News

01/17/2020 - Sunoco fined $2 million for Mariner East spills in Raystown Lake

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has fined Sunoco Pipeline almost $2 million for pollution releases into Raystown Lake during the construction of the Mariner East pipeline. 

Between April and December 2017, Sunoco spilled more than 200,000 gallons of drilling mud into the lake while building a section of the Mariner East pipeline beneath it. 

Sunoco didn’t immediately report the spills, which it found had coated 8-acres of the lakebed. 

“In numerous cases, the company failed to immediately report those releases,” DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said in an email. 

The company reported only a small spill of 25 gallons in December 2017, before sending more comprehensive reports to the DEP in 2018 and 2019. 

The drilling mud is made up largely of bentonite clay, and was used to bore horizontally through the ground beneath the lake bed. The DEP says the company reported a “loss of circulation” of 3 million gallons of the mud, with 208,000 of those gallons “surfacing” at the bottom of the lake. 

A state-ordered inspection of the lake prompted a “No Wake Zone” declaration for boaters there the summer of 2018. 

Raystown Lake, in Huntingdon County, is a reservoir maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is open for boating, fishing, and swimming. It sees over a million visitors a year. 

In addition to the fine, the company will have to do $1.15 million dollars in environmental work on the lake, including work to fight invasive plants and improve fish habitat. 

In 2018 the company was fined nearly $13 million for violations on other sections of the Mariner East. Earlier this month, Energy Transfer, Sunoco’s parent company, received a record $30 million fine for violations related to an explosion on the Revolution pipeline in Beaver County. 

An Energy Transfer spokeswoman said the company was “pleased to come to an agreement with the DEP” over the spills, saying it would “allow us to move forward to complete our construction activities in this area and others.”  

01/17/2020 - Allegheny County issues nearly $800K in fines for Clairton Coke Works violations

Allegheny County Health Department officials have issued fines against U.S. Steel for air pollution and permit violations that occurred at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works last year.

The department levied nearly $800,000 in penalties, to be paid to the Community Benefit Trust and to the Allegheny Clean Air Fund. According to a letter released by the county Friday, the fines were issued Jan. 14 and are due 30 days after.

The letter sent to U.S. Steel states that the violations took place from April 1, 2019 through Sept. 30, 2019.

Air quality activists protested at the City County Building in downtown Pittsburgh last Friday before the Board of Health meeting, demanding increased efforts to improve air quality. Protesters noted the high rates of children with asthma living near the plant and asked for the health department to provide follow-up care for residents affected by a string of smoggy days in the Mon Valley related to pollution.

Earlier this month ACHD interim director Ronald Sugar said the County will propose new regulations by the end of 2020 to require industrial polluters to reduce emissions during weather-related pollution days.

Neither U.S. Steel or Health Department officials were immediately available for comment.

01/17/2020 - Future of PES refinery could be decided Friday behind closed doors

The future of the 1,300-acre site by the Delaware River, currently occupied by the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery, could be decided Friday behind closed doors in New York.

The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July, a month after a catastrophic fire and explosion destroyed part of the refinery’s capacity. The refinery shut its operations right after the fire, laying off nearly 1,000 employees.

The refinery complex has been in the midst of a sale process since November. By then, 15 parties had expressed interest in acquiring the facility. Final formal bids were submitted Jan. 10, under nondisclosure agreements. The assets of PES could be sold to one or more buyers.

An auction is expected to take place Friday at the New York City offices of the company’s law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP, to maximize the sale price and provide the biggest value to PES. But the company also could decide to take one bid and call the auction off.

“It’s very much an inside decision process, and it’s very hard to tell,” said Peter Winslow, a representative of SMART, a coalition of environmental organizations, who has been closely following the proceedings in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Wilmington.

