HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The developer of a major pipeline system connecting the Marcellus Shale gas field in western Pennsylvania to an export terminal near Philadelphia filed no charges Friday for systematically polluting hundreds of waterways and water wells miles.
Dallas-based Energy Transfer Operating agreed to an independent audit of homeowners’ water and promised to fix the contamination in a settlement of two separate criminal cases filed by the Pennsylvania Attorney General. As part of a plea deal, the company will also pay $10 million to restore watersheds and streams along the route of its Mariner East pipeline network.
A judge heard and approved the lawsuit Friday at a hearing in Harrisburg.
“We hold Energy Transfer responsible for their crimes against our natural resources,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said at a news conference after the hearing.
The Company’s Mariner East 1, Mariner East 2 and Mariner East 2X pipelines are designed to transport propane, ethane and butane from the Marcellus and Utica Shale gas fields to a refinery processing center and export terminal in Marcus Hook, a suburb of Philadelphia. Construction completed in February.
Mariner East was one of the most penalized projects in state history. The owner has faced tens of millions of dollars in civil penalties, and state regulators have repeatedly halted construction over pollution.
The Attorney General stepped in last October, charging Energy Transfer with illegally releasing industrial waste at 22 sites in 11 counties and willfully failing to report spills to state environmental agencies. The company contaminated the drinking water of at least 150 families across the state, prosecutors said.
Under the grievance agreement, residents who live near the pipeline and have private water are entitled to request independent testing. More than 800 residents along the pipeline route have been notified of the availability of the tests and residents have until August 19 to register.
Although Energy Transfer’s state permits already require it to repair the damage the pipeline construction caused to waterways and local residents’ water supplies, prosecutors are taking it a step further by requiring the company to have independent water testing by geologists, prosecutors said to undergo, who were selected by the Attorney General’s Office. Previously, Energy Transfer itself tested residents’ water in response to complaints.
The company must follow independent expert recommendations on how to recycle the contaminated water, which could include treatment systems or new water wells.
Another part of the plea deal requires Energy Transfer to pay $10 million to address groundwater and river contamination.
The money is a drop in the bucket for a pipeline company with growing profits. Energy Transfer reported this week that its second-quarter net income rose 90% to $1.33 billion as the company’s pipelines transported record volumes of natural gas liquids.
Shapiro, a Democrat running for governor, has long complained that Pennsylvania’s criminal environmental laws are weak. His office said the legal maximum for the crimes Energy Transfer was charged with is just $1.45 million, making a plea bargain more beneficial to victims than taking the case to court.
“That belief includes a landmark agreement when the Commonwealth had maximum leverage,” Shapiro said Friday. “Even if we had won on every single count, Energy Transfer would have left and only paid pocket money for their crimes. … That was all it would have done to make our water cleaner and safer, and local residents would have been screwed.”
An email was sent to Energy Transfer asking for comment on the plea deal.
The Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, a trade group, said most of Mariner East’s so-called “construction issues” have already been addressed by state environmental agencies.
“Hopefully this brings the issue to a close because it’s time to put the past to rest,” the group said, adding that Mariner East is operating safely.
Residents living near the pipeline and some state lawmakers have said Mariner East should be closed entirely in light of the criminal charges, but outgoing Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has long ignored such calls to pull the plug.
Friday’s plea deal also resolves a separate criminal case related to the Revolution Pipeline, a 42-mile pipeline near Pittsburgh that runs from Butler County to a natural gas processing facility in Washington County. In that case, prosecutors alleged that Energy Transfer’s negligence led to a 2018 gas explosion and fire that destroyed a home, a barn and several cars, brought down six power lines, and prompted an evacuation.
Energy Transfer pleaded no contest to 14 counts in the Mariner East case and nine counts in the Revolution case.