Prove your humanity

The Department of Justice has opened a criminal investigation of a pipeline company in connection with a 2018 natural gas explosion in Beaver County. 

The U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania has issued a federal grand jury subpoena to the pipeline’s owner, Energy Transfer, for documents. 

The subpoenas were revealed in the company’s most recent federal financial filings, and were first reported by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. 

The Revolution pipeline had been in service less than a week when a landslide caused the pipeline to rupture and explode in September 2018. The blast forced evacuations and burned one house to the ground. 

In January, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection fined the Dallas-based company a record $30 million for issues related to the explosion. 

Those violations extended well beyond the blast site and included failure to stabilize more than a dozen hillsides, hundreds of cases where sediment from its construction spilled into rivers and streams, and more than 2,000 cases of improper construction. 

The DEP found a landslide had taken place at the exact site just months before the blast, and the company failed to consult engineers or other geotechnical experts when it restored the site.

The settlement lifted a nearly year-long permit freeze on the company’s other pipeline projects, including the cross-state Mariner East pipelines. 

The existence of a federal jury overseeing the case “absolutely means” the U.S. attorney’s investigation “is criminal in nature,” said Jamie Colburn, a former EPA litigator and environmental law professor at Penn State, in an email. “Subpoenas that come marked as for a grand jury tell the target as much.”

In its filing, the company said the scope of the investigations isn’t known, and didn’t say what crimes the prosecutor could be investigating. 

Margaret Philbin, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pittsburgh, declined comment. 

The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General is also investigating the blast. 

Alexis Daniel, a company spokeswoman said in an email: “The relevant information that we have at this time has been disclosed in the filing.”

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