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10/28/2020 - Man killed in accident in Dauphin County mine

(Williamstown) — Authorities on Wednesday were investigating after a man died in a central Pennsylvania coal mine.

Daniel Shoener, 36, of Donaldson, was struck by a rock about 1,000 feet below the surface in Williamstown Mine #1 on Tuesday afternoon, police said.

Fellow miners were able to get Shoener to the surface, but police said his blunt force injuries were too severe and he died at the scene.

The anthracite coal mine, in Williamstown, Dauphin County, is operated by Kimmel’s Coal and Packaging.

The accident was under investigation and no other details were available.

10/27/2020 - Trump and Biden differ sharply on the environment — and that means the election stakes are high for Pennsylvania

President Trump spent four years dismantling nearly 100 federal environmental rules and policies. So, what would a second term for Trump mean for the environment? 

“Another four years of the Trump administration and the Trump EPA, I think, would be catastrophic,” said Robert Routh, an attorney with the Clean Air Council, an environmental group based in Philadelphia. 

The Trump administration has rolled back climate rules set by the Obama administration to curb emissions from power plants, cars, and the oil and gas industry. These have come even as scientists say we need to move quickly to lower emissions or risk the worst effects of climate change. 

If Trump wins the Nov. 3 election, Routh said, “you would not see any progress on environmental rules or regulations” in the U.S. “You would see a continued gutting and rolling back of common sense baseline standards that have been in place.”

The two presidential candidates differ sharply on a number of issues. But their differences are especially pronounced when it comes to their stances on the environment. 

Experts and advocates say these differences would have a profound impact on environmental policies in Pennsylvania, the country’s second-leading energy producing state

The Trump administration has resisted even admitting that climate change poses a problem, and has not articulated a plan to deal with it. 

Reid R. Frazier / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A natural gas drilling rig in Greene County, Pa. in 2016.

Biden, meanwhile is calling for a $2 trillion climate plan that would make the economy carbon neutral by 2050. He is calling on Congress to pass some type of climate legislation if he’s elected. This could be bad news for the state’s coal industry, since coal has the biggest CO2 footprint of any fossil fuel. 

Rachel Gleason, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, said a big climate bill is likely if Biden wins. 

“I completely think that that would probably happen,” Gleason said. “I think it’s pretty clear that the Biden-Harris ticket does not have an appetite for the coal industry, and that’s a problem.”

When he ran in 2016, Trump promised to bring back the coal industry. That didn’t happen. Natural gas and renewables continued to eat away at its market share during the past four years. 

When Trump first took office, there were around 50,000 coal mining jobs. Today, there are about 45,000. Coal production has fallen to levels not seen since the 1970s. 

But Gleason said that by rolling back regulations on coal, like the Clean Power Plan, which regulated emissions from power plants, and the Stream Protection Rule, which targeted pollution from mining, Trump has kept coal from an even steeper decline. 

“I don’t know that we can actually argue there’s been an uptick in production in the industry, but it’s definitely steadied itself — until the pandemic hit,” Gleason said. 

Other industries say they’ve benefited from Trump’s environmental rollbacks, including his changes to the National Environmental Policy Act — or NEPA. The law requires environmental reviews for federally-permitted projects. 

“It really cuts across the board from agriculture to forestry to manufacturing, energy and transportation. Basically all the major commodity and industrial segments are going to be at some point touched by NEPA,” said Kevin Sunday, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.

Matt Smith / Keystone Crossroads

Coal is piled up at the the Blaschak Coal Corporation pit mine Dec. 4, 2018, in Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania.

Business groups say the reviews take too long, and Trump shortened them. 

Biden could revoke any changes to NEPA, and he could also reverse Trump’s rollbacks of Obama-era regulations targeting the oil and gas industry’s release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. 

Pennsylvania has state rules that limit methane leaks on wells built after 2018, but Routh, of the Clean Air Council, said the Trump administration’s moves also put the kibosh on cutting emissions for thousands of wells built before that. 

