A Pipeline Giant Pleads ‘No Contest’ to Environmental Crimes in Pennsylvania After Homeowners Complained of Tainted Water

Lora Snyder never had a problem with the water that supplies her house from a private well until an Energy Transfer subsidiary, Sunoco Pipeline, started in 2018 to drill a tunnel about 1,000 feet away for construction of its cross-state Mariner East pipelines, which run through her neighbor’s land.

Snyder, an antiques dealer, lives in a three-bedroom house on a four-acre lot with her husband, James McGinn, in the quiet suburban township of Edgmont, west of Philadelphia.

After 14 years with no water problems, she suddenly had to change the filters on her pump every couple of weeks because they were getting clogged with the same amount of debris that previously took about six months to accumulate. And her water had acquired a grayish tint.

Alarmed by the newly tainted well water, she reluctantly started buying bottled water and filters for plastic jugs that she would fill before drinking. Concerned that the water now contained dangerous impurities, she asked officials at Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection to test it. They refused, saying her house was too far away from Sunoco’s drilling to qualify for state testing. She said she got the same response from Sunoco itself, and was rejected by her township which said that private wells were private responsibilities.

Finally, Snyder paid about $1,000 for testing by a private company which found the bacteria E. coli, a  sewage-based contaminant, which she eradicated with bleach. She doesn’t know how E. coli got into her well water but suspects that it entered her aquifer from local runoff that accumulated at the drill site during rain storms. 

Snyder’s experience mirrors that of more than 150 Pennsylvania households whose well water became discolored or contaminated with impurities after Sunoco Pipeline started building its Mariner East pipeline system in western Pennsylvania in early 2017.

The system, which consists of two new pipelines and a repurposed petroleum pipeline, pumps natural gas liquids from the abundant reserves of the Marcellus Shale in southwest Pennsylvania some 350 miles across the state to an export terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia.

Opposition to the project has been fueled by fears that any leak of the highly explosive natural gas liquids could lead to a catastrophic explosion, causing mass casualties in the densely populated Philadelphia suburbs.

After years of complaints that a heavy-handed corporation had ruined clean water for many residents, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced last week that Energy Transfer had pleaded “no contest” to 48 criminal charges that he filed against Sunoco Pipeline, its subsidiary, last year in connection with its construction one of the pipelines, Mariner East 2. Those 48 charges were consolidated into 14 counts in the plea deal, one for each county where violations occurred, said Jacklin Rhoads, Shapiro’s communications director.

Shapiro said that the charges were triggered by the company’s repeated contamination of rivers, lakes, streams and groundwater—such as the aquifer that supplies Snyder’s home—with drilling fluid at 21 drilling sites. Energy Transfer was also charged with using unapproved additives in its drilling fluid.

Shapiro, the Democratic candidate for governor in November’s election, reached a plea agreement under which the company will pay for individual evaluations of potential water-quality impacts for homeowners who live near the pipeline route, and will offer approved mechanisms for replacing or restoring affected water supplies.

Energy Transfer will have to restore any water supplies that are determined by independent testers to have been damaged by the pipeline project. The company also agreed to pay $10 million toward projects that contribute to water quality along the pipeline route, and will have a permanent criminal record.

The agreement also settles nine more criminal charges brought by Shapiro against another Energy Transfer unit, ETC Northeast Pipeline, after an explosion of its Revolution Pipeline in 2018 in Beaver County, western Pennsylvania.

The explosion was caused by two landslides which brought down a section of the pipeline that had been poorly fixed to a hillside, according to Shapiro, who convened a grand jury to hear charges against the builder of the Revolution Pipeline.

Both subsidiaries were “convicted of criminal charges” related to their conduct during construction of the two pipelines, Shapiro said.

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He said the agreement shows that the state will defend its environment against “unchecked” corporate interests. “We have a constitutional right in Pennsylvania to clean air and pure water,” he said in a statement. “Today we’re upholding our oath to our constitution and holding Energy Transfer accountable for their crimes against our natural resources.”

