by Lilly Riddle for the News Lab at Penn State and Spotlight PA State College
Photo courtesy of Daniel Fishel / For Spotlight PA
This story was produced by the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. Sign up for our regional newsletter, Talk of the Town.
A year after the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office secured $10 million to restore private waterways polluted during the construction of the Mariner East II pipeline, little of the money has flowed toward affected residents.
Spotlight PA’s requests for the status of the remediation effort and how many well owners were affected by the pollution have been rebuffed by the office, which disclosed limited information while citing an exemption under the state’s open records law that bars public access to documents linked to a criminal investigation.
The lack of details has left communities and residents with an incomplete picture of the scope of the pollution and the available tools to remedy it.
Between 2018 and 2023, Pennsylvania fined Energy Transfer and its subsidiary Sunoco at least $42 million in connection to the construction of Mariner East II, a now-completed pipeline that transports natural gas liquids between southeastern Ohio and metro Philadelphia.
Of that sum, $32 million comes from penalties levied by Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, which fined the company for leaking drilling fluid into streams, lakes, and private wells. The rest comes from the state attorney general’s office brokering a $10 million plea agreement with Energy Transfer that charged the company with repeat contaminations of waterways, failures to report environmental damage, and the use of unapproved chemicals in drilling fluid.
Energy Transfer did not return a request for comment for this story.
The money is a drop in the bucket compared to the pipeline’s $5 billion construction budget, but environmental lawyer Rich Raiders said such fines set important precedents.
With this type of enforcement, he told Spotlight PA, “You have to figure out, ‘OK, how do I deter somebody else from pulling this?’” When a penalty is sizable, he said, the next pipeline operator “might think twice” about violating environmental rules.
Since the plea agreement was announced, however, less than 1% of the funds have been distributed, and the attorney general’s office has not disclosed the status of the rest.
So far, $1.8 million of the $10 million has been slated for use by Growing Greener, a DEP program that gives grants to conservation organizations. But only $387,786 of the $1.8 million has been committed to projects, and $22,082 of that has been doled out. The rest of the money remains mired in government contracting processes.
In addition, the waterways most polluted by the pipeline’s construction have already been remediated. The $32 million in penalty funds collected by the DEP and distributed to affected municipalities paid for that restoration years ago. Much of the money went toward county conservation districts — which tend to be the groups that investigate and bring spills to the DEP’s attention in the first place — and grants created specifically to address drilling fluid leaks.
Huntingdon County’s Conservation District, for example, received $152,456 from “Water Quality Improvement Projects Along the Mariner East 2 Pipeline Corridor,” a state grant established to remediate waterways in municipalities polluted by the pipeline. The program was funded using money from a $12.6 million fine Sunoco paid in 2018 for permit violations.
If the water is already restored, what’s the purpose of the $10 million? Raiders explained that the agreement allowed the state to avoid taking Energy Transfer to court, which could have ended poorly for the DEP.
“There’s only very few instances that … anybody was ever incarcerated for an environmental crime,” he said. “It’s got to be really, really bad for people to even think about putting somebody in jail, so the only other avenues of relief available are either money or [making the company] do things” — like restoring polluted waterways.
One such condition of the plea agreement was a $442,500 “Homeowner Well Water Supply Grievance Program” fund. Paid for by Sunoco and controlled by an “outside firm,” according to OAG spokesperson Brett Hambright, the program allows residents to have their water tested for pollutants by professional geologists.
The attorney general’s office and state Office of Victim Advocate told Spotlight PA they sent letters beginning in June 2022 to people living within 450 feet of the right of way of the pipeline, according to spokesperson Kate Foley. Residents who received the letter could indicate whether they wanted to have their water independently tested, at which point a professional geologist would evaluate it free of charge.
The attorney general’s office said it received requests for water testing from “just under 800” people in the 17 counties the pipeline passes through, according to Foley. It is unclear how many people were sent the letters. In response to questions from Spotlight PA, the attorney general’s office did not say how many residents were contacted.
If testing reveals pollutants in a resident’s water, according to documents detailing the program, Sunoco will be responsible for paying for the testing and fixing the issue. In the past, it has provided outdoor water tanks to affected residents.
The attorney general’s office declined to specify how much of the grievance program money has been used, how many tests have been completed, or how much Sunoco has paid for water provisions, instead directing Spotlight PA to file an open records request. However, Spotlight PA has already submitted several Right-to-Know requests to find out how many people’s water was tested and was denied access because the information is part of the criminal investigation into the pipeline.
Hambright said the remaining plea agreement funds, more than $8 million, will continue to be channeled into Growing Greener so that the OAG doesn’t have to develop a new system for distributing the money. However, it will not necessarily be for projects related to the pipeline’s pollution, since groups from any county can apply for a grant.
Hambright said the OAG will “continue finding proposals that are relevant to this funding stream until the money is gone.”
Lilly Riddle is a journalist for the News Lab at Penn State and an intern with Spotlight PA’s State College regional bureau.
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