Dozens of union members and their supporters rallied outside the Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters in Philadelphia Thursday, in a protest organized by the American Federation of Government Employees to call attention to a new labor contract the EPA imposed on its workers a month ago.
The new contract requires union officials to vacate their offices in EPA headquarters across the country this week. The union said the move will hinder workers’ ability to communicate with their representatives. The contract also reduces employees’ rights to file grievances with the union over management’s decisions.
One such decision regarding teleworking is causing anxiety among employees. Previously, many of the agency’s employees were on atypical schedules and worked from home three to four days a week. That allowed them to perform site inspections all over the state.
The new contract limits teleworking to one day, requiring employees to commute to the Center City Philadelphia office for the remainder of the week. Marie Owens Powell, president of AFGE Local 3631, said that might lead people to quit their jobs.
“Some live up to 150 miles away from the regional office. It’s just not doable,” she said. “So those people are going to have to take a serious look as to whether they can continue working here or not.”
U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Democrat who represents Northeast Philadelphia, attended the rally and said he has deep concerns about the impact on morale at the agency.
“We have incredible water-quality issues in the suburbs of Philadelphia,” Boyle said. “Having EPA there is critical. So if suddenly you see a hollowing out of EPA, which we are starting to see elsewhere in the country, that would have a demonstrable effect on the quality of our environmental protection.”
One union member who attended the protest confirmed Boyle’s concerns. Natalie Katz, an attorney with the EPA, said it feels like the agency keeps imposing new rules on the workers spontaneously, with little notice.
“It’s disrupting our productivity,” Katz said. “And if you’re distracted because you don’t know when the other shoe is going to drop, when something else is going to be changed, it’s hard to focus on the work.”
An EPA spokesperson said the agency implemented the new contract after AFGE walked away from the bargaining table in June. There has been a complicated history of delays since 2016, when the union did not approve an earlier version of the contract that was negotiated, the EPA spokesperson said.
“The [new] contract provides more accountability and efficiency in dealings between the union, employees, and management, consistent with the direction set by the administration,” the spokesperson said. “The contract was designed to benefit both EPA employees and the American public, and still includes workplace flexibilities and options for union representational activities.”
AFGE said the new contract is the result of executive orders issued by President Donald Trump last year designed to weaken federal unions. It plans to fight the contract in court and solicit support for new legislation from Congress.
The EPA protesters in Philadelphia were joined by union officials representing employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. They, too, are being removed from their offices within those agencies’ headquarters.
The Chester County District Attorney on Thursday charged two Pennsylvania constables with ethics violations and other offenses for working as private security guards on Sunoco Pipeline’s controversial Mariner East project at Lisa Drive, a development in West Whiteland Township.
DA Thomas Hogan said Michael Robel, 58, of Shamokin in Northumberland County and Kareem Johnson, 47, of Coatesville in Chester County also violated laws on bribery when they worked for Raven Knights, a Harrisburg company that was hired by Sunoco to provide security for pipeline construction.
As state constables, the defendants are elected officials who are authorized for tasks including transporting criminal defendants, serving arrest warrants, and in limited circumstances making arrests, Hogan said in a news release.
But he said they are not allowed to hire themselves out as security guards while working as constables, and must declare any income of $1,300 or more.
During 2018 and 2019, Robel made $27,995 by working for Sunoco Pipeline in Chester County, while Johnson made $36,785 for the same work in 2018 but did not report the income on a statement of financial interests, as required by a state ethics law, Hogan said.
In December 2018, Hogan announced a criminal investigation into the troubled Mariner East project, saying that it had caused sinkholes, contaminated water, and led to “not so subtle bullying” of residents. He said possible charges included risking a catastrophe, and criminal mischief. The investigation has since been joined by prosecutors in neighboring Delaware County, and the state Attorney General’s office.
Courtesy of the Chester County District Attorney's Office
Hogan’s chief of staff, Charles Gaza, said Thursday that the defendants worked for Sunoco for about a year.
“We cannot have elected law enforcement officials hiring themselves out and using their public positions for personal profit,” Gaza said in a statement. “It undermines the integrity and independence of law enforcement and our government.”
He said Sunoco will no longer be able to hire state constables to do private security work in Chester County, and he urged other county prosecutors to check on whether similar “abuses of power” were taking place in their districts.
According to the complaint, Johnson’s activities included instructing a freelance journalist not to step into the street at Lisa Drive, where sinkholes opened up during pipeline construction starting in late 2017.