To investigate persistent complaints about the Mariner East pipeline construction, Shapiro convened a separate grand jury, which learned that Sunoco Pipeline allowed thousands of gallons of drilling fluid to escape underground, sometimes escaping into fields, backyards, fields, lakes and wetlands.

In one notorious incident, 8,100 gallons of drilling fluid leaked into Marsh Creek Lake, a popular recreational site in Chester County in August 2020, leading to the lake’s closure, and fueling calls for the pipeline project to be stopped.

The project also created several sinkholes in the backyards of five suburban homes in West Whiteland Township in Delaware County, prompting the company to buy out the affected homeowners, according to documents and interviews. 

The persistent spills resulted in about 120 violations from Pennsylvania environmental officials over several years. But the violations did little to prevent the spills. 

In a statement, Energy Transfer disputed Shapiro’s description of its agreement as a “conviction,” and suggested that his announcement was timed to boost his standing in the election race against his Republican opponent, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, a right-winger who supports former President Donald Trump.

“While we understand Mr. Shapiro is running for office, it remains disappointing that he would mischaracterize the facts of this voluntary agreement to his political advantage rather than acknowledge the good-faith efforts of Energy Transfer to resolve this dispute,” the company said.

Energy Transfer said its “nolo contendere” plea did not admit to any facts, and that the $10 million it agreed to pay was not a fine or penalty, but a “product of a voluntary collaboration” with the state.

However, the company said it was “pleased to bring these matters to a close” and will resume its focus on the safe operation of its pipelines in compliance with state and federal regulations.

The Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, a pro-pipeline group, also accused Shapiro of using the agreement for his political purposes. It said his announcement of charges against Energy Transfer came just days after he announced his campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in October 2021.

Nearly all construction “woes” had been settled by the time Shapiro presented his allegations to the grand jury, and the company had paid fines for those violations, said Kurt Knaus, a spokesman for the industry group.

He said the Mariner East pipelines are now operating safely, and helping to deliver energy independence at a time of international uncertainty over energy supplies. “The combined pressures of domestic inflation and global unrest underscore just how important these critical energy infrastructure projects are to our own state of affairs and the safety of our foreign partners,” Knaus said.

Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsheimer, a Democrat who referred the pipeline project to Shapiro for possible criminal prosecution, called the agreement a “huge win” for local residents. He said it had brought “this powerful corporation to justice for the damage it did to our communities, our residents and our environment.”  

For Snyder, 54, the plea agreement is “bittersweet.” She’s thankful that the company did not contest the criminal charges, and hopes that they will lead to more responsible behavior in future. But she argued that the $10 million payment is just a slap on the wrist for a company whose net income rose to $1.33 billion in the second quarter of 2022.

She said she would have liked the case to go to trial so that she and other critics could have presented their evidence in court. But she fears that any court date would have happened too late for Shapiro to reap what she sees as the political benefits from announcing the agreement less than 100 days before the election.

“I’m very thankful that Shapiro filed 48 criminal charges, and I’m very thankful that Energy Transfer is now guilty of those charges. But I understand why he did it politically. A trial would take a long time, and I think they wanted to get a conclusion now before November,” she said. “Essentially, they decided to settle for us without us having any say in the matter. That’s the part that’s discouraging.”

She has often considered moving away but has now decided to stay because of the network of local supporters that she has built up to fight the pipeline over the last four years, and her continuing desire to represent local interests against the company. “I’ve set up a really strong network to advocate for our clean water and our safety, and I feel that to move would be just giving up on all that,” she said.

Since her water went bad in 2018, she has spent an estimated $4,000 a year on bottled water and filters for a drinking water jug. For now, her water has improved but she has no plans to end her use of bottled and filtered water for drinking and cooking. “Knowing all these chemicals were used, and they are probably still in the groundwater, no—I do not trust it,” she said.

Jon Hurdle is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist who covers mostly environmental issues for national and local media. He also contributes to The New York Times, Yale Environment 360, NJ Spotlight News and Delaware First Media. He reports on climate change, energy, clean air and water, wildlife issues and the policy responses to those topics.

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