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Energy Transfer pleads no contest to criminal charges related to Mariner East pipeline construction

Jon Hurdle
StateImpact Pennsylvania

The state attorney general says Texas-based pipeline builder Energy Transfer is “accepting criminal responsibility” for dozens of charges related to construction of its Mariner East pipeline project.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced the company waived its preliminary hearing scheduled for Friday. Energy Transfer pleaded no contest to the charges, and the company will have a permanent criminal record for causing damage to drinking water, wetlands and waterways across the state during five years of construction on the liquified natural gas pipeline system.

“It’s about time this company was held accountable for the damage they inflicted on residents and the environment,” said Delaware Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum.

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In October 2021, the Attorney General released a grand jury presentment dozens of pages long that detailed sinkholes, drilling mud spills, and drinking water contamination at 22 sites in 11 counties across Pennsylvania. In February, the AG charged the company with nine additional criminal charges related to the 2018 explosion of the Revolution Pipeline in Beaver County.

The plea includes the charges related to the Revolution pipeline.

Energy Transfer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The charges it faced were against the company itself, not individuals at the company. Before the charges were filed, the company acknowledged in an earnings report that the attorney general had been looking at “alleged criminal misconduct involving the construction and related activities of the Mariner East pipelines.” The company said it was cooperating but that “it intends to vigorously defend itself.”

As part of the plea, Energy Transfer is required to remediate and restore damaged water supplies. People who believe their water to be impacted will get free testing from an independent party. The Attorney General will hire independent professional geologists with no connection to the company to perform a review.

Energy Transfer will spend $10 million to restore waterways damaged by its construction. The Attorney General’s office says that is more than six times the maximum penalty required under state law. Under the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law, penalties for these charges would have amounted to just $1.45 million.

When announcing the October charges, Shapiro called on the state legislature to toughen enforcement standards and fines, and said the Department of Environmental Protection “at times failed” to protect residents.

He highlighted the testimony of Rosemary Fuller of Delaware County, whose daughter was hospitalized after drinking water contaminated by Energy Transfer’s pipeline construction. The company had told her nothing was wrong with the water, but testing revealed E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria. Fuller’s water has not been restored.

The grand jury also found the company used unapproved chemicals in its drilling mud.

Over the course of five years, DEP fined Energy Transfer more than $20 million for more than 120 violations that stretch along the 350-mile-long pipeline, which travels through 17 counties, crosses 2,700 properties, and cuts beneath 1,200 streams or wetlands.

It carries volatile natural gas liquids from Marcellus Shale fields in Ohio and western Pennsylvania to the Marcus Hook industrial complex in Delaware County, Pa. Construction of the three-line project began in February 2017 but became mired in legal challenges and mishaps, was subject to a number of consent decrees resulting from citizen lawsuits, and was completed in February, several years behind schedule.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among WESA, The Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY.

Susan Phillips tells stories about the consequences of political decisions on people's every day lives. She has worked as a reporter for WHYY since 2004. Susan's coverage of the 2008 Presidential election resulted in a story on the front page of the New York Times. In 2010 she traveled to Haiti to cover the earthquake. That same year she produced an award-winning series on Pennsylvania's natural gas rush called "The Shale Game." Along with her reporting partner Scott Detrow, she won the 2013 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Journalism Award for her work covering natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania. She has also won several Edward R. Murrow awards for her work with StateImpact. She recently returned from a year as at MIT as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow. A graduate of Columbia School of Journalism, she earned her Bachelor's degree in International Relations from George Washington University.