Report: FBI opens corruption probe of how Wolf administration issued pipeline permits

Pipeline construction has become a flashpoint between state environmentalists and the natural gas industry. (Flickr)

The FBI is investigating how Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration issued permits for the Mariner East pipeline project, a frequent target of environmental activists, which will carry millions of gallons of hazardous natural gas chemicals across the state.

Citing sources, the Associated Press reported Tuesday that federal investigators “have interviewed current or former state employees in recent weeks about the Mariner East project and the construction permits, according to three people who have direct knowledge of the agents’ line of questioning.”

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Those three people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the unfolding probe, the AP reported.

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The focus of the agents’ questions involves the permitting of the pipeline, whether Wolf and his administration forced environmental protection staff to approve construction permits and whether Wolf or his administration received anything in return, those people say.

The Mariner East pipelines are owned by Texas-based Energy Transfer LP, a multibillion-dollar firm that owns sprawling interests in oil and gas pipelines and storage and processing facilities. At a price tag of nearly $3 billion, it is one of the largest construction projects, if not the largest, in Pennsylvania history.

However, the construction has spurred millions of dollars in fines, several temporary shutdown orders, lawsuits, protests and investigations. When construction permits were approved in 2017, environmental advocacy groups accused Wolf’s administration of pushing through incomplete permits that violated the law.

Wolf’s administration declined comment on the investigation Tuesday. In the past, Wolf and his administration have said the permits contained strong environmental protections and that the Department of Environmental Protection wasn’t forced to issue the permits.

An Energy Transfer spokeswoman said the company had not been contacted by the FBI about the Mariner East.

The chief federal prosecutor in Harrisburg, U.S. Attorney David Freed, declined comment.

Environmental advocates have long raised concerns about the Mariner East pipeline project, which carries western Pennsylvania-produced natural gas to a suburban Philadelphia facility for export.

In a Capital-Star op-Ed, Joseph Otis Minott of the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council called on Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration and Energy Transfer to halt the pipeline’s operation, arguing that it was “poorly designed, sloppily built, and inadequately permitted and monitored.”

As evidence, Minott pointed to an Aug. 5 incident in which an explosion rocked the neighborhoods around West Chester, Pa.

“When investigators arrived at the scene, they pinpointed the cause: the Mariner East pipeline pumping station in West Goshen Township,” he wrote., adding that Energy Transfer had “failed to burn off volatile leaking vapors, generating a sort of fuel bomb at the location by busy Boot Road.”

In February, the state Department of Environmental Protection announced it was temporarily blocking permits from Energy Transfer Partners in response to numerous complaints about the company’s Mariner East 2 pipeline and an September 2018 explosion in Beaver County of a different pipeline.

Some state lawmakers have continued to press for stronger regulation of Mariner East 2, as have residents who live near the pipeline.

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.