News

07/14/2020 - Wolf, legislature draw closer to more tax breaks for the natural gas industry

The compromise measure lowers the size of the tax break from more than $1 billion to $670 million over 25 years.

07/13/2020 - Q&A: Terry Engelder, Penn State scientist whose work led to the shale gas boom, talks about grand jury report on fracking

Now a professor emeritus of geosciences at Penn State, Terry Engelder acknowledged some mistakes by the state and by industry, but challenged parts of the grand jury report.

07/10/2020 - Are gas royalty owners buyers or sellers? In a court fight over royalties, the answer to that question could make all the difference to landowners

The state attorney general's office says when someone sells drilling rights to a company, they should be covered under the consumer protection law. Drillers in the lawsuit argue the landowners aren't buying anything -- so they're not protected consumers.

07/08/2020 - Pa. House moves to block RGGI entrance as DEP estimates it will save money and lives

The House voted 130-71 Wednesday to prevent the state joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative through executive action.

07/03/2020 - Family that lost hundreds of trees to failed pipeline project settles with company, gets land back

A Northeastern Pennsylvania family who watched as work crews, accompanied by armed federal marshals, destroyed their budding maple tree farm to make way for the failed Constitution Pipeline has settled with the company Williams for an undisclosed amount. A federal court has also vacated the eminent domain taking of about five acres, reversing an order it made more than five years ago.

“We’re really glad that it’s ended,” said Catherine Holleran, co-owner of the 23-acre property that has been in the family for 50 years. “We’ve gotten our land returned to us. That was our main objective right from the first.”

The Constitution Pipeline project would have carried Marcellus Shale gas  from Pennsylvania to New York state. Though the project received federal approval and the necessary permits from Pennsylvania regulators, New York blocked the pipeline by not issuing permits. Williams dropped the project in February.

The Holleran family of New Milford fought a lengthy battle to prevent the company from building the pipeline across their property. But in March 2016, the crews arrived at the 23-acre farm in rural Susquehanna County along with the federal marshalls, who wore bullet proof vests and carried semi-automatic weapons. The crew spent several days clearing about 558 trees, including some that were hundreds of years old.

In a 2018 statement filed with the court, Holleran described how the company left the trees lying on the ground, and did not remove them for a full year after the clear cut. The stumps were left in the ground.

Holleran described the stress weathered by her and her family.

“The entire ordeal has had an enormous emotional toll,” Holleran wrote. “The court proceedings followed by the armed guards on the property created immeasurable stress. …After the trees came down, I experienced a terrible period of despair.”

The Hollerans’ attorney Carolyn Elefant said the Hollerans are happy to have regained ownership of the farm.

“My clients are relieved to move on from the stress and uncertainty of the past few years,” Elefant said. “It was heartbreaking for the family to watch their trees come down, but with full ownership of the property restored and compensation paid, they can reclaim their land and replant their trees.”

Elefant said the family wants to continue to build upon their maple syrup business.

Holleran said she and her family want to work to change the Natural Gas Act, which governs how pipeline companies can seize private property through eminent domain. She said it’s difficult for individual landowners to take on large corporations, especially since the process is so legalistic and technical.

“That can create a lot of hardship for families,” she said. “You have to have a lot of money, and you have to have resources to even go that route, which is why a lot of people don’t.”

Williams could not be reached for comment.

07/03/2020 - Penn State researchers still need the public’s help to fight the spotted lanternfly, but a new tracking technique can help target emerging infestations

Penn State scientists have found new ways to track the spotted lanternfly and slow the spread of the plant damaging insect.

A new checklist can help Pennsylvanians identify the many places where the pest lays eggs. In addition, researchers have developed a technique for tracking where the insects go throughout their lifetimes.

Spotted lanternfly feed on, and eventually kill, grapevines and trees. According to Heather Leach, Extension Associate for Penn State, “the biggest impact today has been to vineyards. Spotted lanternfly really love to feed on grapes and we’re seeing yield losses and even vine deaths.”

According to Leach, the checklist and other outreach efforts are an important temporary measure for slowing the extent of the insect’s range.

“The whole goal right now is to slow that spread down and keep it as contained as possible. And so in the meantime, we can figure out what else we can do for spotted lanternfly management that’s more sustainable and long term,” said Leach.

Luke Hearon / Flickr

A muddy-looking spotted lanternfly egg mass is seen on a tree trunk.

Leach said many Pennsylvanians are eager to use the checklist because the insect damages trees in people’s yards and gardens. She said, “One of southeastern Pennsylvania’s favorite hobbies I would say is to go out and take vengeance on spotted lanternfly.”

Some conservation organizations like the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education have said that it’s important to avoid other animals while fighting off these pests. For example, one popular method for catching the spotted lanternfly is wrapping tape around a tree trunk, but this method has killed bats and birds that get stuck on the sticky surface.

Dr. Mitzy Porras, an entomologist at Penn State, has found a less intrusive way to stop the spread of spotted lanternfly. She’s developed a method for tracking the insects throughout their lives using a technique called stable isotope enrichment.