In December, Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Gross approved the company’s restructuring proposal, which lacked critical information for creditors. According to court documents, PES will send that information after the sale and insurance recovery process — the company is expecting a $1.25 billion insurance payout — for creditors to vote on the plan before Feb. 3. The restructuring plan and the winning bidder would be presented in bankruptcy court at a confirmation hearing on Feb. 6.

Last summer’s closure of the refinery, the largest on the East Coast and the biggest stationary source of air pollution in the city, opened the door for many to imagine cleaner uses of the site. But a November report produced by the city’s Refinery Advisory Group concluded that in the short term the complex most likely will continue to have a heavy-industrial use.

Judge Gross granted the City of Philadelphia’s request to be consulted during the bidding and auction process. Mike Dunn, a spokesman for the city, said that PES had received the advisory group’s report and had already disclosed the names of the bidders under a nondisclosure agreement.

The city will be represented at the auction by attorneys with the Law Department and representatives from the Managing Director’s Office. But Managing Director Brian Abernathy has said the city has limited powers and influence to determine the future of a privately owned site.

So far, only a few bidders have presented their plans for the refinery complex publicly. Among them is former PES chief executive Phil Rinaldi, whom environmentalists dubbed “Fossil Phil.” Rinaldi’s Philadelphia Energy Industries proposes to restart the Point Breeze and Girard Point refineries, rehiring some former PES employees, and host an anaerobic digester facility and a 10-megawatt solar project by RNG Energy Solutions.

In a letter to the bankruptcy court dated Jan. 10, State Sen. Larry Farnese urged the judge to reject proposals that don’t protect the health, safety and welfare of Philadelphia residents or align with the city’s climate goals.

“This moment presents the greatest opportunity in Philadelphia’s history to redefine a future land use for such a large amount of land at one time. It is critical that all stakeholders work together to ensure proper remediation of the site and encourage opportunities for future uses at the site that protect the environment and public health,” Farnese wrote.

In a separate letter dated Tuesday, State Sen. Anthony H. Williams asked the judge to “require bidders to commit to at least 60% of the workforce [being] comprised of city residents with a special emphasis on surrounding communities of color and historical high unemployment.”

Neighbors of the refinery and local activists are planning to rally Friday in New York outside the law office where the auction is scheduled to occur. Activists with Philly Thrive have been calling Mayor Jim Kenney’s office, saying his administration needs to “make it clear throughout the auction process that the City of Philadelphia can no longer host polluting companies on that land,” according to a script sent to members.

An investigative report published Thursday by E&E News, NBC News and the Investigative Reporting Workshop — a nonprofit newsroom based at American University — revealed that in May the refinery released levels of benzene, a chemical linked with cancer and other diseases, at levels more than 21 times the federal limit, and said that the city failed to inform the public.

James Garrow, a spokesman for the city Department of Public Health, said testing at an air-monitoring station at 24th and Ritner streets did not show such high levels. “And that’s in the community, so that’s a much truer indication of … the air that people are breathing.”

Also paying attention to the auction process are the refinery’s former workers, some of whom are still unemployed and waiting for its future to be decided.

Ryan O’Callaghan, a spokesman for United Steelworkers Local 10-1, which represented some of the refinery employees, said they don’t know who the bidders are or how will the sale process unfolds.

“We’re confused,” O’Callaghan said. “We don’t know.”

01/13/2020 - DEP orders Range Resources to clean up its act on well that had garnered a then-record $8.9 million fine

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection ordered Texas-based Range Resources to fix a Marcellus shale well that has polluted drinking water in Lycoming County since at least early 2012, and which the DEP had previously fined the company a then-record $8.9 million in 2015. Regulators quietly withdrew the fine several years later after reaching a settlement agreement with Range.

The DEP now says Range Resources continuously failed to correct issues caused by faulty well construction nine years ago at the Harman Lewis unit 1H well in Moreland Township. DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell says the agency has worked with the company in “good faith.”

