WEST CHESTER — While news that the FBI is investigating how permits were issued for the Sunoco/ET Mariner East pipeline spread across Chester County and the nation this week, questions about the project and its permits are nothing new for some state lawmakers
State Sen. Andrew Dinniman has been on the record in raising serious concerns about the safety and permitting of the controversial and problem-plagued pipeline project since as early as five years ago – long before it became big news and the subject of three criminal investigations.
“To raise these concerns and ask the same questions month after month, year after year and get no real answers, even as Mariner East caused problems that posed significant health, environmental and safety risks again and again and again was, at times, exasperating. I know many of my constituents and neighbors felt the same way. And as a state Senator, it remains challenging to confront the failure of multiple government agencies operating in these bureaucratic silos,” Dinniman said. “But I’m sticking with it because I have a duty to my constituents, and I have a responsibility as a good neighbor. After all, I live here, too.”
Dinniman said while he cannot say that any wrongdoing took place, he hopes the FBI investigation shines a bright light on the questions he has raised about the pipeline permitting process.
“I want to be very clear that I am not accusing the state or its agencies of criminal activity. That is the job of the FBI, the Chester County District Attorney, and the Pennsylvania Attorney General. My office is available to assist them and I have volumes of information and correspondence that we are more than happy to provide,” Dinniman said. “But after both me and my constituents were routinely stonewalled by the very state agencies responsible for public safety, the fact that the FBI is taking a look at the permitting process gives us hope for getting the answers we never got.”
In 2015, Dinniman contacted the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission regarding concerns over confusion surrounding permitting authority and Sunoco/ET’s land agents aggressively contacting homeowners despite the lack of permit approval.
In a January 29, 2015 letter to PUC Chair Gladys Brown, Dinniman wrote, “I respectfully request some clarification regarding the proper procedure, protocol, and authority granted to companies such as Sunoco Logistics during the planning and negotiating phases of such a complicated and intrusive construction project . . . One example of this uncertainly can be demonstrated through the permitting and sighting process.” In the letter, Dinniman questioned how Sunoco/ET and its land agents can move ahead with certain processes despite having incomplete and unapproved permits. He also raised concerns about the lack of regulation and oversight of the pipeline. Read the letter.
In 2016, Dinniman led a group of residents in questioning the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s consideration of permits at a hearing at West Chester University. At the August hearing he was a vocal and passionate advocate for residents’ “real and valid concerns about the project and its impact on their homes, property values, health, safety, environment, and quality of life.” Read more.
In 2017, Dinniman called on DEP to revoke Sunoco/ET’s permits for Mariner East after several wells were negatively impacted, contaminated and even permanently damaged by pipeline construction operations and well-owners were not notified of construction activity in a timely manner as specified in the approved permit.
In a July 14, 2017 letter to DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell, Dinniman wrote, “It is my strong opinion that Sunoco has violated the agreed upon principals and terms of the Special Conditions listed in DEP’s Water Obstruction and Encroachment Permit . . . I respectfully request a full review of horizontal directional drilling activities associated with this permit, a thorough and complete evaluation and identification of private wells along the approved pipeline route, and an investigation regarding the lack of due diligence demonstrated by Sunoco.” He also called for a suspension of construction activity until groundwater safety could be assured. Read the letter.
On August 31, 2017, Dinniman was forced to file a Right-to-Know (RTK) request to attempt to obtain information from DEP regarding the aforementioned listing of private wells and well-owners that were to be notified of pipeline construction activity under the approved permit. Dinniman heard from several residents who said they had not been contacted in a timely manner prior to pipeline construction. Upon further investigation, he learned that the list used by DEP was so grossly inadequate that even Sunoco/ET recognized its failings. Yet, the department still tried to block Dinniman’s request for more detailed information. Read the RTK request.
Through 2018 and 2019, Dinniman contacted DEP on numerous occasions raising concerns about permit modifications sought by Sunoco/ET that he cautioned would pose an increased threat to public and environmental safety. Dinniman felt their applications for such modifications were lacking vital information.
In a January 23, 2018 letter to Karen Yordy, Executive Assistant of DEP’s Office of Program’s Dinniman wrote, “It is my strong recommendation that the Department reject this report as incomplete, call for significant public involvement and comment, and require Sunoco to perform complete impact evaluations to ensure construction activities do not cause permeant and irreparable harm to the environment and the citizens . . .” Despite Dinniman’ s objections, those modifications were ultimately granted. Read that letter here and other examples here and here.
In July 5, 2018, Dinniman contacted the PUC regarding Sunco/ET’s plans and lack of state permitting to repurpose a 12-inch petroleum to carry hazardous natural gas liquids as part of Mariner East. “Once again, I must express my disbelief at how our Commonwealth, through the PUC, continues to place the public in harm’s way,” he wrote to Brown. “If this modification is a component of the active interstate pipeline process and as PHMSA has delegated authority to the PUC, how is it appropriate to circumvent PUC oversight and regulatory authority?”
In 2019, Dinniman laid bare his concerns regarding the permitting of Mariner East in memo to fellow senators and a letter to McDonnell prior to a vote on his reconfirmation as DEP secretary. In the April 25, 2019 letter and memo, Dinniman asks McDonnell, point blank: “Did you personally ask DEP staff to approve this project in early February 2017 rather than continue the review process?” He also asks, “Why would the Department approve permit applications prior to the finalization of a report documenting potential construction impacts?” Read the memo.
A hearing on McDonnell’s reconfirmation was delayed for several days due to concerns raised by Dinniman and others before eventually going forward. At a May 8, 2019 Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee hearing, McDonnell refused to answer the questions citing ongoing litigation into the matter, including criminal investigations being conducted by the Chester County District Attorney and the Pennsylvania Attorney General (at the request of the Delaware County District Attorney). Dinniman was one of two Senators to vote against McDonell’s reconfirmation at the committee hearing and later in the full Senate. Watch his comments on the Senate floor at that time.
“What is most frustrating is to know that we raised these concerns from the beginning and so many of the problems with Mariner East could have likely been avoided or at least mitigated had the permitting process been done with due diligence from the get-go,” Dinniman said. “That said, we still deserve answers and I hope we get them.”