County can hold company accountable independent of state regulators
The Chester County District Attorney’s office, using a novel approach to try to hold polluters accountable, filed a consent decree with Mariner East pipeline builder Sunoco Pipeline and Energy Transfer following a civil suit the office filed under the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law.
The law allows county district attorneys to bring public nuisance claims in order to stop polluting activities. The agreement allows the Chester County Court of Common Pleas to hold the company accountable for any future violations of permits issued by the Department of Environmental Protection and the Public Utility Commission.
“The residents of Chester County deserve to know that the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we enjoy are being protected from irreparable damage by large corporations,” District Attorney Deb Ryan said in a statement. “Our complaint seeks to change the defendants’ behavior by forcing them to comply with Pennsylvania laws. It demonstrates to the defendants and others like them that they cannot buy their way out of unlawful conduct.”
The company will continue to be accountable to both the PUC and the DEP, but all construction natural gas liquids line within Chester County will have an additional layer of scrutiny.
“We’re now another agency they have to communicate with on a regular basis about their activities or any violations,” said Seth Weber, a special prosecutor with the Chester County DA. “And if the DEP and the PUC takes action that is not enough, now we can come in and file a motion for contempt of court.”
Weber was hired by former Chester County DA Tom Hogan to investigate potential environmental crimes by the company because he has expertise in the area from his previous work at the U.S. Attorney’s office. Weber said he’s unaware of any other examples of county level prosecutors using the Clean Streams Law to file a civil suit against a polluter.
“I did a thorough reading of the Pennsylvania Clean Streams law,” he said. “I thought outside the box and said ‘I know we’re a DA’s office, but let’s do this thing.’”
The complaint has a long list of pollution events and permit violations caused by Sunoco’s pipeline construction in the county dating back to 2017, when work on the Mariner East project began. They include repeated “inadvertent returns” that caused drilling fluid to damage waterways, polluted residential drinking water wells, created dangerous sinkholes, and exposed an operating pipeline.
“The purpose of this civil complaint is not to stop the pipeline,” Weber said, “it is merely to make the owners and operators of Sunoco Pipeline’s Mariner East to obey the state issued permits, follow the Pennsylvania Clean Streams law and not violate the Pennsylvania Constitution.”
The Environmental Rights Amendment to the constitution guarantees residents the right to clean air and clean water.
DEP has entered into several consent agreements with the company, fined it millions of dollars, and issued about 120 notices of violations since 2017, 10 of which are in Chester County, including an incident that polluted Marsh Creek Lake last summer.
Several homes along Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township had to be abandoned, and were bought by Energy Transfer, after dangerous sinkholes developed. Most recently, a construction site behind the Chester County library released hundreds of thousands of gallons of muddy groundwater into a wetland and trout stream. DEP has said it’s unclear if the incident constituted a permit violation.
This agreement doesn’t impose a fine, but should violations occur, Chester County could seek financial remedies with the Court of Common Pleas. Other remedies outlined in the agreement include halting construction and prohibiting horizontal directional drilling.
Energy Transfer released a statement saying it entered into the agreement after cooperating with the Chester County investigation, but says the incidents are in the past and have been resolved to the approval of DEP. The statement said the company “disputes the allegations” made in the consent decree and in the complaint.
“Energy Transfer remains committed to environmental compliance in all energy pipeline projects within the Commonwealth,” it said in the statement. “That commitment includes a robust environmental compliance program that is transparent to the DEP and Pennsylvania Utility Commission, including continuous reporting and interactions with those agencies.”
Chester County also filed criminal charges in a separate case against employees and contractors of Energy Transfer. None of the criminal charges have led to convictions.
A judge will need to sign off on the decree.