The complaint against Robel said he told a plain-clothes detective not to park on a part of Lisa Drive near where Sunoco was working. Robel was wearing a firearm and displayed a state constable badge, the complaint said.
Sunoco, a unit of Energy Transfer, said the defendants were not employees of either company.
“They were employed by Raven Knights, who provided security services and personnel,” said spokeswoman Lisa Coleman. “We have a code of conduct for all of our contractors and third-party vendors that clearly states what are acceptable behaviors and business practices, and we expect our contractors and their employees to adhere to that.”
A person who answered the phone at Raven Knights confirmed that the defendants worked for the company, but otherwise declined to comment.
Perry De Marco, Jr., an attorney for Robel, said he would vigorously defend his client.
Courtesy of the Chester County District Attorney's Office
“In large part, the government is absolutely reaching with some of these charges,” De Marco said. “Some of them are not even rooted in the criminal code. They are grasping at straws, and we are looking forward to vigorously defending this case.”
It could not be determined if Johnson had a lawyer.
The charges include “official oppression,” meaning that the defendants were using their status as constables to keep people away from public property where they had a right to be present, Gaza said.
If Sunoco had required Raven Knights to hire security guards who had constables’ certification and would carry firearms, then Sunoco would be complicit but prosecutors don’t have sufficient information to support any such allegations, he said.
“Right now, we’re not charging anyone above the constables with being complicit in this,” Gaza said in an interview.
If found guilty on all five charges, the defendants each face a maximum of 24 years in prison, Gaza said.
Gaza said the defendants’ activities were discovered during the ongoing criminal investigation, which was expanded this week to include an explosion at a Mariner East pumping station on Boot Road in West Goshen Township.
Sunoco has denied any criminal wrongdoing.
Hydrofluoric acid is 'special' and 'very dangerous' -- and there are 33,000 gallons of it at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery that need to be neutralized. It will require a lot of careful work.
Was Monday’s explosion at a Mariner East 2 pumping station in Chester County a routine maintenance glitch, as Sunoco Pipeline said, or was it a “dry run” for the catastrophe predicted by critics of the natural gas liquids pipelines?
The public won’t know the answer to those questions until state and federal regulators, or Sunoco itself, release reports on an incident that scared residents near the station on Boot Road in West Goshen Township, leaving some to say that they had dodged a bullet.
For now, independent pipeline experts say the blast appears to have been caused by the relighting of a pilot in a flare used by Sunoco for burning off excess gases, at a time when vapor had accumulated there.
The pilot seems to have been extinguished for maintenance, during which time explosive hydrocarbons built up in the tube, and were ignited when the pilot was re-lit, causing the explosion, said Rich Kuprewicz, a pipeline expert who has consulted for the township. He does not have first-hand knowledge of Monday’s event but discussed it based on his experience of how pumping stations work.
“If you shut off that pilot light and didn’t do certain procedures that normally you would follow, you could end up within the flare with combustible gas that, when you did ignite the pilot, it would cause what they call a backfire,” Kuprewicz said. “I’m going to call it what it is: It’s an explosion.”
In 2015, Kuprewicz’s company, Accufacts, concluded in a report for the township that Sunoco had exceeded federal safety requirements in its plans for the pumping station.
On Tuesday, he said that whatever the cause of the incident, Sunoco should clearly and quickly explain how it happened and how it will prevent a recurrence, addressing a public that already has deep misgivings about the safety of the pipelines running through their crowded neighborhood.
“They could argue that it’s a minor backfire, but look, they are in a hyper-sensitive environment where people are just looking for a reason to hang you,” he said. “You just don’t do these things.”
Sunoco, in a statement on Monday, called the explosion a “backfire on a flare stack as the station was brought back on line” after routine maintenance, but did not respond on Tuesday to questions on what it meant by a backfire and why the incident happened.
Kurt Knaus, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, which advocates for Mariner East and other pipelines, said public safety concerns are misplaced.
“While some may have been startled by the loud sound, others now are trying to use this incident to heighten concern and play into community fears,” he said. “Routine maintenance is nothing new for any infrastructure project. Considering the multiple layers of regulatory oversight and emergency preparedness in place for these projects, attempts to paint this incident as something it is not are unfortunate.”
In 2014, the township and a citizens group challenged Sunoco’s plan to construct the pumping station and its “vapor control unit.” The suit was settled the following year.
Rich Raiders, an attorney and former environmental officer with Buckeye Energy Services, a distributor of refined petroleum products, said the explosion appears to be the result of a buildup of unburned hydrocarbons while the pilot was unlit.
