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Pennsylvania begins probe into Mariner East on alleged criminal misconduct

The Pennsylvania attorney general's office and the district attorney of Delaware County, Pa., opened a joint criminal investigation into Energy Transfer LP subsidiary Sunoco Pipeline LP's Mariner East family of NGL pipelines on allegations of criminal misconduct during construction, adding to the string of legal and regulatory actions against Energy Transfer over the expansion of its pipeline system.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro on March 12 announced his office's probe into the Mariner East 2 NGL pipeline on Twitter, noting that the case was referred by Delaware County District Attorney Katayoun Copeland. In a separate statement, Copeland said Mariner East 2 "poses certain concerns and risks" to residents. "At this time, we are thoroughly reviewing the evidence available to us, working with the Attorney General's office, and seeking action within our jurisdictional boundaries," Copeland said.

The district attorney's move was in response to formal complaints from residents, including members of grassroots groups Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety and Middletown Coalition for Community Safety, on the pipeline's operations. Residents had expressed concerns on possible catastrophes and property damage.

The joint probe comes after Pennsylvania environmental regulators suspended reviews on key permits for Energy Transfer's Revolution gas pipeline and the Mariner East pipelines in February, citing in part the company's noncompliance with an October cleanup order after an explosion on the Revolution pipeline.

The investigation also follows a similar probe by the district attorney of Chester County, Pa., in December 2018. County District Attorney Thomas Hogan said the construction work caused sinkholes and contaminated well water that affected residents.

In a March 13 email, Energy Transfer said it will "aggressively" defend itself as it believes there is a lack of legitimate basis for conducting the criminal investigation. "We are confident that we have not acted to violate any criminal laws in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," a spokesperson for Energy Transfer said. "We look forward to opening a dialogue with the Attorney General's and District Attorney's offices in the hope that we can bring this matter to an appropriate resolution."

Separately, Pennsylvania lawmakers representing 11 House and three Senate districts across Delaware and Chester counties wrote to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, requesting to halt operations on the Mariner East pipeline system until mandated protocols for emergency response have been set.

In order to fulfill their statutory requirement under state law, Chester County's emergency services department and local school districts had requested Sunoco to release an emergency response plan for Mariner East, according to the letter. The lack of an emergency response plan means that during an emergency, the first responders would function differently than the operator, obstructing "immediacy in coordination and response to effectively prevent the loss of life and property."

"We have homeland security protected, national security risk level facilities currently transporting highly volatile products through our 'high consequence' communities that our local first responders have not mitigated or planned to address adequately due to lack of cooperation from an operator," the letter said, adding that Sunoco "is risking a catastrophe, which under [state law] is a criminal offense."

The Mariner East family of pipeline consists of Mariner East 1 line, designed to carry 70,000 barrels per day of NGLs from western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio to Marcus Hook, Pa., for export, and Mariner East 2, which follows the same route and raises the line's capacity to 345,000 bbl/d. Mariner East 1 is closed because of sinkhole issues near its eastern terminus in Chester County. Mariner East 2x remains under construction.