Routh said the older wells are “by far the greatest source of emissions of methane right now.” 

Even without regulations, a potential Biden administration could start to impact the state’s natural gas industry, said Artem Abramov, an analyst with the consulting firm Rystad Energy. Abramov said there would be no sudden effect. 

“I would not expect that there will be any immediate implications for (natural gas) producers themselves if we observe this change in the administration,” Abramov said. 

Even if he wanted to, Biden couldn’t ban fracking in Pennsylvania, Abramov said. That requires an act of Congress. And Biden has made it clear he doesn’t want to do that. 

But Biden’s plan to boost renewables — like offshore wind projects in the Atlantic ocean — could hurt demand for natural gas from Pennsylvania. 

Once a wave of those projects come on line, Abramov said, “I think the whole Northeastern region will be the first region in the U.S. where gas consumption peaks, structurally.” 

Those are some of the reasons why Lisa Johnson is worried about a Biden presidency. She runs Sunnyside Supply, which sells equipment to the natural gas industry in Washington County. She — and the rest of her 12 or so employees — all plan to vote for Trump.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Climate scientists say the Pennsylvania can expect more precipitation as global warming continues.

“It makes me very nervous if Biden would get in with his green energy, where we stand,” Johnson said. “And, you know, we might not see it in the first six months, but long term over the next four years, where will we be?”

But others, like Anaïs Peterson, say we need to address climate change. 

Peterson, a recent college grad from O’Hara Township, just outside Pittsburgh, is working as an environmental activist. She said climate change is already happening in Pennsylvania — in the form of increased flooding and hotter weather — and around the world. She’s voting for Biden. 

“It’s very present in our lives. And it’s not just about polar bears and ice caps melting, but it’s about humanity’s ability to survive,” she said. 

She said there’s a large economic opportunity in transitioning away from fossil fuels toward renewables: “I think people really want to see leadership towards this.”

10/26/2020 - Trump failed to revive coal, but that doesn’t mean workers will adopt Biden’s vision for green jobs

Trains still carry coal past the now-abandoned Mathies Mine, located on the Monongahela River in Washington County. Metal fencing blocks the mine entrance, a cave-like opening where hundreds of miners once trod miles of tunnels.

Art Sullivan worked at Mathies about 40 years ago. He fondly remembers the challenge and camaraderie of the labor, and what it meant for his family and neighbors.

“The attachment is more to the community: the religion, the family, and the land for farming and hunting and fishing,” he said, standing outside the mine.

During his career, Sullivan advanced in the industry and eventually traveled the world consulting coal companies. But now, he’s left with a sense of betrayal.

An-Li Herring / WESA

Washington County coal mining consultant Art Sullivan has worked in the industry for 54 years.

“Donald Trump has no plan for coal,” the Washington County resident said of the president. “The problem is he lied to we coal miners.”

In 2016, Trump’s vows to rescue the coal industry fired up his base. At one campaign rally in West Virginia, then-candidate Trump pledged, “We’re going to bring those miners back, you’re going to be so proud of your president. You’re going to be so proud of your country.”

But the coal industry has lost another 10 percent of its workforce since Trump took office. The losses include hundreds of mining jobs in southwestern Pennsylvania alone.

During his 2016 campaign, Trump blamed Obama-era environmental regulations for the decline, and set about rolling those protections back.  And although coal has continued to decline, Republicans still highlight energy as a critical wedge issue between Trump and his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. Arguments over fracking for natural gas, a major industry in western Pennsylvania and a crucial factor in coal’s dwindling fortunes, have consumed much of the campaign. In the candidates’ final debate Thursday, Trump hounded Biden for saying he would seek to transition away from fossil fuels such as oil and gas.

“Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Ohio?” the president asked, touting the significance of the issue in some key battleground states.

