Before the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued that penalty to Sunoco and lifted the order suspending construction on Mariner East 2, questions were being raised about how the controversial pipeline got approved by the DEP in the first place. The questions stem from documents which surfaced as part of a lawsuit challenging the pipeline’s permits. They show text messages exchanged between a senior staffer in Governor Wolf’s office and the state’s chief environmental regulator. StateImpact Pennsylvania published the documents, and their reporter Susan Phillips looked into it.
A senior staffer for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf asked the state’s chief environmental regulator not to send letters to Sunoco detailing problems with its permit applications for a controversial pipeline project until the governor was updated, according to text messages obtained through a lawsuit.
The texts also show the official asking the state’s Department of Environmental Protection whether some deficiencies cited in Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 plans could “remain flexible for field adjustments.”
In February 2017, soon after the series of texts, DEP approved Sunoco’s permits with conditions. Some landowners and environmentalists say that Wolf injected political pressure into a decision that should be based solely on environmental standards. They say those standards and regulations were subverted to help Sunoco make its projected timeline on the project.
And, they say, the texts bolster their claims.
“I don’t know if there’s a smoking gun here but there sure is a lot of smoke,” said Eric Friedman, a Delaware County landowner who, along with his homeowner’s association, is battling Sunoco’s eminent domain taking.
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Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott and a past DEP secretary say the messages show an exchange of information among government agencies that is routine for a project of this size and scope. The 20-inch diameter high pressure natural gas liquids line tunnels beneath 17 counties, cuts through 2,700 properties with a 50-foot right-of-way, and crosses more than 1,200 streams or wetlands. It’s expected to cost more than $2.5 billion.
“These texts merely show coordination of information and schedules,” Abbott wrote in an email. “They are not orders or direction but seeking productive government services.”
Friedman takes issue with a text he says shows a Sunoco lobbyist, referred to only as “McGinn,” but likely Joe McGinn of Sunoco Logistics, asking Wolf aide Yesenia Bane instead of DEP for a call on the status of the permits. Bane texted then-acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell:
“Where are we? McGinn is asking for a call.”
That text came amid several between Bane and McDonnell that occurred the day Sunoco was presented with a list of deficiencies regarding its permit applications.
“It’s my view if you properly permitted the project and it complied with the laws of Pennsylvania these problems should not have happened,” Friedman said.
For pipeline opponents, another issue regarding the texts is that Bane is married to a gas industry lobbyist. StateImpact reported in December 2016 about Bane’s potential conflict of interest, and last month, a Chester County resident filed a complaint against her with the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission.
State Sen. Andy Dinniman, a Chester County Democrat and outspoken opponent of Mariner East 2, said it appears that Yesenia Bane had a conflict of interest and should not have been the person to communicate with DEP over the Mariner East 2 permits. Abbott, Wolf’s spokesman, said there was no conflict of interest.
Conversations with Sunoco
The texts surfaced as part of a lawsuit filed by the Clean Air Council, which filed a public records request for all written communications between Bane and McDonnell from Dec. 15, 2016 to Feb. 9, 2017, four days before the permits were issued. The DEP asked CAC to withdraw the request, and said its attorney would supply the information, according to Alex Bomstein, an attorney for CAC.
StateImpact received an email with the texts, and CAC confirmed they were the same ones it received from DEP’s lawyer.
Six pages of texts, through Dec. 15, are blacked out. Seven texts between Jan. 20 and Feb. 9 are blacked out.
The remaining messages between Bane and McDonnell don’t explicitly address approval or disapproval of Sunoco’s permits. But they raise questions about the role the Governor’s office played in the permitting process.
For example, on Feb. 1, an exchange includes Bane telling McDonnell she needs to know if a call “is being pushed back so I can let the gov know.”
McDonnell responds: “I say we keep the call. We can let him know the commitment to get things done.” Bane says she’ll let him know.
McDonnell adds, “If I need to talk to Mike 5 times a day for the next week, that’s what we will do.”
Bane responds, “Gov is aware but will not say any thing. This needs to be done by 1pm the latest. 6pm is not acceptable.”
The governor’s office says that exchange is in reference to a news release, but did not provide StateImpact with a copy of the release, and there is no news release on DEP’s website for Feb. 1, or even several days later.
In an exchange on Jan. 25, about three weeks before DEP issued the permits, the texts show Bane asking McDonnell not to send a deficiency letter to Sunoco “until we can get you to update mary/Gov.” McDonnell replies. “Understood. I really want to talk thru the permitting office too.”
Deficiency letters detail missing or incorrect information in a permit application, and typically advise the applicant on what steps need to be taken to protect the environment, drinking water sources and cultural heritage sites before gaining permission to begin construction on a project.
StateImpact could not confirm who “Mike” and “Mary” are in those separate exchanges.
Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields characterizes the texts as the normal exchange of information between government and company officials — “Nothing more than that.” He has said the company goes “above and beyond” state and federal safety regulations, and is building the pipeline under “stringent” environmental regulations.
DEP spokesman Neil Shader said that Wolf wanted to be kept up to date because he needed to be able to respond to inquiries from Sunoco, legislators, environmental groups and others.
Similarly, David Hess, who was DEP Secretary under Republican Governors Ridge and Schweiker from 2001 to 2003, told StateImpact that the texts contain no evidence that the governor’s office pressured DEP to issue the permits.
The governor’s office, he said, would “want to know what’s going on so [the governor] isn’t blindsided by press or the company or someone asking him about what’s going on with the permits. I don’t see a lot of unusual activity here.”
But Joe Minott, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, doesn’t buy it. He says the texts show a level of involvement by the governor’s office that ”goes way beyond” DEP keeping the governor’s office updated.
“You have the governor’s staff meeting with Sunoco and DEP, you have the governor’s staff telling DEP not to move forward in taking actions until Governor’s Office is fully informed,” he said.
Sen. Dinniman, who has called for a halt to drilling, and has read the texts, says he doesn’t know whether they show undue pressure from the Governor’s office.
“I have no idea to be honest with you,” Dinniman told StateImpact. “But based on how lenient the initial permit process was, and based on what is now being said about construction, … and based on the fact that it took six months of us talking to DEP about environmental issues before halting construction, it’s worth asking the question.”
Read the texts:
## This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WESA, WITF and WHYY.