With this technique, researchers can identify which insects have fed on target plants that they spray with a rare form of the nutrient nitrogen. According to Porras, this form of nitrogen doesn’t harm either the plant or the insect. Once the insect has eaten it, the nutrient spreads through their bodies like an invisible label. When researchers catch spotted lanternfly in different places, they can check to see if any of them have ever visited the target plant.

“Having a better understanding of the dispersal patterns of spotted lanternfly will help us to focus management strategies,” said Porras.

Her next steps are to use this technique to see how fast the spotted lanternfly moves across different types of environments, like forests as compared to agricultural fields. 

07/02/2020 - Charges dismissed in alleged Mariner East buy-a-badge scheme; Chester County residents push DA to re-file charges

Jon Hurdle / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Contractors for Sunoco drove a backhoe to the site of a sinkhole at Lisa Drive in Chester County’s West Whiteland Township.

Residents of Chester County who oppose the Mariner East pipeline project have asked the Chester County District Attorney to re-file charges against an Energy Transfer employee after all criminal counts were dismissed at a preliminary hearing last week.

Chester County district judge John Bailey threw out all charges against Havertown resident Frank Recknagel after a hearing that lasted more than five hours, saying there was not enough evidence to move the case forward.

Recknagel, who manages security for the controversial pipeline, was facing 60 felony counts of bribery, conspiracy and related charges.

His attorneys called the charges “ludicrous from day one.”

“We never had a doubt that Frank would be ultimately vindicated but the reputational and personal impact is staggering,” said Justin Danilewitz.

Former Chester County DA Tom Hogan filed charges against Recknagel in December, as part of what he called a “buy-a-badge” scheme. Hogan alleged that Energy Transfer, parent company of Mariner East pipeline builder Sunoco Logistics, hired armed Pennsylvania constables to illegally provide security for the pipeline and then hid how those constables were paid.

Recknagel, according to the criminal complaint, organized the scheme.

When announcing the charges, Hogan said the constables used their badges and guns to intimidate residents living near Mariner East construction sites.

“There’s a very clear line that has to be drawn between law enforcement who is acting for the public good, and the public good alone, and the corporate employee who is acting for the good of the organization,” Hogan said at the time. “You cannot mix those two together.”

But Danilewitz says Recknagel’s role was to “provide a peace keeping function.”

“Frank took every opportunity to de-escalate tensions with landowners,” Danilewitz said.

He said there are emails to prove Recknagel’s intent, but would not provide them to StateImpact Pennsylvania.

He said construction workers felt unsafe and needed security.

The area around Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township drew heightened attention when sinkholes began forming in residential backyards in 2018. Energy Transfer has since bought five homes directly impacted by the sinkholes.

“We learned that some landowners requested this [security presence] because there were so many people from the press and rabble rousers walking over their property,” Danilewitz said.

Nearby residents say that’s not true.

“One hundred percent false,” said Ginny Kerslake, who lives in West Whiteland Township. has suffered damage to her property from the pipeline construction and is part of the group Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety.

She said homeowners complained of having lights shined in their windows at night, security guards stopping them and their friends, and filming them. She said the relatively quiet suburban middle-class neighborhood was transformed by the arrival of construction vehicles and aggressive security guards.

“Sunoco’s security guards drove back and forth a few times videoing me on my own property,” she said. “They were definitely not asked to be there. This is [Energy Transfer] trying to create a false narrative.”

Del-Chesco has asked the current Chester County DA Deb Ryan to re-file the case.

A spokesperson for the Ryan’s office said they are “in the process of looking at our case and making a decision on that front.”

Ryan could also refer the case to the Attorney General, who recently charged two gas drillers with criminal conduct and released a grand jury report that included criticism of how the Department of Environmental Protection responds to gas industry complaints from residents.

Ryan would not comment on claims by Recknagel’s attorney that the original charges were politically motivated.

“The anti-pipeline activists happen to be on one side of the discussion today,” Danilewitz said. “But what I think the public might not appreciate is the tables could easily be turned. It’s in everyone’s interest that prosecutors’ decisions should be non-political decisions.”

Kerslake said that was a concern of hers when she first heard of the charges filed. But she points out that the former DA, Tom Hogan is a Republican who chose not to run for re-election. The current DA is a Democrat and has continued to pursue the case.

Charges were also filed against the constables themselves, along with employees of the international security firm Tiger Swan. Those preliminary hearings are scheduled for August. The Delaware County DA, a Democrat, also looked into criminal conduct and referred a case related to the Mariner East to the Attorney General’s office. The FBI is also reported to be investigating how the state issued permits for the Mariner East project.

“There’s a lot there,” Kerslake said, “and to say that it’s politically motivated, that’s an easy way for them to just dismiss all this.”

07/01/2020 - Household chemicals that harm fish were found in Susquehanna River. This Penn State research aims to help lessen the problem

Penn State researchers and a team of volunteers have found chemicals from household products that harm wildlife in the Susquehanna River.