“We expect companies to abide by our environmental laws and regulations and they must be held accountable if their work results in violations that negatively impact our environment,” McDonnell said in a statement. “Range Resources’ refusal at times to accept responsibility and finally address this problem is unacceptable and that is why DEP is issuing this order.”

In addition to the contamination that dates back to the well’s original 2011 construction, the DEP says the company tried to re-enter the well in 2016 but drilled outside the casing and created an open bore hole that remains.

“We have been working with Range Resources but have been met with sporadic cooperation, which will no longer be tolerated,” McDonnell said. “Through a rigorous investigation, DEP has determined that Range Resources is responsible for the leak and must take corrective actions as outlined in this order, which seeks to resolve this environmental issue once and for all.”

Range Resources originally drilled the well in the winter of 2011, and fracked it in June of that year. In January 2012, DEP began an investigation after learning of tainted water in the vicinity of the well. The agency concluded a bad cement job lead to methane migrating into private water wells as well as a nearby stream. DEP issued a notice of violation in September 2013, citing a faulty cement job. Despite that notice, DEP said at the time, Range refused to take responsibility as methane continued to flow into private drinking water supplies and a nearby stream.

In June 2015, DEP announced a plan to fine the company $8.9 million. At the time of the announcement, DEP says their inspectors saw methane bubbling up from the stream and killing vegetation in a farmer’s field.

In issuing the original fine, then DEP Secretary John Quigley said the agency took “seriously our responsibility to protect residents and Pennsylvania’s natural resources.”

Quigley was forced out as DEP secretary about a year later. The agency withdrew the fine about one week after his controversial departure. The move surprised many, including Quigley, who at the time said he knew nothing about the plan to withdraw the fine against Range Resources, something he should have known about as head of the agency.

DEP officials say the fine was withdrawn after Range Resources submitted plans to remediate the damage. But Tuesday’s order shows the agency believes the company did not keep to its side of the agreement.

Range Resources could not be reached for comment. The company has 60 days to submit a plan to halt the ongoing methane migration and fix the open bore hole. The DEP said Range installed or paid for treatment for the water supplies that were affected. The company could appeal the fine to the Environmental Hearing Board, the DEP said.

01/13/2020 - Wolf says despite GOP compromise, drilling bill still poses too much environmental risk

(Harrisburg) — State House and Senate lawmakers appear poised to pass a bill that would loosen some of the laws that govern certain oil and gas drillers.

But despite a significant amendment intended to win over skeptical Democrats, Governor Tom Wolf and others say the measure still allows too much pollution.

The legislation, SB 790, is sponsored by GOP Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati. It would give conventional oil and gas drillers looser environmental standards than the ones the state imposes on unconventional operators.

Conventional drillers tend to be smaller companies that drill shallower wells. They’ve long complained they shouldn’t be subject to the same rules as unconventional drillers, which are generally major corporations extracting oil and gas from the Marcellus Shale.

Among other things, the bill would allow conventional operators to spill more drilling wastewater — often referred to as brine — without notifying the Department of Environmental Protection, and likewise change the standards for crude oil spills.

A 2018 Penn State study found that brine can contain contaminants like radium, a radioactive element and known carcinogen, “often many times above drinking water standards.” It also found that the water has the potential to leach metals, salts and radioactive material into surface or groundwater, soil and air.

An amendment, added Monday in the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, softened the bill somewhat, reducing the amounts of oil and ​brine it would allow conventional drillers to spill before reporting it — from five to two barrels of oil, and from 15 to five barrels of brine.

It also banned the use of wastewater to suppress dust on dirt roads — the practice highlighted in Penn State’s study.

Republicans, like Butler County’s Daryl Metcalfe, said they compromised because they’re worried conventional drillers are struggling.

“This is an issue that we’ve been working on,” he said. “I mean, how long do you expect companies to exist when they’re being overregulated to the point of losing the people and resources that they actually need to continue to have a business?”

Several Democrats in Monday’s Environmental Resources and Energy Committee hearing said they agree conventional and unconventional drillers require distinct rules.