Engineers allow very small quantities of whatever product is being carried in a pipeline – in the case of Mariner East, ethane, propane or butane – to leak through the pump seal to lubricate the pump, Raiders said. Under normal circumstances, those products are burned off in the flare, but with the pilot out, the material could not be burned.
The buildup could explain why some residents reported a petroleum-like smell in the area for about an hour before the explosion, Raiders said.
“The spark went out, it stopped burning, and it started collecting vapors for over an hour, from what the community people are saying,” he said. “What seems to have happened here is that they were just spewing out that stream for long enough to collect vapors, and then after a while, something sparked the vapors, and you had ‘boom.’”
Gary Hague, who lives about 300 yards from the pumping station, said the explosion was much louder than the ‘backfire’ that Sunoco claimed.
“If that was a car backfire, it had to be 100 cars,” Hague said. “It shook my house violently enough that I thought a meteor hit the roof.”
Hague, 72, a retired truck driver, said he supports an “all of the above” approach to national energy policy but is disappointed by what he said appears to be Sunoco’s “total carelessness and disregard for the community.”
State Rep. Carolyn Comitta, (D-Chester), called on the Public Utility Commission to do an impartial assessment of the explosion, and said that public confusion over whether to evacuate the neighborhood during Monday’s event shows that government and company officials need to do a better job at telling people what to do in a pipeline emergency.
“Communication is sorely lacking, which creates chaos,” she said. “We spend a lot of time and stress because of the lack of timely information and this is a perfect example of that.”
West Goshen Township referred an inquiry about the explosion to regulators including the PUC. The agency said it is reviewing the incident but declined to say when its review might conclude. The federal pipeline regulator, PHMSA, did not respond to a request for comment.
Bastiaan Slabbers / for WHYY
Sylvia Bennett felt her bed shake when the explosion rocked Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in June. It wasn’t the first time the refinery, her neighbor in South Philly, touched her life.
Bennett’s daughter is dying of cancer and her grandchildren struggle with asthma. She links both to the noxious pollution spewed from the refinery until that fiery early morning boom. The refinery, the largest in the Northeast, was the city’s biggest single polluter.
The PES facility’s impending closure now creates a chance for the city to prioritize the health of its residents, Bennett told local officials Tuesday evening.
The South Philadelphia grandmother, a member of the environmental group Philly Thrive, spoke at the first public meeting of a refinery advisory group established by the city in the wake of the announcement that PES will cease operations at the 1,300-acre facility and lay off more than 1,000 employees by August 25.
“This is common sense, it’s no brainer. God gave us common sense, we need to use it. Clean this mess up out here — it’s a trap. It’s a killer trap,” Bennett said. “And we love to talk about drugs, we talk about stealing, people doing this and that. This is a solid killer.”
Most of the input heard by city officials and experts on the future of the refinery at Tuesday night’s meeting in Point Breeze came from nearby residents and environmentalists, with only three of the more than 20 public comments made coming from people employed at the refinery, all of them men.
While neighbors such as Bennett and environmentalists said the refinery should be kept closed and the city should hold the responsible parties accountable to remediate pollution on the site to allow for a cleaner future, workers and union representatives emphasized job losses.
John Bland, business manager of the Boilermakers Union Local 13, said the South Philly refinery provided jobs for more than 37,000 people. He said nobody will win if the refinery shuts down permanently.
“If you lose that refinery the only thing that’s going to change: imported products with no EPA regulations are going to get shipped here. And I’m sorry that you don’t want it in your backyard, but like I said, we need a better job at monitoring and getting that refinery back,” Bland said.
Bastiaan Slabbers / for WHYY
The city’s power over site is limited, officials say
The meeting was the first of four intended to help the city gather input and information on the closure of the refinery, its impacts and possible future uses for the site. The city will issue a report with recommendations by fall. But the city’s managing director Brian Abernathy, who co-chairs the advisory group, stressed the city has limited authority when it comes to private property such as the PES site.
“I don’t want anyone to leave the room and say that this report, or this committee, or the city is going to dictate exactly what happens at PES. We do think we have some significant influence and we hope to use that influence,” Abernathy said.
Abernathy said changing the zoning of the site won’t prevent a new refinery from operating there.
“Right now the zoning would permit heavy industrial use,” Abernathy said. “Even if we change the zoning tomorrow, and another refinery came in to purchase it, as long as that refinery had been in use within the last year, that use would still be permitted going forward.”
