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Mariner East II pipeline fines totaled $42 million

Plus, Pa. suburbs are key to understanding the state's elections.

This is The Investigator, a free weekly newsletter with the top news from across Pennsylvania.
A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.

November 16, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Pipeline fines, Supreme spending, leading Lyme, thawing tensions, gun control, suburb importance, big payout, restoration process, and glitch update.

A year after the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office secured $10 million to restore private waterways polluted during the construction of the Mariner East II pipeline, little of the money has flowed toward affected residents.

Lilly Riddle, a Spotlight PA State College intern, found that Pennsylvania fined Energy Transfer and its subsidiary Sunoco at least $42 million in connection to the construction of the pipeline between 2018 and 2023.

Of that sum, $10 million represents a plea agreement with Energy Transfer. Riddle reports that less than 1% of the funds have been distributed, and the attorney general’s office has not disclosed the status of the rest.

Also this week, Spotlight PA's Stephen Caruso and Kate Huangpu report on the record-breaking spending on the recent state Supreme Court race.

And finally, Pennsylvania leads the nation in Lyme disease cases, and the continued development of forested areas increases people’s risk of being bitten by the species of tick that transmits the illness.


"While we’re having the bigger fights over the big dollar spending, we can still be doing our job."

—State Rep. Peter Schweyer (D., Lehigh) on the legislature's apparent willingness to advance legislation as lawmakers hash out the final details of the long-delayed budget

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» RESULTS REVIEW: Join us, the New Pennsylvania Project, and Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts TODAY from 6-7 p.m. for a Q&A on the election results. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org.
» As partisan tensions thaw in Harrisburg, Pa. lawmakers eye unfunded housing, school priorities

» Democrats continue advancing gun control as advocates call for Pa. Senate to take up bills

In Pa. elections, it’s all about the suburbs

Every time there’s an election in Pennsylvania, Lara Putnam starts making charts. Putnam is a historian at the University of Pittsburgh, and one of her particular areas of interest is shifts in demographics and voting patterns in the commonwealth. 

Her analysis uses categories from the American Communities Project taxonomy, which sorts counties based on a long list of variables — and in particular, breaks suburbs down into lots of subgroups. These include urban suburbs, rural middle American regions, middle suburbs, and exurbs. 

In a recent conversation about this month’s municipal elections, we discussed how key policy issues have shaped results, how demographic shifts determine voting patterns, and the parts of Pennsylvania she finds most interesting. Katie Meyer, government editor and reporter

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

KM: Recent municipal elections have been pretty negative for Democrats and good for Republicans in Pennsylvania — especially down the ballot. This started to change in 2022, and really seemed to shift this year. What were your takeaways? 

LP: I think the striking thing is that Democrats showed strength across the board this year in Pennsylvania. 

In the sort of upscale, denser, more cosmopolitan suburbs, Democrats had done super well during the Trump presidency. But then those places had sort of pulled back a little from their powered-up support for Democrats. In 2020, already, if you look at state House races, and state Senate races, Democrats no longer looked like they were pulling in new voters in those places. 

And then we saw 2021, problems for Democrats really intensified in the more rural counties in the state and some of the exurban places, like Bucks County, having become hotbeds of conservative activism, with school issues front and center. That's captured in amber in the 2021 statewide judicial results. 

But then about eight months later came the Dobbs decision. If you track voter registration figures, it's very clear that Dobbs was an absolute turning point in voter registration trends. 

KM: You analyze results using a taxonomy of different types of counties. Are there any particular counties, or types of counties, where you’ve seen voter preferences shift in particularly interesting ways? 

LP: Lancaster is actually an interesting example because of ways it has changed. It used to be categorized as a middle suburb — middling dense, middling education, middling college attainment levels. But in the American Communities Project’s update to their taxonomy, when they looked at the most recent census data from 2020 and recategorized counties, Lancaster moved from being categorized as a middle suburb to being categorized as an exurb. 

What that recognizes is that the parts of Lancaster that look more like exurbs are demographically what's growing in Lancaster. That also leads to a shift in voting preferences. People are moving toward voting, for instance, for moderate Democrats at the top of the ticket.

KM: Are these kinds of shifts happening anywhere else?

LP: Multiple counties within the Lehigh Valley also got reclassified. They had been middle suburbs, sort of the old, ex-industrial places, and are now classified as urban suburbs. The parts of those counties that have been growing are denser, more educated, and more diverse. 

With the demographics that they had 10 to 15 years ago, you wouldn't have known whether they were going to end up looking like Southwest Pennsylvania, which is sort of declining former industrial, or whether they were going to end up looking like the Philly collar — more zones of attraction for newcomers, more economic dynamism. 

What we've seen is that the Lehigh Valley is increasingly looking more like an extension of the New York suburbs, an extension of Philly suburbs. And it’s these places where you saw the biggest strength, for instance, for Democrats in this year’s [state] Supreme Court election.

🏆 NEXT QUESTION: Did you stay on top of the news this week? Prove it with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: Legal pot next door, Biden family subpoenas, and Black Friday origins
This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaBIG PAYOUT: In one of its last acts before Democrats take over, the Republican-led Central Bucks School Board this week approved a policy banning trans athletes from playing on teams that match their gender identity and approved a $700,000 severance payment to resigned Superintendent Abram Lucabaugh, Bucks County Courier Times reports. Critics say the payment is "corrupt" and possibly illegal. 

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaRESTORATION PROCESS: The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services says it has restored Medicaid coverage to 20,000 people and will restore coverage to tens of thousands more by the end of the month, The Inquirer (paywall) reports. As Spotlight PA previously reported, Pennsylvania has experienced issues with ex parte renewal of benefits, and wrongly caused more than 100,000 people to lose coverage

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaGLITCH UPDATE: Northampton County GOP Committee officials are investigating whether some county voters were turned away from the polls during a pause in voting prompted by an Election Day glitch. The AP reports that the issue — in which some Superior Court retention votes were flipped — quickly fueled online misinformation. Officials say votes were properly recorded on the backend.

USE OF FORCE: A lawsuit alleges a Uniontown man was involuntarily committed and removed from a transplant waiting list after being assaulted by a UPMC police officer who lied about the incident, via TribLIVE. The lawsuit says David Drews, 52, who is bipolar, has a life-threatening medical condition that caused psychosis and seizures. They claim the officer was upset Drews called him "dorky."

SEWER SERVICE: Pushes to privatize sewer systems in Pennsylvania have led to sharp price increases for residents across the state, Stateline reports. Local governments began selling off the systems to avoid costly infrastructure maintenance, but the short-term savings are now being called into question by ratepayers and community groups.

» AP: House OKs $1.8B pension boost for gov., public school retirees

» CAP-STARSenators will introduce bipartisan sexual harassment bills 

» INQUIRER: Witness: Justice's home repairs paid for by brother’s union

» PENNLIVE: Senate panel axes increase to 911 phone fee

» SLATE: AIPAC plans to target Pittsburgh U.S. Rep. Summer Lee

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VERSATILE VERB (Case No. 226): What eight letter word can have a letter taken away and still make a word. Take another letter away and it still makes a word. Keep on doing that until you have one letter left. What is the word? HINT: The answer is a synonym for early stages.
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