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The Associated Press is reporting that the FBI has begun a corruption investigation into how Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration came to issue permits for construction on a multibillion-dollar pipeline project to carry highly volatile natural gas liquids across Pennsylvania.

The AP said it has learned that FBI agents 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.

All three spoke on condition of anonymity because they said they could not speak publicly about the investigation.

LISTEN to Susan Phillips and Reid Frazier discuss the story

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.

Mariner East 2 carries volatile natural gas liquids from Marcellus Shale fields in Ohio and western Pennsylvania to an export terminal at Marcus Hook in Delaware County, near Philadelphia. It’s part of a three-stage project: Mariner East 1 involved reversing the flow of an existing line; the company has plans to build Mariner East 2x. All three lines will run along the same right of way.

Mariner East 2 went into service in December 2018. It has a long track record of drilling mud spills, fines and regulatory shutdowns. As of August, the Department of Environmental protection had entered into several consent orders and agreements with the company resulting from permit violations, and issued just under 100 separate notices of violations resulting in more than $13 million in penalties.

In this 2018 file photo, Energy Transfer, the parent company of Mariner East 2 pipeline builder, Sunoco, works at Snitz Creek, Lebanon County after a drilling mud spill in the summer. Photo: Marie Cusick/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Energy Transfer spokeswoman Lisa Coleman said the company is not aware of any investigation and has not been contacted by the FBI.

Rich Raiders, an eminent domain attorney who has represented landowners fighting the pipeline, called the FBI’s investigation a “major development.” He said people have been concerned that “political actors” got involved in the permitting process.

“The fact that the FBI is involving itself in this matter tells me that a lot of the questions the citizens have been raising over time have some merit or potentially have some merit,” Raiders said. “The permitting process seemed to be unusual in that the questions being asked by the agency in the late 2016 deficiency letters never seemed to get answered.”

State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-Chester), who opposes the pipeline, welcomed the investigation.

“From the very beginning and at many times along the way, we have raised serious questions about the permitting process of the Mariner East pipeline project,” he said. “I hope that this development sheds a bright light on those questions and more.”

Eric Friedman, a member of the community group Del Chesco United for Pipeline Safety who said he believes Wolf directed the permits be issued despite the deficiencies in the applications, welcomed the FBI investigation. So did Food & Water Action Pennsylvania Director Sam Bernhardt.

“We have seen sinkholes, spills and water contamination, and a grassroots opposition movement has pushed his administration to stop the project before further disasters strike. Governor Wolf has refused,” he said.

Rosemary Fuller, an anti-pipeline activist, urged Gov. Tom Wolf to halt construction of the Mariner East pipelines. Photo: Jon Hurdle/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Residents have said the pipelines, which transport propane, butane and ethane, pose a risk of explosion in the densely populated region of southeast Pennsylvania. In August, pipeline opponents met with Wolf at a construction site in East Goshen Township, Chester County. Activists urged him to shut down the project until they could be assured the lines are safe. Wolf said no.

The Mariner East project is now the subject of three criminal investigations. Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan started a criminal investigation in December 2018, and later impaneled a grand jury. In March 2019, Delaware County District Attorney Katayoun Copeland asked the state Attorney General’s office to help it with an investigation into the project.

Those investigations are focused on Energy Transfer. The company called Hogan’s investigation “meritless” and said that “Energy Transfer has not engaged in any form of criminal activity, and the issues referenced have already each been thoroughly investigated, reviewed, and ultimately resolved by the appropriate government agencies.”

Read the AP’s full story here.

StateImpact Pennsylvania has previously reported on issues related to Mariner East permits and the overall pipeline project:

Scott Blanchard/StateImpact Pennsylvania

The map shows the Mariner East 2 pipeline’s path across 17 Pennsylvania counties on its way to the Marcus Hook industrial complex in Delaware County, where the natural gas liquids it carries will be shipped overseas to make plastics. The map was built using state Department of Environmental Protection shapefiles of the route for which DEP issued permits. The line extends west into Ohio.

StateImpact Pennsylvania staffers Susan Phillips and Scott Blanchard contributed to this story.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WESA, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.