Tom Wolfs office has denied he ordered permits for the Mariner East 2 pipeline, which is under criminal investigation for pollution and property damage, to be accelerated
Internal government records obtained by the Guardian raise questions about the role of Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf in permitting construction of a controversial fossil fuel pipeline that now faces two criminal investigations stemming from widespread environmental and property damage.
The 350-mile, $2.5bn Mariner East 2 natural gas liquids pipeline through southern Pennsylvania has sparked growing outrage. It has caused roughly 140 documented industrial waste spills into wetlands and waterways, destroying numerous residential water wells, and opening large sinkholes just steps from residents homes.
It is being constructed by the Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), which first gained notoriety as the builder of the Dakota Access pipeline, a project that drew international attention and widespread opposition, particularly from Native Americans, in 2016 and 2017 on the northern Great Plains.
Emails, text messages and regulatory records show that the secretary of Pennsylvanias department of environmental protection (DEP), Patrick McDonnell, directed staff to cut short their environmental review even as numerous shortcomings remained in the projects permit application. The department also appeared to be under pressure from Wolfs office at the time.
DEP staff internally circulated two deficiency letters on 20 January 2017 that they were preparing to send to an ETP subsidiary, Sunoco Logistics, citing inadequacies in the companys plans concerning earth disturbance activities and drilling beneath water bodies.
Five days later, a senior official in Wolfs office, Yesenia Bane, texted McDonnell to request the agency refrain from sending a deficiency letter, pending a meeting involving Wolf, the governors chief of staff, and McDonnell.
Understood, McDonnell wrote in response. Less than an hour later, McDonnell emailed several staff members involved in the pipeline review that Govs [sic] office needs a list of the outstanding issues ASAP.
Roughly two weeks after that, the DEP approved the pipeline without requiring many of the environmental safeguards it had initially sought. A DEP senior official who was involved in the Mariner East 2 project, John Stefanko, noted in a later legal deposition that McDonnell had directed staff that we needed to make a decision by February 10th, although the review had been scheduled to persist for at least several additional months.
The text messages and a handwritten note from a DEP staff member show that the then CEO of Sunoco, Mike Hennigan, regularly talked to McDonnell in the lead-up to the permit authorization, and that McDonnell reported to the governors staff on those conversations. If I need to talk to Mike five times a day, thats what we will do, McDonnell wrote to Bane.
A previous report on the text messages involving McDonnell and Bane helped spawn an ongoing Pennsylvania Ethics Commission investigation of Wolfs office. The other records reviewed by the Guardian have not previously been reported.
JJ Abbott, a spokesperson for Wolfs office, said the governor never directed the DEP to accelerate its approval of environmental permits.
Decisions around the permits and any conditions were made by DEP, Abbott stated in an email. The governors staff routinely schedules briefings on issues of public interest and asks for updates on those issues from agencies. This is normal and responsible governing.
A previous public statement by Wolf, however, indicates he went beyond just seeking updates. I asked them what their timetable was and then, Lets do it, he told CBS Pittsburgh in February 2017. As a CEO, I was the same way. You say youre going to do something, lets get it done. He added: Thats not political pressure, thats actually trying to manage an organization.
A DEP spokesperson also defended the permitting, saying in a statement: The permits that were issued contain the most environmentally protective conditions of any permits in the departments history.
But Alex Bomstein, an attorney for the Philadelphia-based environmental protection group the Clean Air Council, said the DEP ultimately failed to make the company account for many geologically sensitive areas, wetlands and residential well locations.
Cutting a pipeline corridor across Pennsylvania is bound to be environmentally damaging, but the government was willing to overlook a lot of the things that made this project especially risky, Bomstein said.
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