Chester County’s District Attorney on Friday named a former federal prosecutor with experience in environmental law to work on a criminal investigation into Sunoco’s controversial Mariner East 2 pipeline, and said the probe will go ahead regardless of any talks with the company.
DA Tom Hogan said Seth Weber prosecuted many complex environmental cases as well as political corruption, drugs and violent crime cases during a 26-year career as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
Hogan said in an interview on Friday that his office has been in touch with Sunoco since the investigation was announced, and that company officials are due to come to his office next week to discuss turning over the many documents that his office has demanded.
The company said after the probe was announced on Dec. 19 that it looked forward to speaking with Hogan’s office in the hope of bringing the matter to an “appropriate resolution.”
But Hogan said the investigation will proceed whether or not there are talks with Sunoco.
“Nothing is going to stop the investigation,” Hogan said. “It’s simply a matter of them turning over information to us and us going through the information and then we will probably be back to them requesting more information. We will be interviewing people, experts will be reviewing stuff, all the things that normally go into an environmental investigation.”
Hogan said the outcome of the probe might include “criminal charges, or a report, or nothing.” He added: “We don’t know what we don’t know.”
Sunoco said Weber’s appointment is an addition to what it called a “meritless” investigation. Hogan “will not be able to avoid the inescapable conclusion that Energy Transfer has not engaged in any form of criminal activity, and the issues referenced have already each been thoroughly investigated, reviewed, and ultimately resolved by the appropriate government agencies,” said Lisa Dillinger, a spokeswoman for Sunoco’s parent, Energy Transfer.
Weber offered his services after hearing about the investigation, and has agreed to join two other prosecutors as part of the team even though he will not be paid, Hogan said.
Hogan said Weber’s appointment “certainly sends a message that we are taking it very seriously, and that somebody who has experience in this field is taking it very seriously.
“Seth has been through these battles many times before so if you’re going into a fight, you want the best players on your team, and Seth is one of the best players around.”
Legal experts said Weber’s appointment signals the gravity of possible charges against Sunoco.
“It tells you what the Chester County DA thinks about the potential seriousness of possible charges,” said John Dernbach, a professor of environmental law at Widener University in Harrisburg. “The apparent qualifications of the special prosecutor tend to support that.”
Rich Raiders, an environmental and land-use attorney who represents some landowners who are fighting the pipeline, said Weber will provide expertise that the DA’s office may lack.
“This is significant,” he said. “It means that the DA is looking for experienced help on a matter that is normally outside their typical expertise. Prosecutors like this are very skilled in following the evidence wherever it takes them.”
Weber could not be reached for comment but said in the statement released by Hogan that he would work to prevent the pipeline project posing any risk to the safety of Chester County residents.
When the investigation was announced, Hogan said it was prompted by sinkholes, contaminated well water and “not-so-subtle bullying” of residents during construction of the controversial project. He said possible charges against Sunoco include risking a catastrophe, criminal mischief, and environmental crimes.
After many delays caused by regulatory shutdowns and technical difficulties, the cross-state pipeline began carrying natural gas liquids on Dec. 29, Sunoco said. The line, initially consisting of joined-up sections of 20-inch, 16-inch and 12-inch pipes, is supplying the liquids to a terminal at Marcus Hook in Delaware County where most of it will be exported overseas for plastics production.
Opponents are now calling on prosecutors in neighboring Delaware and Berks Counties to launch their own criminal investigations into the project.
Sam Rubin, an organizer with the environmental group Food & Water Watch, said the investigation, and Weber’s addition to it, shows that Hogan “understands there has been a momentous political shift in Chester County as a result of citizen organizing against this dangerous and risky project.”
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New Jersey’s attorney general says PennEast Pipeline Co. can’t legally sue the state for access to more than 40 parcels of protected land, and argues that a federal judge was wrong to rule that the company could do so.
Gurbir Grewal fired his latest shot against PennEast’s plan to build its controversial natural gas pipeline through New Jersey, urging U.S. District Judge Brian Martinotti to reconsider his Dec. 14 ruling that gives the company access to public and private lands to do pre-construction surveys.
The state holds property rights over 44 lots of up to about four acres each where PennEast wants to create permanent or temporary easements for building its pipeline but which are permanently preserved for “recreational, conservation and/or agricultural uses,” Grewal said in a 19-page filing to the federal court on Dec. 28.
