This story was updated on Tuesday, April 30 to include a statement from a DEP spokesperson.
A state Senate committee postponed a planned confirmation hearing for one of Pennsylvania’s top environmental officials, after a bipartisan group of lawmakers raised concerns about his agency’s involvement in controversial gas pipeline project.
The Senate Environmental Resources & Energy Committee met Tuesday morning to vote on the nominations of Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell and Cindy Adams Dunn, secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Gov. Tom Wolf nominated McDonnell and Dunn to their cabinet positions in 2016 and 2015, respectively. They’re now being considered for reconfirmation.
The Senate committee questioned Dunn on Tuesday and voted unanimously to send her nomination to the full Senate.
But it postponed its hearing for McDonnell, who did not appear at the meeting.
Last week, five senators from Chester and Montgomery counties wrote to committee Chairman Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, and its ranking Democrat, John Yudichak, of Luzerne County, asking them to put McDonnell’s reconfirmation on hold while county and state officials investigate the Mariner East II Pipeline project.
The pipeline started transporting natural gas across 17 counties in southeastern Pennsylvania in December 2018. That came after a two-year construction period that was prolonged by multiple regulatory shutdowns and technical problems.
Sunoco Pipeline LP, which constructed Mariner East II, and its parent company Energy Transfer Partners are the subject of a joint investigation by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office and the Chester County district attorney. The probe was spurred by allegations of criminal misconduct related to the pipeline’s construction.
In their April 25 letter, Democratic Sens. Andrew Dinniman, Katie Muth, Tim Kearney, and Daylin Leach, along with Republican Tom Killion, said that the investigations “specifically cite state regulators” including the Department of Environmental Protection, which has granted permits for the project and levied fines against Sunoco for non-compliance with state regulations.
A separate investigation by the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission also involves McDonnell’s communication with staff in Wolf’s office, the letter says.
Dinniman, D-Chester, said Tuesday that the Senate will be better able to rule on McDonnell’s reconfirmation when those investigations are complete.
“We didn’t feel it was appropriate to vote until all the facts are on the table,” Dinnaman said after the committee meeting Tuesday. “Isn’t that the purpose of a reconfirmation hearing?”
In a letter to McDonnell, the senators say that, under his tenure, “a number of concerning matters have developed in our Commonwealth that, in our view, threaten the environmental quality and health of our communities and shared public resources.”
The letter outlines ten questions the senators hope to pose to McDonnell during his confirmation hearing, spanning everything from the alleged use of inaccurate data sets in permitting decisions to the DEP’s response to a pipeline-related sinkhole in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Yaw denied that he singled McDonnell out by delaying his hearing. He said that he would have liked to postpone Dunn’s reconfirmation hearing as well, but held it Tuesday to accommodate her busy schedule.
As for McDonnell’s delayed hearing, Yaw said not to “take anything one way or another.”
He did not say when McDonnell would be brought in for a hearing.
Dinniman said that the investigations into Sunoco and Energy First could take months to complete. If the Senate fails to vote on McDonnell’s confirmation by this summer, he will automatically be appointed to serve a second term, Dinnaman said.
In a statement issued Tuesday night, a DEP spokesperson said McDonnell “is eager to speak to the committee and discuss his work improving Pennsylvania’s environment over the past three years with legislators from both sides of the aisle.”