to protect our air and water, and when companies harm these vital resources through negligence — it is a crime,” Shapiro said in a statement. “By charging them, we can both seek to hold them criminally accountable and send a clear message to others about how seriously we take protecting the environment and public health.”
A pipeline plagued by problems
The Mariner East 2 pipeline route traverses 17 counties, running more than 300 miles across the entire length of the state, and it is intended to carry natural gas liquids such as ethane and propane from the Marcellus Shale. But its construction has been plagued with problems for years.
According to the grand jury report, Sunoco — which was eventually taken over by Dakota Access builder Energy Transfer — presided over problems from the very beginning of construction in 2017.
The campaign to horizontally drill beneath streams, rivers, and waterways has caused a seemingly endless series of problems. The geology across much of Pennsylvania is prone to subsidence, which means the ground tends to collapse, sink, or shift. During construction that can result in large spills of drilling fluids, which can contaminate waterways.
But the problems were compounded by Sunoco/Energy Transfer’s own missteps. Construction was rushed, and they had trouble finding contractors that could do the horizontal drilling jobs. They hired subcontractors from around the country who “were unfamiliar with Pennsylvania geology and water features,” the grand jury report stated. A former Sunoco employee said that the people hired to do the work were young and inexperienced. “Leaks and spills of drilling fluid began to occur almost immediately,” the report stated.
Attorney General Shapiro said that Energy Transfer dramatically underreported the extent of its spills. The grand jury report notes that when an independent engineering firm named ARM Group analyzed the drilling logs for just a small portion of the pipeline’s construction, it found nearly 400 spills. Energy Transfer reported fewer than 100.
In one instance, a subcontractor named Laney Directional Drilling was drilling underneath Raystown Lake in central Pennsylvania in 2017. Drilling fluid and its additives escaped outside of the drilling path eight separate times, resulting in the loss of 780,000 gallons of fluids, and none of the instances were reported to state regulators.
State data also shows that Mariner East 2 has received well over a hundred “notices of violations” from state environmental regulators, resulting in millions of dollars in fines.
In 2020, independent watchdog FracTracker Alliance analyzed many of the problems with the Mariner East 2 construction, documenting more than 300 spills of drilling muds. FracTracker even mapped the spills, which depict problems along the entire route.
“It’s ruined people’s drinking water, it’s damaged popular waterways. It’s had sinkholes. It’s been shut down a number of times. There’s been whistleblowers. Now there’s this new Attorney General’s report,” Erica Jackson, manager of community outreach at FracTracker, told DeSmog. “It’s kind of like a test of how terrible a pipeline can be constructed without being completely shut down and having its permits revoked.”
As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, internal documents from Energy Transfer show that more than 180 people have reported problems with their water after construction arrived. Attorney General Shapiro says the number is likely higher because Energy Transfer has inked nondisclosure agreements with many more people.
Blowing the whistle
In 2020, a geologist-turned-whistleblower who previously worked on the pipeline said that Sunoco/Energy Transfer prevented him and other geologists from inspecting the dangers of subsidence, prevented him from speaking to drillers, and blocked access to drill sites, as reported by State Impact.
He said that Sunoco/Energy Transfer told him to change the name of subsidence to “earth feature” in official reports. He alleges that he was fired after he reported a sinkhole to Chester County in eastern Pennsylvania.
“Sunoco is so scared of what its scientists will find in investigating its pipeline construction that it’s muzzled them and doctored their reports,” Joseph Minott, executive director and chief counsel of Clean Air Council, which sued Sunoco/Energy Transfer on the whistleblower’s behalf, said at the time.
The technical challenges of drilling through terrain vulnerable to subsidence, sinkholes, and other geological obstacles is potentially insurmountable, according to Dan Zegart, a senior investigator at the Climate Investigations Center, a watchdog group. “The fact of the matter is the pipeline is not buildable. It’s not achievable. The company doesn’t know what it’s doing,” he told DeSmog.
He noted that construction has occurred dangerously close to some dense neighborhoods in Chester and Delaware Counties in eastern Pennsylvania, not too far from Philadelphia. The construction has occurred around-the-clock for years, but the company is still struggling to make progress. “The fact that they’ve been in some of these neighborhoods since 2017 tells me that they can’t do it,” Zegart said.
Energy Transfer is “a company that has a track record of irresponsible building, harassing homeowners through eminent domain, ignoring environmental impediments,” Zegart said. “It is first among equals in an industry that really doesn’t give a damn about the environment and just plows ahead.”
Energy Transfer did not respond to a request for comment.
The environmental crimes announced by Attorney General Shapiro may result only in fines, even if they are successfully prosecuted. No individuals will be personally charged, a shortcoming that Shapiro readily admitted.
“Under our state laws, if convicted, this company will be sentenced to fines and restitution. There is no jail time for these environmental crimes, and fines are not enough,” Shapiro said. “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.”
Six Pennsylvania representatives and three state senators cosigned a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf, calling on him to halt construction of Mariner East 2 and revoke its permits. “This report confirms that the Mariner East project should never have been approved in the first place and remains an ongoing threat to communities across our state,” they wrote. Environmental groups also called on Gov. Wolf to halt construction.
It is not clear if Gov. Wolf will act. “This was a pipeline that from the beginning was forced through the regulatory process by sheer dint of political power,” Zegart said.
He pointed to previous reporting from The Guardian in 2019 that suggests that the office of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf leaned on the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to “cut short their environmental review.” A few weeks later, DEP approved the pipeline. Gov. Wolf took in around $1.5 million in campaign donations from the oil and gas industry during his 2014 election campaign.
“The governor has repeatedly called on the General Assembly to strengthen existing laws on permitting processes to hold permittees to the highest level of accountability,” Rachel Kostelac, deputy press secretary for Gov. Wolf, said in a statement to DeSmog. “The administration appreciates the diligence of the Office of Attorney General through the course of the investigation and will review the charges and determine if any additional actions are appropriate at this time.”
But critics say that Gov. Wolf has a poor track record of taking on the gas industry. “The fact of the matter is the Wolf administration, while talking tough, has done nothing to rein in this pipeline. Absolutely nothing,” Zegart said. “The Department of Environmental Protection hasn’t done anything either.”
In Pennsylvania, “fracking is king,” he said.