Wolf in the hole

Is there anyone who is not investigating the Mariner East pipeline project?

First it was Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan, who empaneled a criminal investigative grand jury to hear from witnesses and review evidence on the multi-billion dollar project that will ferry volatile liquid gases such as ethane, butane and propane at high pressure across the full width of Pennsylvania to a facility at the former Sunoco refinery in Marcus Hook.

Then Delaware County District Attorney Katayoun Copeland jumped into the fray. Her office announced it would join with state Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office in reviewing citizen complaints about the project, which traverses 350 miles from the Marcellus Shale regions of the state, across Berks County, and 22 miles through the heart of Chester County, before snaking the final 11 miles along western Delaware County.

Both investigations are ongoing. Recently they were joined by federal authorities when it was revealed that the FBI was probing how the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf came to issue permits for the project and whether any undue influence was used to push the project ahead.

While the fight over Mariner East has reached the boiling point in the past year, its history goes back several years, including a crucial victory in court where Sunoco, the original owner of the project, was granted public utility status. The ruling cleared the path for the company, now a spinoff of Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, to use eminent domain to acquire property along the proposed path of the pipeline.

That path has been at the heart of the tug-of-war between residents who have vehemently opposed Mariner East. On the other side are business leaders, unions and some local governments who have boosted the project as an economic blockbuster for the region.

The original Mariner East permit applications were submitted in 2015. The project was expected to be up and running by 2017. But problems, as well as myriad state actions, have delayed completion of the project until at least 2020. Energy Transfer is moving some liquid gases through Mariner East 2 by filling in gaps in the new pipeline with decades-old pipes retrofitted to handle the new materials.

From the start, citizens have questioned the route selected for Mariner East, saying it made no sense to allow such volatile materials to cut through densely populated neighborhoods -- sometimes in people’s backyards -- and often in close proximity to schools and senior centers.

They also have questioned the safety of the project, and what they see as a lack of communication from the company when problems pop up, as well as the lack of an adequate response plan should the unthinkable happen, a catastrophic leak or explosion.

They have watched as construction has left ugly scarring on bucolic landscapes.

Not helping matters has been a nagging series of issues connected to pipeline construction, including runoffs, sinkholes in at least two different neighborhoods in both Chester and Delaware counties, and contaminated water wells.

A recent leak at a valve station on an old petroleum pipeline, not directly connected to Mariner East, led to another recurring issue. Tim Boyce, director of Delaware County Emergency Services, reported to Delaware County Council that the county was never notified of the leak. County first responders arriving on the scene were met by a company team already working to repair the leak. Energy Transfer indicated they alerted local authorities.

The company has steadfastly responded to problems by describing them as part of the construction process, noting that no one has been injured, and the public has never been in danger. Energy Transfer has vowed that Mariner East is being built and will be operated to the highest industry standards.

That has not stopped state authorities from levying millions of dollars in fines against the company, as well as ordering several shutdowns and halts in construction.

However, all the residents’ pleas, as well as state action, has not halted the project. Gov. Wolf finally acceded to residents’ requests for a meeting, going face-to-face with opponents a month ago along the pipeline route in Chester County. While he said he shared their desire for the project to be built and operated as safely as possible, he made it clear he had no intention of granting their demand to shut the project down. He has sided with unions and energy industry groups who hail Mariner East as an economic boon, saying the economic benefits outweigh any potential environmental harm.

Now the feds are joining the party. Gov. Wolf has said he welcomes the scrutiny, maintaining he is unaware of any undue pressure applied to state officials during the permitting process.

There’s a lot at stake in Mariner East 2. There is no questioning its economic benefits, just as there is no answer to the one question that keeps its opponents awake at night.

What if? What if something happens?

The investigation by the FBI is not likely to ease that concern, but we welcome it as the latest peek inside the murky permitting process that has shrouded this massive project since its inception.

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