Finally! Sunoco Charged With Environmental Crimes Over Mariner East Pipeline

Pennsylvania’s attorney general charges company with 48 crimes connected to water contamination


Climate and Energy

by Peter Hart, Ginny Kerslake, and Megan McDonough

From the very start, we knew Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 project — a 350 mile pipeline across Pennsylvania — would be a disaster.

We knew that Governor Tom Wolf pushed state agencies to approve the massive project, which carries fracked gas liquids to a port in Philadelphia, where they are shipped in tankers to Europe to make plastic junk.  

We saw for ourselves how the pipeline construction ripped up communities, contaminated drinking water, created sinkholes, and spilled drilling mud into lakes and streams.

We knew that Sunoco and parent company Energy Transfer were getting away with what seemed like criminal behavior, and we have urged state officials to take more serious action.

On October 5, things changed. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced that Sunoco/Energy Transfer was charged with 48 crimes related to the construction of the pipeline. A grand jury investigation found that the company routinely failed to report spills of drilling-related industrial waste.

Everything We Already Knew About Mariner East Pipeline — Plus a Lot More 

The details in the report are both familiar and horrifying to those who have followed this story. There was a consistent pattern: As they carried out horizontal directional drilling (HDD) at sites across the state, Sunoco’s contractors would spill drilling fluid, and the company mostly failed to report the accidents.

The drilling under Raystown Lake, for example, was a years-long disaster. The first contractor spilled 780,000 gallons of waste into the lake — but none of these eight ‘accidents’ were ever reported to the state. The next contractor had more problems, and Sunoco reported almost none of these either. All told, millions of gallons of waste was dumped into Raystown Lake.  

The same was happening near other lakes and streams, next to apartment buildings, and in residential neighborhoods.

And as appalling as these details are, the grand jury is crystal clear about one thing: The problems are far worse than what they have documented. Their report focuses on waste spills at 21 locations, but that is just 16 percent of the horizontal drilling that took place across the state. We know the same things were occurring at other sites; dozens of spills that impacted bodies of water were reported to the state. But the patterns of behavior documented by the grand jury report indicate that Sunoco failed to report many, many more.

Sunoco’s Threat To Drinking Water  

The report also covers some of the ways Sunoco ruined drinking water when drilling fluids entered water wells or an aquifer. One resident, Rosemary Fuller, experienced a range of problems almost as soon as construction began near her home. After she notified the state, Sunoco sampled her water, and told her that the problem was just harmless bentonite from the drilling fluid. 

A few weeks later, the grand jury report says, 

“she received a follow-up email informing her that additional test results indicated her water had tested high for e-coli and fecal coliform. In the intervening time period, her daughter drank the water and was hospitalized.”

The grand jury found that the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has a list of 183 people who have complained about water problems, And the problem could be bigger: 

“The possibility exists that the number of families that have had their only water supply impacted by this project is larger than is known. Many of the agreements that Sunoco entered into with homeowners who were affected by pipeline construction included non-disclosure provisions. Some of these prohibit a homeowner from speaking even with DEP or other governmental entities at the township, borough, county, state or federal level.”

Sunoco Paid The Fines And Kept Polluting. It’s Time For Governor Wolf To Stop This. 

Sunoco’s destructive behavior has not gone unpunished by the state. They have been issued more than a hundred violations and have paid millions of dollars in fines; at one point the state suspended reviews of new water permits due to the company’s record.  There have been a series of investigations, and even reports of an FBI probe into the Wolf administration’s approval of the pipeline.

The criminal case against Sunoco is a step forward for accountability. But the ultimate decision about the fate of Mariner East — and the communities that have been abused and put at risk by this corporation  — rests with Governor Wolf. All along, he has had the power to stop this. As the company finally faces legal challenges, will the governor finally do the right thing?

People need to know about this.