Pennsylvania Prosecutors Investigate Pipeline Across the country, new gas pipelines have met political opposition, protests and lawsuits. In Pennsylvania, one major project has also sparked criminal investigations.
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Pennsylvania Prosecutors Investigate Pipeline

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Pennsylvania Prosecutors Investigate Pipeline

Pennsylvania Prosecutors Investigate Pipeline

Pennsylvania Prosecutors Investigate Pipeline

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Across the country, new gas pipelines have met political opposition, protests and lawsuits. In Pennsylvania, one major project has also sparked criminal investigations.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Across the country, new gas pipelines have been met with political opposition, protests, lawsuits. In Pennsylvania, one major project has also sparked criminal investigations, including by the FBI. Susan Phillips of member station WHYY has more.

SUSAN PHILLIPS, BYLINE: From the get-go, opponents cried foul over three parallel pipelines, collectively called Mariner East. They alleged politics played a hand in rushing through permits on a project they predicted would cause environmental damage. And soon after construction began in early 2017, accidents piled up - damaged streams and wetlands, polluted drinking water wells and then large sinkholes in suburban Philadelphia, including in T.J. Allen's backyard.

TJ ALLEN: But look at that. Do you think that's safe?

PHILLIPS: The construction of one line exposed another pipeline full of highly flammable natural gas liquids.

ALLEN: I could've been blown up. I mean, it's crazy, man.

PHILLIPS: Opposition grew. Safety became a rallying cry. The pipelines run close to schools, hospitals and neighborhoods. A year ago, a local district attorney and the state's attorney general took the unusual step of launching a criminal investigation into the pipelines' builder, Energy Transfer. That's the same company that built the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.

Chester County DA Tom Hogan says he was frustrated that state regulatory oversight wasn't forcing Energy Transfer to clean up its act.

TOM HOGAN: Ten, 12 million dollars in fines are pocket change, as far as they're concerned. It's not going to do anything to stop them because this is a process that is going to net them billions of dollars.

PHILLIPS: Hogan says one potential criminal charge is risking a catastrophe. A spokeswoman for Energy Transfer says the company did not break any laws. But in February, CEO Kelcy Warren admitted on an earnings call with investors that the company had made mistakes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KELCY WARREN: We're going to take our medicine and fix those mistakes and complete good projects from this point forward.

PHILLIPS: He says he has learned environmental damage in Pennsylvania generates more opposition than in other oil- and gas-producing states.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WARREN: Every place is not Texas.

PHILLIPS: Now the FBI is also investigating, according to several people with knowledge of the probe. They say it appears the focus is on the permitting process itself. Opponents have long accused Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, of pushing the project's approval despite a lack of due diligence. WHYY has documented repeated gaps in the company's permit applications that were not fixed by the time the permits were issued. Governor Wolf supports the pipeline project as a boost to the economy and employment, but he also says he's committed to transporting gas safely and protecting the environment. He points to construction shutdowns and large fines as proof he's willing to hold Energy Transfer accountable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM WOLF: I welcome anybody to look at what's going on in the administration. If something's not right, then people shall be held to account.

PHILLIPS: So far, it's not clear whether the FBI's investigation will result in charges. In the meantime, the gas is flowing through two of the Mariner East pipelines, and construction on a third continues.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Phillips in Philadelphia.

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