Refineries have operated at the site since 1866, contaminating soil and groundwater with petroleum hydrocarbons that have negative effects on human health.
The former owner Sunoco, now Energy Transfer, has been remediating the site, monitored by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, since 2003. But experts have questioned the process because it did not include legally required public input and because the standards used for the cleanup are only appropriate if the site becomes another refinery.
Some residents asked the advisory group for the city to take over the land by eminent domain. Abernathy said it would be difficult and pricey, but did not outright discard the idea.
Cause of fire still unknown
Out of the 26 members of the advisory group, only 16 showed up. The group includes government officials, environmental and academic experts, labor representatives, refinery employees, business executives, and community members. But residents and environmentalists said the group lacks experts in public health, environmental remediation, and environmental justice. More neighbors should be on the panel too, they said. Irene Russell, president of the Friends of Stinger Square and a member of Philly Thrive, was the only one invited to the panel.
“It is unacceptable that residents from the many diverse neighborhoods from Southwest and West Philadelphia, directly impacted by PES, are not represented,” resident Mark Clincy said.
Members of the public also recommended the city hire a consultant to ensure robust public engagement and more outreach. The meeting was attended by about 80 people. Abernathy said additions to the group and further outreach will be considered.
In July, experts questioned the city’s air monitoring system during a hearing before state lawmakers. Pennsylvania state Sen. Anthony Williams told the advisory group he wants the issue to be discussed in future sessions, as well as the removal of hydrofluoric acid, a highly toxic chemical.
PES is planning to neutralize tens of thousands of barrels of HF still present in the facility. City officials said it will happen “anytime now” and that neighbors were still at risk until the operation was completed successfully.
The causes of the refinery fire explosion are still unknown. The city’s Police Department and the Office of Emergency Management are conducting on-site investigations, as well as the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The advisory group committees will hold four other public meetings focusing on the community (Aug. 20), labor (Aug. 21), the environment (Aug. 27), and business (Sept. 9) at Preparatory Charter School in Point Breeze. Residents can also provide written comments. The city created a special website with details of the process coming forward.
This article originally appeared on PlanPhilly.
Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania
Sunoco Pipeline confirmed on Tuesday that its Mariner East pipeline system “backfired” during routine maintenance late Monday at the Boot Road pumping station in West Goshen Township, Chester County.
In a statement, the company did not explain what caused the backfire but apologized for the noise, which alarmed neighbors and fueled longstanding concerns about the safety of the new pipelines, which carry highly volatile natural gas liquids.
“During routine maintenance last evening at our Boot Station in West Goshen Township, there was a backfire on a flare stack at approximately 8:20 p.m. ET as the station was brought back online,” the company said in a statement. “This resulted in a loud noise, similar to what happens when a car backfires. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused to our neighbors.”
Company spokeswoman Amanda Gorgueiro said the incident affected Mariner East 2, which had been shut down for planned maintenance. She said there was no release of liquids and no risk to public safety. She said Mariner East 1, a repurposed 1930s-era pipeline that runs along the same route, was not affected.
“At no time was anyone in the surrounding area at risk,” she said.
The Sunoco statement was also tweeted by the Chester County Department of Emergency Services.
Emergency services officials received four 911 calls starting at 8:01 p.m. Monday, and dispatched police, who said there was no threat to public safety, said Patty Mains, a spokeswoman for the agency.
The agency then contacted Sunoco Pipeline’s parent company, Energy Transfer, which confirmed there had been a “loud noise” but no release of gas and no emergency, Mains said. Emergency officials also ensured that the company issued a public statement on the incident.
“We have sent a list of questions to Energy Transfer asking for immediate answers on exactly what and why last night’s incident happened, how often it could happen and how we can expedite the emergency communication process,” Mains said.
Tom Casey, a pipeline opponent who lives about a quarter mile from the pumping station, said the explosion was very loud, and shook his house.
“It sounded like a bomb going off,” he said. “It was instant and severe. It shook my house, it shook my neighbors’ houses. They all came out thinking that a tree had fallen.”
Suspecting that it came from the pumping station, Casey said he then drove there and found a local policeman who told him, based on Sunoco officials’ statements, that the blast was caused by routine maintenance.
“Our police are not capable of determining whether it’s safe or not because they simply rely on what they are being told by the operator,” Casey said.
In an earlier statement, Casey said some residents reported a “strong gas odor” in the vicinity in the hour before the incident, but local emergency officials had not helped people decide whether to evacuate.
He said the explosion caused art to fall off the walls of some homes in the nearby Hamlet Hill community.
