On February 13, 2017, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued hundreds of permits that allowed Sunoco to begin construction of the Dragonpipe (Mariner East 2 pipeline).
Why were the permits issued then? Since 2015, the DEP had been aware of deficiencies in Sunoco’s plans that should have been addressed before permits were issued, and yet they were not. Many of them had to do with potential for damage to aquifers and wetlands—damage which, in some cases, actually occurred once construction got underway. Why were the permits issued?
We are beginning to learn the reason. One of Governor Wolf’s top aides acted as an agent for Sunoco, putting pressure on the DEP to issue the permits. A set of text messages between the aide, Yesenia Bane, and the acting head of the DEP, Patrick McDonnell, have been partially made public via a lawsuit, and they show frequent requests by Bane for the process to be sped up. We don’t know to what extent the Governor was pushing this process along, but references in the text messages suggest he was informed of it at every step.
Sunoco and the Wolf administration claim that the messages only reflect the normal flow of information necessary to keep the governor’s office aware of the status of the project. But that would normally only require the DEP to report to the governor. In this case, it is pretty clear from the text messages that the DEP was being told what it needed to do by Bane as a representative of the governor’s office, and those instructions were the result of Sunoco’s requests to Bane. That is not the normal flow of information.
On February 6, a week before the permits were issued, a group of four activists from Delaware and Chester counties had a meeting with DEP Secretary McDonnell to argue for additional public hearings on the permits and for Sunoco to fix the deficiencies. But they came away with the impression that the decision to issue the permits had already been made. In an article published after that meeting, but before the permits were issued, one of the pipeline opponents, Eric Friedman, summed up the situation. “It appears the fix is in,” he said.
Shortly after the permits were issued on February 13, Sunoco began construction. The Clean Air Council immediately filed suit challenging the permits, and that case is still in the courts. (Update 2-22-19: That lawsuit has since been settled, resulting in changes in DEP procedures; but an ethics investigation of Yesenia Bane continues.)