Biden firmly denies GOP claims that he would ban fracking. In fact, his strategy instead focuses on clean energy. The Democrat has proposed a $2 trillion investment in clean energy technology and infrastructure development, with the goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

Broader use of renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, would not only benefit the environment, Biden said in a campaign video last year, but it would also “create more than 10 million new good-paying jobs all across the clean economy in the United States of America. It’s an enormous opportunity.”

A lot of construction jobs

Some of this work has already happened locally: A dozen union carpenters worked for a year attaching solar panels to the frame of a former steel rolling mill in Hazelwood. The array, completed this summer, now powers tech companies located inside the sprawling structure.

An-Li Herring / WESA

Bridge carpenter Tim Sippey served as the construction foreman for the solar array that now powers tech companies located at Mill 19 in Hazelwood.

Tim Sippey was the project foreman. Having never worked in renewable infrastructure before, he said the main adjustment was handling the delicate glass solar panels.

“You can’t bang them around. So that was one challenge,” he said. “The other challenge was how lightweight they are, because most things we pick [up] are real heavy. But [the panels] were lightweight so they would catch the wind.”

Sippey thinks Biden’s plan means jobs for people in construction. And Michael Carnahan, vice president and general manager for solar energy company Scalo Solar, noted that building green infrastructure involves “all the different construction positions … between excavation, steel work, carpentry, electrical computers.” Carnahan oversaw the engineering and construction of the solar array in Hazelwood.

He added that solar energy promises to create jobs in communities across the country because it depends on the wide distribution of infrastructure to capture the energy, and then convert it into electricity.

“You’re talking about big solar farms and stuff like that that can be done on some hilly areas, too,” he said. “We’re talking about power plants in every location. Power plants on residential roofs. You can put 12, 15 solar panels on a roof and provide basically your net-zero energy.”

Carnahan acknowledged that challenges remain in areas like Pittsburgh that tend to be cloudy. In fact, when there’s not enough direct sunlight, the Hazelwood solar array instead draws on the largely fossil fuel-driven electrical grid. But during sunnier periods, it sends excess energy back to the grid for use by others.

An-Li Herring / WESA

Michael Carnahan has worked in the solar power industry for 12 years and oversaw the construction of the Mill 19 solar array in Hazelwood.

To Carnahan, such hurdles illustrate the value of Biden’s proposed investment, because it could facilitate the development of energy storage technology that might one day eliminate the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Environmental priorities: Friend or foe of energy jobs?

But former coal miner Jason White doubts that Biden’s more immediate plan to build green infrastructure has much to offer people like him. The Washington County native predicts miners would be reluctant to move from project to project after having grown accustomed to working for years in the same mine. Plus, he noted, they’d need to learn entirely new skills.

While Biden has pledged to make sure coal miners have the support they need to make that transition, White said it hasn’t worked out that way for his neighbors.

“I can’t tell you how many people I know that now either work at Wal-Mart, some job that’s half of what they were making, and they’re either struggling or they retired and now they’re on Social Security,” he said.

A supporter of the president’s, White believes environmental regulations hurt his industry. The Waynesburg mine where he used to work closed in 2015, and he said by the time Trump was elected, it was too late to undo that damage. But a Trump loss now, he added, would just make things worse.

“If he loses, and the next administration says, ‘Oh well, we’re going back to where it was eight years ago,’ well then you’re back to people being displaced, and power plants are going to continue to close,” White said.

An-Li Herring / WESA

Bill Kozlovich, who worked in the coal industry for 20 years, leads the Republican Party of Fayette County.

Bill Kozlovich, who worked in coal for 20 years and now chairs the Republican Party of Fayette County, said voters should give Trump’s policies more time to take effect.

“We’ve been way, way over-regulated, and Donald Trump is working on that. But he can only do so much [in four years],” the Uniontown resident said. “Tax cuts, rolling regulation back … grows your business.”

Jason Bostic, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, added that Trump’s approach is also “extremely encouraging” for workers in the manufacturing and energy sectors because it reflects an “overarching attitude … that he’s trying to protect their jobs.”