“This was a small, very small, example of the bigger problem for everyone along the pipeline route,” Casey said. “More worries, more problems, and no good answers. We need a plan from everyone that has our safety in their hands.”
The incident, Casey said, highlights the dangers of the pipeline and the lack of knowledge or preparation by officials and the public on what to do if there is a leak of highly volatile liquids. “This is what we’ve been screaming about for five years,” he said.
Pipeline opponents say the Mariner East project represents a grave risk to public safety because any leak or explosion of colorless and odorless natural gas liquids in densely populated areas like West Goshen could result in mass casualties.
Public confidence in the project has been hurt by a long series of legal and technical challenges including several construction shutdowns ordered by the authorities, and dozens of drilling mud spills that have prompted notices of violation by environmental officials.
Eric Friedman, a member of the activist group Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety, said residents needed to understand what fuel was released and how much, and that the incident showed that neither they nor local emergency officials were prepared to deal with a major pipeline emergency.
“We know one other thing: No one, neither first responders nor area residents, are prepared for even this ‘dry run’ of a regional catastrophe,” he said.
Friedman rejected Sunoco’s statement that there was no release of liquids during the incident, arguing that the pumping station exists to carry the fuels.
Sunoco, which has been pumping NGLs along the cross-state line since December 2018, says it meets or exceeds state and federal pipeline safety regulations.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which is jointly responsible for pipeline safety, said only that it is investigating the incident.
“The Pipeline Safety Division is reviewing last evening’s flaring operations involving Sunoco’s Mariner East system in Chester County,” the PUC said.
Gov. Tom Wolf announced this week that Pennsylvania will spend $8.5 million on new school buses, public buses, trash trucks, and electric-vehicle charging stations in an effort to reduce emissions. The money comes from a settlement related to the Volkswagen emissions scandal.
In 2017, Volkswagen pleaded guilty to cheating on its diesel vehicle emissions tests. As a result of the deception, about half a million Volkswagen vehicles on the road in the United States were polluting the air at much higher levels than what was allowed under the Clean Air Act.
The settlement awarded money to every state to fund emissions-reducing transportation projects. The money was awarded based on the number of noncompliant vehicles registered in each state. Pennsylvania got $118 million.
The Department of Environmental Protection is responsible for distributing the funds. The agency created the Driving PA Forward initiative, which disburses the money across seven different types of programs. In this most recent round of awards, 34 projects were granted funding. The projects include money for 60 new electric-vehicle charging stations. The rest of the projects fund replacements for old diesel buses and trucks.
One-third of these replacements simply swap out old diesel vehicles with new ones. Several replace diesel vehicles with those fueled by compressed natural gas or propane. Only one of the projects funds an electric vehicle.
Critics say too much money is going to fund new diesel vehicles. Logan Welde, staff attorney and head of legislative affairs for the Clean Air Council, was disappointed that there weren’t more electric vehicle projects funded. He was especially concerned about money that went to converting old diesel school buses to new diesel school buses.
“That really doesn’t help the young kids who are going to be on these buses, sometimes for hours every day,” said Welde. “These school buses that they’re buying now are going to be in service for probably 15 to 30 years.”
The DEP received three applications for electric vehicles this round and funded one of them. The Port Authority of Allegheny County was awarded $1 million to replace two diesel buses with two new battery electric buses, a $2.4 million dollar project.
This is the second round of awards Pennsylvania has granted from the settlement fund. The state awarded $580,000 to six projects last year, four of which included new diesel vehicles.
One reason for the disproportionate number of awards to diesel vehicles may be that the funding structure currently favors purchase of them. For example, during the most recent round of awards, a government entity wishing to replace a school bus could receive a maximum of $40,000 for a new diesel bus, or $50,000 for a compressed natural gas, propane, or electric bus. Those alternative-fuel vehicles are much more expensive than new diesel vehicles. An electric bus can cost twice as much as a diesel bus.
Deborah Klenotic, a spokeswoman for the DEP, said its goal was to achieve the greatest emission reduction possible per dollar of settlement funding. Citing data from the Federal Highway Administration, she said that replacing a diesel bus with an electric bus costs $2 million per ton of nitrogen oxide and that the new diesel technology was “greatly improved.”
“The [electric vehicle] technology is still uncommon and therefore extremely expensive,” Klenotic said in an email.
The DEP developed the programs after a series of public meetings in 2017. Some areas of the state advocated for electric-vehicle funding; others advocated for natural gas. Klenotic said the agency aimed to strike a balance while creating the most cost-effective program to reduce emissions.
