A special prosecutor will oversee the investigation into the controversial Mariner East pipelines that have pitted Chester County residents against the energy companies responsible for the project.
Seth Weber, a former federal prosecutor who served for 26 years as Assistant United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, will act as special prosecutor over the investigation, the Chester County District Attorney's Office announced Friday.
Weber currently works as an adjunct professor at Villanova and DeSales universities, but spent his career prosecuting environmental crimes, as well as political corruption, drugs and violent crimes.
"I look forward to being part of the Chester County District Attorney's Office team of prosecutors and investigators," Weber said in a statement. "Working together, we want to do everything possible to avoid any risk of environmental hazards which may endanger the citizens of Chester County."
The investigation into the pipelines began in December 2018 and is focusing on both past and future construction of the three pipelines that, collectively, span three states, including several local counties.
Potential charges could include causing or risking a catastrophe, criminal mischief, environmental crimes and corrupt organizations, according to Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan, who welcomed Weber's involvement in the investigation.
"In the last two years, we have seen these pipelines rip through the heart of Chester County ... We have seen sinkholes created by the pipeline drilling, contaminated well water and some subtle, and not-so-subtle, bullying of Chester County citizens by big corporate interests."
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The investigation involves Sunoco Pipeline's Mariner East projects stretching across the region, including near heavily populated areas, railroad tracks and schools.
The Mariner East 1, 2 and 2X pipelines were created to funnel natural gas from western Pennsylvania to the Marcus Hook refinery in Delaware County. From there, the gas would be transported to Ohio and West Virginia.
Natural gas liquid includes propane, ethane, butane and natural gasoline that can be used for heating, cooking and filling up motor vehicle gas tanks.
Part of the problem in Chester County, Hogan said, is that much of the area is built on limestone, which is easily disturbed. Residents in East Whiteland Township have reported sinkholes in their backyards and a Beaver County home was destroyed when a portion of pipeline burst this fall, according to the district attorney's office.
"They can't cut corners," Hogan said of the energy partners. "They cannot make a mistake here."
Construction of the multi-billion dollar pipelines has been fraught from the beginning. Since their inception, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has issued more than 80 violation notices to Sunoco and collected more than $13 million in penalties, according to Gov. Tom Wolf's office. This included enforcing a one-month shutdown and setting guidelines to alert nearby public and private water suppliers prior to pipeline construction.
Despite these efforts, accidents continued to happen.
Last year, a leak in Delaware County caused thousands of gallons of drilling mud to flow into Chester Creek in Middletown Township, Pennsylvania.
The mud, which consisted of potable water and non-toxic bentonite clay, entered a tributary of the creek near the pipeline.
Later, a judge granted an injunction to halt construction in West Goshen Township after officials accused Sunoco Pipeline LP of violating a settlement agreement. A spokesperson for West Goshen claimed Sunoco started construction to install and operate the pipeline near Greenhill and Boot roads without notifying local officials.
The parent company, Energy Transfer LP of Dallas, Texas, said it was "surprised" to learn of the investigation and "vehemently" denied any wrongdoing in an emailed statement.
"We are confident that we have not acted to violate any criminal laws in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and we are committed to aggressively defending ourselves against these baseless allegations," the statement said.
Meanwhile, Wolf said he welcomed the opportunity to speak with any "partners who want to constructively talk about improving state oversight."
"The commonwealth is living up to our promise to hold this project accountable to the strong protections in the permits and our abilities under existing law," a spokesman for Wolf said in a statement.
But Hogan bristled at the notion that the Wolf administration has been monitoring the pipelines.
"I'd like to see the governor step up, step in and actually do something," Hogan snapped.