Delaware County Democrat Greg Vitali, who serves as the committee’s minority chair, noted that he and others have traveled to well sites across the state to see the differences for themselves.

But, he maintained, the bill needs work.

“It doesn’t address the rollback of water supply protection [or] the avoidance of erosion and sediment control,” Vitali said. “There’s still a weakened protection for public resources [and it] still allows more wells to go unreported.”

The bill ultimately passed the committee in a near party-lines vote, with one Democrat in support.

It already passed the Senate, and Metcalfe said he is confident the chamber would agree to the amended version.

Then, however, it would have to get through the governor.

JJ Abbott, a spokesman for Wolf, said he is still “open to finding a legislative solution” but would veto the current iteration of the bill.

“This bill still poses an undeniable risk to the health and safety of our citizens, the environment, and our public resources,” Abbott wrote in a statement.

01/13/2020 - Clairton plaintiffs to decide on U.S. Steel settlement

Reid R. Frazier / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Johnie Perryman, of Clairton blames pollution from U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works for a heart condition.

Residents living near U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works met with pro bono lawyers Thursday to discuss a settlement in a class action lawsuit brought by local residents.

The agreement resolved a lawsuit over odors and emissions from the Clairton plant.

Lawyers with the nonprofit Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services met with residents to answer questions about the settlement.

Plaintiffs must decide by January 20 whether to stay in the lawsuit or to keep their rights to a future legal claim against U.S. Steel.

One potential plaintiff is Johnie Perryman, whose own doctor recommended he leave the polluted air of Clairton because of a heart condition. Perryman had a heart pump installed in his chest in July to keep his blood pumping.

“You have to ask yourself the question, how long will that last? How long can the equipment hold up?” Perryman said.

The settlement, approved by a judge in December, calls for U.S. Steel to spend $6.5 million on pollution controls at the plant. It calls for an additional $2 million to be split up among 5,600 plaintiffs that live near the plant.

Perryman, 76, said that worked out to $190 per household. He said if the entire $8.5 million were given to the plaintiffs, they would be entitled to something like $1,000 each, a sum far more proportionate to the nuisance of living next to one of the state’s biggest polluters.

“What most people are worried about here is the health problems they have because of this pollution. And there’s so many people with cancer,” Perryman said.

If 20 plaintiffs opt out of the lawsuit, U.S. Steel can withdraw from the agreement, and a new one would have to be worked out.

Nick Cubra, 56, said the $190 he would get from the lawsuit doesn’t compensate for living near the plant since the 70s.

I can only imagine. Back then, there wasn’t any of this air quality stuff. I’ve been exposed to this all my life. I’m not giving it up for $190.”

Another free legal session is scheduled for Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Clairton City Hall.

01/10/2020 - Trump wants to roll back environmental reviews of major projects like pipelines

President Donald Trump wants to roll back a major environmental rule he says slows down projects like new pipelines.

His proposal would limit environmental impact studies, a critical part of how local communities learn what will be coming to their neighborhood.

Fifty years ago, former President Richard Nixon signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act – or NEPA.

NEPA requires federal review of environmental impacts on major infrastructure projects, including things like the PennEast pipeline and the Delaware River deepening project. In both cases, the NEPA process did not result in federal agencies blocking construction, although New Jersey is challenging PennEast.

A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, a coalition of building trade unions and chambers of commerce, says the rollbacks are needed to prevent opponents from blocking pipelines.

“Employee safety and environmental protection are the cornerstones of responsible pipeline development,” said the group’s spokesman, Kurt Knaus. “That won’t change. What will change is the unchecked power of just a handful of opponents to delay or block development of critical infrastructure projects that benefit the greater good.”

The Delaware Riverkeeper’s Maya van Rossum disagrees.

“NEPA is not some big road block to allowing projects to move forward,” she said.

The environmental group opposes new natural gas pipelines like PennEast.

