A long-running suit between the DEP and three environmental groups (Clean Air Council, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and Mountain Watershed Association) has been settled shortly before it was to go to trial. The suit alleged that the DEP hurriedly issued flawed permits for the Dragonpipe (Mariner East 2 pipeline).  StateImpact has provided a good summary of the settlement, along with quotes from some of the key participants, so I will not reiterate that information here.

There are many good aspects to this settlement. If it works as intended, it will provide for public scrutiny of the documents related to the permitting process, and it will result in the development of better procedures related to erosion and sedimentation permits. A new set of “enhanced best practices” for horizontal directional drilling permits will be developed, taking into account the local geology, hydrology, and water supplies. Better training of managers, employees, and contractors will be required, as well as better landowner communications. A “workgroup” will be established, including an expert nominated by the environmental groups involved in the suit, to review DEP pipeline procedures.  All the documents involved in these aspects of the settlement will be published, and—if there is enough interest expressed by the public—there will be public hearings on them.

All of that is promising. But there are also reasons to wish the case had gone to trial.

If there had been a trial, we would have learned to what extent the permitting process actually was flawed. As it is, the settlement avoids addressing the question of permit deficiencies entirely. Also, the settlement has allowed the DEP to avoid any determination of who (if anyone) did something wrong, and no one will be punished for their role in the process. The three environmental groups got a trivial financial payment: $27,500 to be split among them, a faction of their costs in the case. All of that is disappointing.

Did Wolf’s office apply political pressure? But to me, the biggest disappointment is that we may have lost the opportunity to learn what role, if any, Governor Wolf’s office played in getting the questionable permits issued. There is reason to believe, based on text messages obtained under a  public-records request, that the Governor’s office (acting on behalf of Sunoco) pressured the DEP to issue the permits prematurely.  (See “Sunoco, Governor Wolf, and ‘the fix’”.)

One of the Governor’s top aides, Yesinia Bain, is the subject of an ongoing ethics investigation for her role in getting the permits issued. Will we eventually learn what really happened? Perhaps. But if this case had gone to trial we would surely have gotten a much clearer picture than we have now. So the DEP (and perhaps the Governor) must be breathing a deep sigh of relief.

I wish we knew more about how these permits were issued. But if this settlement results in substantial long-term changes at the DEP, and those changes prevent the kind of abuses we saw with the Drgaonpipe from recurring, then I guess  I’m pleased with the deal that Clean Air Council and its allies have struck.