Chesco DA Launches Criminal Investigation of Sunoco Mariner East Pipeline Project

In the wake of sinkholes and other problems that have dogged the construction of natural gas pipelines in Chester County, the DA’s Office says it is stepping in to ensure residents’ safety.

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Pipeline construction workers stand along the Mariner East pipeline route near Lisa Drive, just outside Exton.

This story has been updated to include statements from Sunoco and the office of Gov. Tom Wolf.

The Chester County District Attorney’s Office is launching a criminal investigation into Sunoco’s problem-riddled, cross-state Mariner East natural gas pipelines.

The pipelines, which cut directly across Chester County, remain partially under construction. Sunoco intends to use them to transfer highly pressurized and volatile natural gas from the lucrative Marcellus Shale region in Western Pennsylvania to a facility in Marcus Hook, a borough located southeast of Philadelphia on the Delaware River.

But the company has encountered many issues along the way, including temporary pipeline shutdowns, a slew of environmental violations and fines issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and lawsuits filed by environmental organizations and residents who say pipeline construction has significantly damaged their properties. (This past spring, I visited a neighborhood in White Whiteland Township, on the outskirts of Exton, where all three pipelines were being built. Residents there said they’d seen their lawns muddied and mutated by construction equipment, drilling and multiple sinkholes. You can read more here.)

The aftermath of a drilling spill that occurred November along Lisa Drive | Via TJ Allen

The DEP and state Public Utility Commission are in charge of overseeing the Mariner East pipelines project, but Chester County DA Tom Hogan says they’re not doing enough to ensure the safety of residents.

“In the last two years, we have seen these pipelines rip through the heart of Chester County,” Hogan said in a statement. “We have seen sinkholes created by the pipeline drilling, contaminated well water, and some subtle and not-so-subtle bullying of Chester County citizens by big corporate interests.

“We expected the state regulators and the governor to step in and assure the safety of Pennsylvanians,” Hogan added. “They have not.”

In a statement, Sunoco said it was “surprised to learn that the Chester County District Attorney believes there is a legal basis for conducting a criminal investigation into our company and the Mariner East pipelines.”

“We are confident that we have not acted to violate any criminal laws in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and we are committed to aggressively defending ourselves against these baseless allegations,” the company said. 

J.J. Abbott, a spokesperson for Gov. Tom Wolf’s office, said the DEP and the PUC “have provided unprecedented oversight over the Mariner East project. He noted that the DEP has issued more than 80 notices of violation to Sunoco for violating permits and has collected more than $13 million in penalties.

“DEP included many very stringent and aggressive special conditions in the permits to protect the environment and has been enforcing those conditions when violated,” Abbott said. “The commonwealth is living up to our promise to hold this project accountable to the strong protections in the permits and our abilities under existing law. We welcome any partners who want to constructively talk about improving state oversight.”

In addition, the PUC said it has “a number of active and ongoing investigations and cases involving Sunoco and the Mariner pipelines, including complaints brought by the PUC’s Pipeline Safety Division as well as private citizens.

“Our experienced investigators remain focused on the mission of enforcing Pennsylvania’s safety regulations — which includes inspections, investigations and enforcement actions — and the Commission will not hesitate to take appropriate action based on the facts, the evidence and the law,” a PUC spokesperson said.

The Chester County DA’s Office will investigate both past and future conduct regarding the pipelines. Hogan said potential charges include “causing or risking a catastrophe, criminal mischief, environmental crimes, and corrupt organizations.”

The office said two major issues spurred its investigation. (Stay with us here — this gets a little complicated, but it’s important.)

First, Hogan cited Sunoco’s use of horizontal directional drilling, which uses a mix of high-pressure water and bentonite mud to break up rock formations and soil in order to clear paths for pipelines. HDD is typically not recommended in areas rich in limestone or near geological fault or fracture systems — but, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Sunoco used HDD during construction on the Mariner East pipelines in a neighborhood along Lisa Drive, just outside Exton, almost exactly atop a fault line where two rock formations meet and form a fracture contact (and one of those rock formations is composed primarily of limestone).

Several sinkholes formed in the neighborhood in question in the spring, including one that exposed the bare, buried pipe of Mariner East 1. Shortly afterward, the PUC temporarily shut down the pipeline, claiming its operation could pose a potentially “catastrophic” risk to public safety.

Hogan said he visited Lisa Drive residents over Thanksgiving and that “the concerns and fears of those citizens were heart-wrenching.”

In addition, the Chester County DA’s office referenced a September pipeline explosion northwest of Pittsburgh in Beaver County. That rupture saw 150-foot flames and destroyed a home about 500 feet from the blast site. StateImpact reported that that blast occurred on the 100-mile-long Revolution pipeline, which is owned by Sunoco’s parent company, Energy Transfer Partners, and was created to feed two other pipelines — including Mariner East 2.

There were no injuries in the rupture. As of October, a landslide was believed to be the cause. The PUC, which is investigating the incident, issued a shutdown of the pipeline until Energy Transfer provides “documentation that demonstrates that they are compliant with the federal and state codes and can operate the pipeline safely.”

The incident reverberated in Chester County, where Hogan said it “changed speculation into terrible danger and destruction.”

Hogan said his office has notified Sunoco of the investigation, which will be led by detective Ben Martin. Anyone with information is asked to call 610-344-6866.

“This investigation will not be easy,” Hogan said. “It will take time to dig into the historical information, and we will need to constantly monitor any future activity. But we are committed to protecting Chester County. And we will need our citizens to help.”