The corporate developer of a multibillion-dollar pipeline system that carries natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia was charged criminally Tuesday after a grand jury concluded that it flouted Pennsylvania environmental laws and fouled waterways and residential water supplies across hundreds of miles.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced the sprawling case at a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, where Sunoco Pipeline LP spilled thousands of gallons of drilling fluid last year. The spill, during construction of the troubled Mariner East 2 pipeline, contaminated wetlands, a stream and part of a 535-acre lake.
Energy Transfer, Sunoco's owner, faces 48 criminal charges, most of them for illegally releasing industrial waste at 22 sites in 11 counties across the state. A felony count accuses the operator of willfully failing to report spills to state environmental regulators.
Shapiro said Energy Transfer ruined the drinking water of at least 150 families statewide. He released a grand jury report that includes testimony from numerous residents who accused Energy Transfer of denying responsibility for the contamination and then refusing to help.
The Texas-based pipeline giant was charged with "illegal behavior that related to the construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline that polluted our lakes, our rivers and our water wells and put Pennsylvania's safety at risk," said Shapiro, speaking with Marsh Creek Lake behind him.
Messages were sent to Energy Transfer seeking comment. The company has previously said it intends to defend itself.
The company faces a fine if convicted, which Shapiro said was not a sufficient punishment. He called on state lawmakers to toughen penalties on corporate violators, and said the state Department of Environmental Protection -- which spent freely on outside lawyers for its own employees during the attorney general's investigation -- had failed to conduct appropriate oversight.
In a statement, the department said it has been "consistent in enforcing the permit conditions and regulations and has held Sunoco LP accountable." The agency said it would review the charges "and determine if any additional actions are appropriate at this time."
Residents who live near the pipeline and some state lawmakers said Mariner East should be shut down entirely in light of the criminal charges, but the administration of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has long ignored such calls to pull the plug.
The August 2020 spill at Marsh Creek was among a series of mishaps that have plagued Mariner East since construction began in 2017. Early reports put the spill at 8,100 gallons, but the grand jury heard evidence that the actual loss was up to 28,000 gallons. Parts of the lake are still off-limits.
The pipeline developer continued to rack up civil violations even after Mariner East became one of the most-penalized projects in state history. To date, the Department of Environmental Protection said Energy Transfer has paid more than $20 million in fines for polluting waterways and drinking water wells, including a $12.6 million fine in 2018 that was one of the largest ever imposed by the agency. State regulators have periodically shut down construction.