“They have major ramifications for whether or not water gets polluted, air gets contaminated, whether or not climate instability gets exacerbated.”

She says NEPA is crucial for public awareness and participation when it comes to large building projects.

“Giving them the information to understand the implications of that proposal. And then giving them the information they need to either support or challenge that project or proposal.”

Trump’s proposed rules would exclude privately funded projects from federal scrutiny and eliminate the requirement to consider the impacts on climate change. Court challenges are expected.

01/10/2020 - Study: Replacing coal plants with natural gas cut pollution, saved lives

A new study found closing hundreds of coal fired power plants and replacing them with natural gas plants saved thousands of lives around the country.

Jen Burney, an environmental engineer at the University of California, San Diego, analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with air pollution data in counties where power plants either closed down or opened up between 2005 and 2016.

Over that time period, more than 300 coal-fired generating units at 138 plants were taken down. These were replaced largely by more than 600 natural-gas-fired units put online.

Burney found the switch resulted in an estimated 26,610 fewer deaths around the country,

“Insofar as it’s driven coal plants out of business, for the people living nearby, it’s been sort of an unmitigated bonus,” Burney said.

Nick Muller, an economist and engineer at Carnegie Mellon University said the study shows how beneficial it can be to turn off coal-fired power plants, which emit more particle pollution than the natural gas plants that have largely replaced them. Small particles in the air kill about 100,000 people a year in the U.S., mainly from increased incidence of heart attack, stroke, and other diseases, according to one recent study.

“It emphasizes the fact that coal-fired power generation generates or produces lots of external effects,” Muller said.

The study, published in Nature Sustainability, only compared natural gas and coal at the level of power plant emissions. If the pollution from fracking were taken into effect, Burney said, that may lessen the health benefits of using natural gas.

“So the impacts of extraction and flaring may in fact even swamp the…downstream effects,” Burney said.

A recent paper by several Carnegie Mellon researchers, including Muller, found “upstream” air pollution from natural gas extraction — that is, before the gas is burned at a power plant — was responsible for an estimated 1,200 to 4,600 premature deaths in the Appalachian basin between 2004 and 2016.

Burney’s paper also found that switching from coal to natural gas had impacts on agriculture and climate. Air pollution reductions made in the switch improved crop yields by an estimated 570 million bushels. But eliminating that pollution also had a less-appreciated impact on local climate. Since particles generated by burning coal block out sunlight, eliminating some of those particles actually increased warming in areas where coal plants shut down over that time period, the study found.

Mark Z. Jacobson, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Stanford, said both coal and natural gas also pose climate problems. Coal produces more carbon dioxide than natural gas, but gas allows for more of the potent greenhouse gas methane to leak into the atmosphere. Keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the target set by the UN to avoid runaway climate change, is getting harder and harder to do, new research shows.

“We should eliminate both and transition to clean, renewable energy, like solar and wind and geothermal hydroelectric power, because they eliminate both the health and the climate problems,” Jacobson said.

 

01/09/2020 - Public input sought for potential region-wide transportation emissions cap-and-invest program

Pennsylvania may soon join a regional program meant to limit greenhouse gas emissions and increase investments in green transportation.

01/03/2020 - State levels record $30M fine against pipeline company responsible for Beaver County blast

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced an agreement Friday that includes a record fine against the company responsible for a 2018 natural gas pipeline explosion in Beaver County. 

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

As part of the settlement, the DEP assessed a $30.6 million fine against ETC Northeast Pipeline, a subsidiary of the pipeline company Energy Transfer, the largest ever issued by the regulator. DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said in a statement the fine’s size was in part due to the company’s failure to comply with an order the agency issued one month after the blast.  

“ETC’s lack of oversight during construction of the Revolution Pipeline and their failure to comply with DEP’s October 2018 compliance order demanded serious accountability. Their inaction led directly to this unprecedented civil penalty,” McDonnell said. 