“The president, I think, firmly believes in the resiliency of the American blue-collar worker and the need for heavy industry to flourish and advance in this country,” Bostic said.

But Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, contends that Trump’s appeal is based on “a false choice” between jobs and the environment. By contrast, Walsh said, Biden recognizes “that good-paying jobs for all Americans should be at the center of our climate and energy solutions.”

A coalition of major labor unions and environmental organizations, the BlueGreen Alliance announced its support for Biden this summer. It was the first time in its 14-year history that the group had endorsed a candidate for president.

Walsh acknowledged that Biden’s plan would require significant retraining for some who work in coal today. “But this is … not just an issue of skills,” he said. “These are some of the hardest-working people in the country … We have to have a sort of ecosystem of support around [them] as they are transitioning.” Those supports, Walsh said, include continued health insurance coverage and income.

Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, who has long stressed both blue-collar needs and environmental principles, added that the best way to respond to workers who remain skeptical of Biden’s energy plan is to deliver on the former vice president’s promise to prioritize their needs.

“We need to be held accountable and to make sure we don’t leave these industries, these individuals, and these regions behind,” Fetterman said.

But to give that strategy a try, Biden would have to get elected first. And voters in coal country could play a big part in deciding whether that happens.

10/24/2020 - NPR correspondent, who covered fracking in Pa., tweets a breakdown of the Trump-Biden debate exchange

Scott Detrow, now a political correspondent for NPR, reported for StateImpact Pennsylvania from 2011-2013. He says fracking is a more complex issue in Pa. than it's made out to be on the national stage.

10/23/2020 - Latest Mariner East violation in Lebanon County could draw penalties against Sunoco

State environmental regulators plan to meet with Sunoco over violations with its Mariner East pipeline. The latest was another involving Snitz Creek.

10/23/2020 - Climate change brings up some hard emotions, but, a psychologist says, there can be joy in the struggle

Taking action of any kind, a psychologist and climate activist says, can empower people who may be feeling hopeless about countering the effects of global warming.

10/22/2020 - Fracking project at US Steel Plant denied local permit extension

A controversial natural gas well at a US Steel Plant near Pittsburgh suffered a setback Thursday night. The East Pittsburgh Borough zoning hearing board denied an appeal by a fracking company to have a lapsed permit for the well reinstated. 

New Mexico-based Merrion Oil and Gas received a permit from East Pittsburgh Borough for a conditional use to drill and frack a well at US Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works in 2018. 

But the company didn’t drill the well because it did not receive permission from the state Department of Environmental Protection to begin work. In several deficiency letters sent to the company, the DEP outlined problems with the company’s plans.  

The local conditional use permit expired earlier this year, but the company appealed to have it extended. The East Pittsburgh zoning board voted by a 3-2 margin Thursday night to deny the appeal. 

It was a victory for some local residents and environmental groups who have been fighting to have the project killed over health and safety concerns. The Edgar Thomson facility is one of Allegheny County’s largest polluters.  

“We are sick and tired of our lives being put on the line in order to make profits for giant corporations,” said Megan McDonough, Pennsylvania Organizing Manager at the group Food & Water Action, in an emailed statement. “Not only had Merrion never drilled a well in Pennsylvania, they could not even fill out the permit paperwork correctly.”

US Steel spokeswoman Meghan Cox referred all comment to Merrion. 

Ryan Davis, operations manager for Merrion, said the project was a “win-win” for the company and the community, since a portion of the well’s state “impact fee” would be re-distributed to surrounding municipalities. 

“There will be funds generated for the local municipalities from the impact fees and the project helps support local jobs,” Davis said, in an email. “Merrion is very proud of this project and intends to continue to move forward.”

10/22/2020 - PUC doesn’t have to disclose its estimates of Mariner East ‘blast zone,’ court rules

Official estimates of the impact of any rupture of the Mariner East pipelines will remain under wraps following an appeals court ruling that rejected a disclosure request by a longtime anti-pipeline campaigner.