Lead scientist Katie Hayden plans to publish recommendations for products people can use that don’t have the harmful chemicals, which are called endocrine-disrupting compounds.

They can be found in cleaning products, toiletries, plastics, and other sources. They affect hormones and can impact human health, though this study is focused on natural waterways, where the compounds are more likely to affect animals.

So far, the researchers have found that the most common compounds in the river align with the ingredients of cleaning products and toiletries in people’s homes.

Hayden said that the amount of endocrine-disrupting compounds in river water is too small to affect human health.

“They’re found at very, very small concentrations in the environment,” she said, “like a teaspoon in an Olympic sized swimming pool.” 

The compounds get into river water after cleaners, cosmetics, and other household products are washed off surfaces. The initial use could cause a range of health problems in humans, which is why some endocrine-disrupting compounds are on the EPA’s Contaminant Candidate List, a registry for chemicals the agency says need to be tested for their effect on human health.

In natural waterways, the compounds can hurt aquatic animals like smallmouth bass. Exposure to them can impair reproduction and cause deformities in fish and frogs. 

Sixty volunteers called “citizen scientists” used an online tool called the EDC Footprint to measure the number of products containing endocrine-disrupting compounds in their homes. The most common products used were glass cleaner, laundry detergent, and air freshener.

The volunteers next took water collection kits to streams in the Susquehanna River basin. They sampled at 59 sites in counties ranging from Lackawanna in northeast Pennsylvania, to Clearfield just outside State College, to Lancaster. Hayden’s analysis of those water samples showed that the most common endocrine-disrupting compounds were parabens, which are a type of preservative used in cosmetics, followed by fragrances. 

“The compounds that showed up most in people’s footprints also tended to show up the most in the surface water sample,” said primary investigator Dr. Heather Preisendanz of Penn State. She said she was glad that volunteers were able to connect the products in their homes to the contaminants in their streams. 

“It’s definitely changed how I think about things,” said Lettice Brown, one of the volunteers. She said that after contributing to the study, she reduced her use of body wash, shampoo, and laundry soap. She said that others should consider their own household use, because “when it’s leaving our households through our drains and things like that, it doesn’t totally go away.”

Hayden said that water sampling for the project will continue, though this year’s sampling efforts will be delayed by COVID-19.

06/30/2020 - ‘We don’t see the refinery starting’: PES site’s new owner envisions an ‘environmentally conscious’ commercial hub

Chicago-based Hilco Redevelopment Partners is now officially the owner of the former Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery complex in Southwest Philadelphia. The deal closed about midday Friday for a final price of $225.5 million.

Hilco’s plan is to transform the 1,300-acre site into a multimillion-dollar distribution and commercial hub, ending a legacy of 150 years of oil refining on the property.

“We feel very lucky, we feel honored,” Roberto Perez, chief executive officer of the real estate development company, said in a phone interview with WHYY. “We view this opportunity as a generational opportunity to invest in Philadelphia, do the right thing from an environmental perspective — we work very closely with Evergreen and all the different stakeholders —  to clean up the asset and then redevelop it.”

(Evergreen Resources is the Energy Transfer subsidiary in charge of cleaning up legacy Sunoco contamination at the site before PES took it over in 2012.)

Perez said the idea is to have multiple users at the site — “the Home Depots of the world, the FedEx of the world, the Targets of the world” — that need facilities for sorting and that can then take advantage of the site’s location to move their products through the port, the airport, by rail or on highways.

The redevelopment process will start immediately, Perez said, with a cleanup phase that includes the demolition and decommissioning of the refinery infrastructure. Hilco will keep and maximize the use of the Schuylkill River tank farm, pipelines, and access to the waterfront and railyards, Perez said.

“But from a refinery perspective, actually refining products here, we do not see that happening,” he said. “We do not see the refinery starting, and our vision for the project is going to meet the new economy, which is more environmentally conscious from a development perspective.”

Mayor Jim Kenney, who created a 20-member advisory group to think about the future of the refinery complex when PES shut down operations there after last year’s massive explosion and fire, welcomed the sale of what he called one of the most important commercial sites in the city. A report published by the advisory group in November, after six public meetings, concluded that a cleaner and safer use of the land was desirable.

“The action creates jobs, ensures the future commercial viability of the site, and decreases the former refinery’s environmental impact,” Kenney said in a statement. “I am hopeful that Hilco’s vision for the refinery site will be consistent with the values and priorities we heard throughout the Refinery Advisory Group process last year.”

According to Hilco executives, the site’s redevelopment will create 18,000 jobs in the next 10 years — 8,000 union construction jobs and 10,000 permanent jobs — and “rely heavily on local unions and local trades.”

“Hilco officials have assured me they will have a serious commitment to diversity and inclusion for the facility, plus will make sure that as many local residents as possible get these new jobs. I look forward to working with community stakeholders for a bright new future for the property,”  City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, whose district includes the property, said in a statement.

06/30/2020 - Department of Health says it is looking into fracking public health risks following grand jury report

The grand jury criticized the department’s response, saying it was “unable to meet the challenge” of understanding how fracking could affect people.