At the heart of the settlement was the Sept. 10, 2018 explosion along the Revolution pipeline. A landslide near Ivy Lane in Center Township caused the pipeline to rupture. The subsequent blast shot flames 150 feet into the air, forced evacuations and burned one house to the ground. The fire damaged power lines and destroyed two garages, a barn and several vehicles.  

The Revolution had only been in service a week, carrying gas along a 40-mile route between Butler and Washington counties, when the blast occurred. 

In the Consent Agreement, the DEP determined that “neither temporary nor permanent stabilization…had been achieved” along the pipeline when the landslide and rupture occurred. 

As part of its consent agreement, the DEP outlined a laundry list of violations and oversights.  Those violations extended well beyond the blast site and included failure to stabilize more than a dozen hillsides, poor stormwater management and more than 2,000 other deficiencies, resulting in impacts to “numerous” streams and wetlands.

The DEP says it found that between February 2018 and December 2019, 19 different hillside sections of the pipeline weren’t stabilized, “resulting in numerous slides”; 352 separate occurrences of accelerated erosion and sedimentation; and 540 different occasions when sediment-laden water was discharged into several western Pennsylvania creeks and wetlands. In addition, the agency found over 2,000 instances where the company failed to properly implement “best management practices,” construction standards required by state permits. 

The state found that the company “eliminated at least twenty-three (23) streams by removing and/or filling the stream channels with soil,” resulting in a loss of 1,857 feet of stream channel. It also “(e)liminated at least seventeen (17) and altered at least seventy (70) wetland areas by manipulating and/or filling wetlands with soil.”

The DEP also found the company had plenty of warning signs the hillside was slip-prone but failed to properly manage the site. It says a January 2016 Energy Transfer analysis “concluded that the area of the Incident Site had a high susceptibility to slope failure.” Three months before the blast, a “slip” occurred on the hillside about 30 feet from where the pipe would rupture. 

While the company tried to restore the hillside, the DEP said, “neither an engineer nor any other geotechnical expert was consulted by field staff.” 

The settlement binds the company to restore the site of the blast and other wetlands it damaged, and to monitor the blast site for a minimum of five years. 

The DEP says that despite these deficiencies, the company hired a new management team for the pipeline and “has demonstrated its intention to correct its unlawful conduct to DEP’s satisfaction.” Therefore, it’s lifting a hold on permits for Energy Transfer’s other projects in the state. These include the Mariner East pipeline, which carries natural gas products from west of Pittsburgh to an export facility near Philadelphia.

McDonnell said DEP will continue to monitor the company’s activities. “The conditions imposed by this agreement seek to ensure that (Energy Transfer) will get this right. Anything less is unacceptable.”

A spokeswoman for the Dallas-based Energy Transfer said the company is pleased that the settlement is now final, and work on its other projects can proceed. 

“This has been a thorough and detailed process that involved a great deal of analysis and we appreciate the time and effort by the DEP to get to this point,” said Lisa Coleman, a company spokeswoman, in an email. She said the company is committed to following the regulations in the approved permits, and touted the economic benefits of the pipeline projects.

Environmental groups renewed their criticisms of Energy Transfer, which has already racked up more than $12 million in fines for its violations along the Mariner East. 

PennFuture CEO Jacqueline Bonomo said in a statement that the organization “applauds the DEP for holding this bad actor accountable for its environmental degradation and repeated violations.”

The Better Path Coalition, a coalition of environmental groups, said in a statement that many Pennsylvanians “will shudder at the thought that the company will be able once again to get permits for its projects.” 

Kurt Knaus, a spokesman for Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, a statewide pipeline industry group, praised the settlement, saying it shows DEP is ensuring pipelines in the state will meet “the highest environmental standards.”

“Skilled laborers who have been waiting to get back to work will finally be back on the job, putting their training to use for the safe, responsible development of critical infrastructure,” Knaus said, in a statement.