The Commonwealth Court ruled Wednesday that the Public Utility Commission does not have to disclose its calculations on any explosion of natural gas liquids from the pipelines, overruling Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records’ decision that some of the requested information could be released.

The court said the OOR erred when it ruled in June last year that some of the requested data was not “confidential security information” (CSI) under a state law, and so should be released by the PUC. The OOR excluded the PUC’s calculations on the “blast radius” of any explosion from its ruling but directed the PUC to release a report by its Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement on Mariner East 1, an old gasoline pipeline that has been repurposed as part of the Mariner East project.

“OOR acted outside of its authority when it determined that the requested information is not CSI and therefore subject to disclosure under the RTKL,” the court wrote in its ruling on an appeal of the OOR decision by the PUC and Energy Transfer, the pipeline’s builder. The court was referring to the Right to Know Law.

The PUC has the authority under the Public Utility Confidential Security Information Disclosure Protection Act to determine disclosure, the court wrote in a 12-page opinion, saying it wasn’t about to “disrupt” that authority. The PUC declined to comment on the ruling.

Eric Friedman, a resident of Delaware County, has been fighting the construction of the pipelines that run alongside the Andover development in Thornbury Township where he lives with his family. He and other opponents argue that the siting of natural gas liquids pipelines in such densely populated areas represents a grave threat to public safety because of the highly explosive nature of the fuels.

He asked for information from the PUC in February 2019 after Paul Metro, the regulator’s former manager of gas safety, told a public meeting the previous month that the PUC has its own estimates of the “buffer zone” or “blast radius” from accidents on highly volatile liquids pipelines such as Mariner East.

Although the PUC’s calculations will not now be made public, Friedman said the public knows the potential impact of a Mariner East explosion from a risk assessment published by Delaware County Council in November 2018. The study concluded that a worst-case explosion from the pipelines would kill anyone within about a mile but that the likelihood of dying from such of explosion was about equal to dying in a car crash or falling down stairs.

“Thanks to Delaware County’s fully public risk assessment, which models a 1.3-mile blast radius, there is no secret about the size of the potential fatality zone associated with Sunoco’s proposed plastics export pipeline,” Friedman said in a statement after the ruling. “The secret that the PUC commissioners would like to keep, and which would be shown by the information that the OOR directed them to release, is what the commissioners know about the size of the blast radius, and when they knew it.”

In August last year, activists in Chester and Delaware counties released a “Citizens Risk Assessment” containing estimates by Quest, an independent consultant, for pipeline-explosion impacts including a flammable vapor cloud.

Kurt Knaus, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, which advocates for pipeline construction, said the court ruling properly upholds the law against disclosing confidential security information.

“The law is the law, and it’s clear that Mariner East has followed the law every step of the way in its development — and this is simply the latest case to prove that,” Knaus said. “This lawsuit by the opponents was nothing more than peddling fear to try to shut down this pipeline, rather than engaging in facts about its lawful, safe development and operation.”

Still, the Department of Environmental Protection has so far issued Energy Transfer 118 notices of violation of environmental laws, mostly for spills of drilling fluids, since construction began in February 2017, and the project has been halted several times by courts or regulators because of concerns about its impact on public safety. In September, the DEP ordered ET to reroute the pipelines at Marsh Creek Lake in Chester County after construction spilled more than 8,000 gallons of drilling fluid into the popular recreational lake.

Some sections of the project are still unfinished although it has been operational since December 2018 after Energy Transfer joined up finished pipelines of different diameters in order to start serving customers. The pipelines carry NGLs from southwest Pennsylvania and Ohio some 350 miles to a terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia, where most of the fuel is exported.

Energy Transfer did not respond to a request for comment on the ruling.

Erik Arneson, executive director of the Office of Open Records, said, “We appreciate the clarity of the court’s ruling.”

