The owner of a pipeline project that cuts across 17 counties in Pennsylvania – including Lebanon County – has been charged with 48 counts of environmental crimes by the state Attorney General.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro, in conjunction with the 45th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury, announced the charges Oct. 5 against Sunoco and its parent company, Energy Transfer, L.P., owner of the Mariner East 2 Pipeline.
“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.”
According to the statement posted to the Attorney General’s website, criminal charges were recommended by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection after the Grand Jury learned that, “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.”
The spills occurred at many sites along the pipeline’s 350-mile-long path through Pennsylvania, where Energy Transfer had permits allowing horizontal directional drilling as the construction method, the Attorney General’s statement explains. The complaint calls out specifically the use of unapproved drilling fluid additives in the course of horizontal directional drilling in the area of Snitz Creek/Zinns Mill Road in West Cornwall Township, among more than a dozen other sites in the commonwealth.
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Energy Transfer “failed to report the losses of fluid (to DEP) … numerous times, in spite of the legal requirement to do so,” the document notes. “The Grand Jury found that there were multiple drill locations where the drilling fluid contained unapproved additives that entered the waters of the Commonwealth — impacting the drinking water of Pennsylvanians who rely on water wells.”
The Grand Jury recommended that Energy Transfer be charged with 22 counts of Prohibition of Discharge of Industrial Waste under the Clean Streams Law, 22 counts of Prohibition Against Other Pollutions under the Clean Streams Law, two misdemeanor counts of Unlawful Conduct under the Clean Streams Law, and one felony count of Unlawful Conduct under the Clean Streams Law.
This case is being prosecuted by Chief Deputy Attorney General Rebecca Franz.
No jail time
Despite criminal charges, no one at Energy Transfer will face jail time, Shapiro explained – and he believes new legislation is needed to stiffen the penalties for environmental violations.
“Under our state laws, if convicted, this company will be sentenced to fines and restitution,” he stated. “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.”
A spill in August 2020 dumped as much as 28,000 gallons of contaminated fluid into Marsh Creek Lake in Chester County – up from early estimates that said only 8,100 gallons were spilled. Between 2017 and 2020, more than 80,000 gallons of contaminated fluid were “released in and around the lake during the construction of this one segment of the pipeline,” the press release reveals.
Homeowners close to the construction area told the Grand Jury “of dangerous impacts to their drinking water,” the release states. Residents reported seeing gray and coffee-colored water after construction began near their homes.
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In another example, Shapiro said, a Delaware County resident who gave Energy Transfer permission to drill on her property soon noticed sediment in her water that destroyed several appliances in her home and, later, tested her water supply and found high concentrations of e. coli and fecal coliform.
“Pennsylvanians from impacted communities testified about thousands of gallons of drilling fluid being lost underground – groundwater and lakes, rivers, and streams contaminated,” Shapiro reported. “What they said was consistent: Energy Transfer started drilling, the fluid started leaking, their drinking water was impacted, DEP wasn’t notified, and nobody was held criminally accountable. These charges are changing that, starting today.”
Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer, whose office first referred the case to the state Attorney General, said criminal prosecutors in Pennsylvania “have made it clear that the environment and our communities will be protected, using the tools that the criminal justice system offers.”
Note: This story was edited to show that it was the Delaware County District Attorney’s office, not Jack Stollsteimer specifically, who referred the case to the Attorney General’s office.
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