‘We can’t ask any questions:’ Environmental official gets OK from Senate committee over pipeline objections

Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester. (Source: Pa. Senate)

A state Senate committee voted Wednesday to endorse Gov. Tom Wolf’s pick to head the Department of Environmental Protection, despite concerns from some senators over a controversial pipeline project.

The Environmental Resources & Energy Committee advanced Secretary Patrick McDonnell’s nomination to the full Senate, over the objections of Sens. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester, and Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery.

McDonnell was appointed head of the DEP in 2016 and was nominated by Wolf this year to serve a second term. He was originally scheduled to appear before the committee last week, but his hearing was postponed.

Committee Chairman Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, said the delay had nothing to do with an April letter — signed by Leach, Dinniman, and three of their Senate colleagues — asking him to put McDonnell’s reconfirmation on hold while county and state officials investigate the Mariner East II Pipeline project.

The senators argued that an ongoing, joint investigation by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office and the Chester County district attorney “specifically cites state regulators” including the DEP, which has granted permits for the project and fined the pipeline’s owners for non-compliance with state regulations.

Their letter also included 10 questions for McDonnell to answer at his eventual reconfirmation hearing.

Among other matters, Dinniman tried to ask McDonnell to verify the accuracy of datasets that the DEP used to make permitting decisions. Dinniman also asked the secretary to respond to allegations, first reported in The Guardian, that McDonnell asked his staff to cut short the review process of the pipeline’s permit application.

But McDonnell deflected those inquiries on Wednesday, saying he could not comment on matters related to an ongoing investigation.

Dinniman’s line of questioning was ultimately cut short by his Senate colleagues after it became clear that McDonnell could not provide answers.

“You are interfering with criminal investigation,” Yaw told Dinniman. “Ask the attorney general [these questions] instead.”

Dinniman said he was obligated to scrutinize McDonnell’s dealings with the Mariner East project on behalf of his Chester County constituents, who he says live in fear of explosions and other pipeline-related disasters.

“We’re expected to vote on a confirmation, yet we can’t ask any questions,” Dinniman said. He later added, “What constituents see is that they won’t get answers from this Senate committee.”

Leach shared Dinniman’s frustration, and said he could not vote to confirm McDonnell until the joint investigation into the Mariner East pipeline cleared the DEP of any impropriety.

Dinniman and Leach said Wolf should have withdrawn McDonnell’s nomination, allowing him to serve as acting secretary, to give the committee more time to rule on his reconfirmation.

“We shouldn’t be forced into a position where we make a decision without the information we need,” Leach said. “It’s like being a jury in a trial without hearing any of the evidence.”

In a statement Wednesday, Wolf spokesperson J.J. Abbott called McDonnell a “fair regulator” who “has worked diligently to implement the governor’s environmental agenda.”

He also brushed aside the opinion, held by Leach, Dinniman, and others, that McDonnell’s nomination should be delayed until the Mariner East investigation is complete.

“The strong bipartisan majority on the committee that recommended McDonnell’s confirmation disagree and we do as well,” Abbott said.

This article was updated shortly after publication with a new statement from J.J. Abbott.

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