The ruling could be appealed to the state Supreme Court. Friedman said any statement about whether to appeal would be made by his lawyer, who did not respond to a request for comment.

10/19/2020 - Pennsylvanians want a lot from their lawmakers when it comes to climate change

Polls show about 70% of Pennsylvanians want their state lawmakers to do more to address climate change. StateImpact Pennsylvania asked you for examples.

10/16/2020 - At hearing on Mariner East safety, plaintiffs say Sunoco’s public awareness plan falls short. Expert witness for company says, ‘It’s working’

People who suspect that a natural gas liquids pipeline is leaking should use their own judgement about whether to evacuate their homes rather than expecting specific advice from the operator, an expert witness said at Public Utility Commission hearing on the safety of the Mariner East pipelines.

John Zurcher, a pipeline expert appearing as a witness for the Mariner East operator, Sunoco, told the hearing on Wednesday that any pipeline company could not advise residents on whether to stay in their homes if they smell, hear or see a leak.

“I don’t know that they can speak to whether you should stay in your house or get out of your house,” Zurcher said on the last day of a two-week hearing on the concerns of seven residents of Chester and Delaware counties, who say that public safety is being put at risk by having the Mariner East pipelines run through densely populated suburbs west of Philadelphia.

The plaintiffs are asking the PUC to investigate whether Sunoco’s safety measures protect the public, and, if it finds safety is lacking, to close down the lines until the company meets regulatory requirements. Roughly two weeks of testimony ended Wednesday.

Zurcher, under cross-examination by Rich Raiders, an attorney for the plaintiffs, also played down concerns that devices such as cell phones and garage door openers are potential ignition sources in the event of a leak of the highly explosive natural gas liquids that are carried by the lines.

“I know of no accident that has ever been triggered by a cell phone,” Zurcher said, at the virtual hearing before Elizabeth Barnes, an administrative law judge for the PUC.

Rather than giving residents specific advice about whether to use particular items in the event of a suspected leak, pipeline operators just urge people not to use anything that might cause an explosion, he said. “Don’t operate anything that might cause a spark,” said Zurcher, who has worked in the pipeline industry for more than 40 years.

Critics say Sunoco has failed to give clear advice in public-awareness brochures on how residents should react to any suspected leak. They say the company has created confusion about whether to stay inside, whether to leave by car or on foot, how to avoid any cloud of escaped gas, and how they might evacuate the elderly or infirm.

“How would your average person know when she had reached a safe distance?” asked Michael Bomstein, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, who call themselves the “Safety Seven.”

Zurcher replied that there is no standard advice by pipeline operators on what is a safe distance in the event of a leak, because it depends on the nature and size of the leak. “There cannot be a standard that I can convey to the public,” he said.

Under direct questioning from Neil Witkes, an attorney for Sunoco, Zurcher said the public response to a leak of NGLs from the Mariner East 1 pipe near Morgantown in Berks County in 2017 showed that the company’s public-awareness program worked as it was designed to.

The fact that the incident was reported by a member of the public showed that the program had successfully educated residents in how to respond to a leak.

“The company spends a lot of time and effort to get that information out,” Zurcher said. “In this particular case, it was a member of the public who noticed the leak and called Sunoco to report it. So that public-awareness program, that tells you that it’s working, that individual knew what to do. This to me is about the program working exactly as it was supposed to.”

Parts of the project are still under construction after some 3 1/2 years of technical, environmental and legal problems for the lines that carry ethane, propane and butane from southwest Pennsylvania and Ohio to a terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia. Construction has been halted several times by regulators or the courts, and the Department of Environmental Protection has issued about 100 notices of violation for repeated leaks of drilling fluid into waterways and private wells.

Now that the hearings are finished, the parties will submit written briefs by the end of the year. Judge Barnes, who previously shut down a section of the troubled project while repairs were made, will then send her own recommendations to the full PUC which will decide whether to accept or reject them.