He argued that the judge erred by holding that New Jersey is not immune from being sued by a private company like PennEast. In fact, the attorney general said, the state’s rights are protected by the Eleventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prevents private citizens – in this case, deemed to be PennEast – from suing states in federal court.
Even though the federal government has transferred its eminent domain authority to PennEast – through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s certificate of public convenience for the project, issued almost a year ago – that doesn’t mean the state has also lost its immunity to being sued in federal court, the document said, citing rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and two appeals courts.
PennEast said it is reviewing the motion but is “very confident in the well-reasoned and sound rulings from Judge Martinotti.”
The parcels in question include public state-owned land as well as private land with conservation easements. The project would cross dozens of waterways and wetlands, as well as the main stem of the Delaware River. PennEast says it will minimize impacts to waterways by drilling beneath streams where possible, and restore streambeds after construction is completed.
The New Jersey Conservation Foundation, an outspoken opponent of PennEast, welcomed the state’s filing as the latest signal of its efforts to deny the company access to the land.
“The State again showed that it is a staunch defender of New Jersey’s taxpayer-preserved open spaces that are being threatened by the unapproved PennEast pipeline. These lands were preserved for the public, not for an unneeded pipeline,” said Tom Gilbert, the NJCF’s campaign director.
In February, Grewal rejected PennEast’s offers of compensation for access to several parcels of public land in Hunterdon County, saying it didn’t give the state enough time to evaluate the offers, and had not explained how it calculated those sums.
In May, he asked a federal appeals court to review FERC’s approval of the PennEast project, saying the company didn’t know enough about any environmental impact because so many landowners had denied access.
Martinotti’s ruling, which came about eight months after oral arguments, gave PennEast access to about 130 properties, including the 44 protected parcels. The decision was an important step forward for the pipeline project in the face of strong attacks in many communities along the route, and claims by activist groups, and the New Jersey Rate Counsel, an advocate for utility ratepayers, that the pipeline is unnecessary.
But it faces scrutiny by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which has already rejected the company’s application for a water-quality permit on the grounds of insufficient information.
It could take 18 months for PennEast to gather survey data and submit a new application for evaluation by the DEP, according to Tim Duggan, an attorney for some private landowners, nonprofits and local government entities that oppose the pipeline. The DEP’s permit process could conflict with the company’s stated plans to start construction in 2019.
The project also needs a permit from the Delaware River Basin Commission for its plan to build the pipeline under the river between the two states. The interstate water regulator is reviewing the application but has not scheduled public hearings, its spokeswoman, Kate Schmidt, said in December.
If built, the $1 billion line will carry natural gas from the Marcellus Shale of Luzerne County in northeastern Pennsylvania about 120 miles to Mercer County, N.J.
In Pennsylvania, a federal judge handed PennEast another victory in December, ruling that one landowner must give the company access to her property to conduct surveys.
Pennsylvania’s impact fees are collected annually from natural gas drillers — but certain low-producing wells, known as stripper wells, are exempt.
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The project faced multiple regulatory setbacks and was already 18 months behind schedule when it missed a September start-up target. It still faces a hearing before the PUC and a criminal investigation by the Chester County district attorney.
The threat of groundwater contamination from two former military bases appears to be spreading, and Bucks County U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick wants to build a national coalition within Congress to confront the issue.
The contamination is from chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyls, also known as PFAS, found in firefighting foamused at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station in Horsham and the Naval Air Warfare Center in Warminster, both now closed. However, researchers say the potential health effects of drinking the contaminated water are unclear.
Fitzpatrick said in a phone interview that communities near military bases around the country are facing the same problem, so he’s assembling a caucus of representatives to work together on the issue.
“I think the caucus will bring strength in numbers,” Fitzpatrick said. “Rather than us individually fighting in individual districts, we can have potentially a force-multiplier effect where we all come together.”
Residents in Horsham, Warminster and Warrington learned of the contamination in 2014.
The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported that at least 22 other towns have water with at least some contamination from the chemicals.
Fitzpatrick said it’s been hard to get clear answers from the U.S. Department of Defense.
“There’s essentially a lot of finger-pointing going on between the branches of the military, between DOD and EPA on where liability exists,” he said. “Everybody knows there’s clearly liability here. These residents did nothing wrong. They purchased properties in these areas and now they’re being subject to contaminated water.”
There’s no clear remediation plan yet or even an agreement on the standards for how much of the chemical poses a risk in drinking water.
WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.
More pipelines coming online, coupled with high production, means the industry’s focus is shifting to how it can best use the region’s natural gas.