Tom Schuster, senior campaign manager for the Sierra Club, thinks that was the wrong approach.
“We would encourage the DEP to revisit some of the funding formulas,” Schuster said. He wants to see the formulas reversed so that they incentivize electric vehicles.
“It may result in fewer vehicles being retrofitted, but it would really start to spur additional private-sector investment [in electrification],” he said.
Other states are prioritizing the settlement money differently. In New Jersey, the most recent round of funding went to nine projects, all of which involved replacing diesel vehicles with electric ones.
Tony Bandiero, executive director for the Eastern Pennsylvania Alliance for Clean Transportation, agreed that the program gave too much money to new diesel vehicles, but he applauded the state for its slow rollout of the funds. There is more than $100 million left to disburse, and Bandiero said there is flexibility in the Driving PA Forward program to reassess how it’s working and change the funding structure in future years.
“It was an oversight, it was them trying to figure out how this is going to work. I have a good feeling they will adjust the guidelines for that program next year,” Bandiero said.
The state is allowed to spend 15% of the total settlement money on electric-vehicle chargers. In Philadelphia, the 10 Rittenhouse Square Condominium association was granted $16,000 to install two new EV chargers. David Benton, general manager for the building, said that the chargers cost $17,600 total, so it was a good investment.
Benton said the association knew it would have to install chargers some time in the next two years to be competitive with other luxury condominiums. He said a resident there would be unlikely to exchange a car for a Prius but would likely purchase an electric BMW, Audi, or Jaguar.
“With those cars coming out, we thought, ‘Now’s the time,’” he said. The chargers at 10 Rittenhouse Square will only be available to current residents.
Workers at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in South Philadelphia are planning to start neutralizing tens of thousands of barrels of a highly toxic chemical beginning Aug. 5. The refinery is shutting down after an explosion and fire destroyed part of the plant. The company has entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The chemical, hydrofluoric acid, is one of the most dangerous industrial substances in use. Refineries use it as a catalyst to create high-octane fuel and it was an integral part of the unit that exploded at PES back in June.
The company’s own risk management plan, filed with the Environmental Protection Agency as a requirement under the Clean Air Act, describes a catastrophic worst-case scenario involving hydrofluoric acid. If 143,262 pounds of hydrogen fluoride were released over 10 minutes, a toxic cloud could travel for more than seven miles and affect more than a million people, including in schools, homes, hospitals, prisons, playgrounds, parks, and a wildlife sanctuary.
The chemical penetrates the skin and reacts with the calcium in bones. Swallowing just a small amount, or getting small splashes on the skin, can be fatal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In its gaseous state, the CDC says, low levels of hydrogen fluoride can irritate the eyes, nose and respiratory tract. Breathing it at high levels “can cause death from an irregular heartbeat or fluid buildup in the lungs.”
A PES spokeswoman said the company does not comment on operations.
James Eninger is a retired engineer who worked with the toxic chemical in the development of high-energy lasers at engineering firm TRW. He now works to convince refineries to stop using it in conjunction with highly flammable hydrocarbons.
“Just to give you an idea of how toxic it is,” said Eninger, “just half an ounce of it, which is about a third of a whiskey jigger, if it were released into a large conference room would potentially kill people.”
Eninger is active with the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance in California, which formed after a 2015 explosion at an ExxonMobile refinery near Los Angeles also caused a near-miss with hydrofluoric acid. He says neutralizing and removing such a large amount of hydrofluoric acid would have to be done “very carefully and with a lot of oversight.”
According to Honeywell, a major manufacturer of the chemical, neutralizing hydrofluoric acid involves adding an alkaline material such as sodium hydroxide.
It’s unclear how the chemical would be disposed of or transported off the PES refinery site. The EPA and city officials referred questions to PES. A spokesperson for the company did not immediately respond for comment.
Immediately after the explosion and fire, city officials said their air monitors did not detect any hydrofluoric acid. But testimony submitted as part of a State Senate hearing on the subject suggested it was detected but was dismissed as the result of a faulty instrument.
EPA spokeswoman Terri White said the agency will install four air monitors to check for leaks during the neutralization process. Those are in addition to four monitors the agency currently has on-site.
“These monitors operate continuously 24 hours a day, and the results will be able to be viewed in real-time by the Philadelphia Haz-Mat unit on-site,” White said in an email.
In addition to the EPA, multiple state, city and federal agencies are conducting on-site investigations into the explosion, including the city’s fire marshal’s office, the Police Department and the Office of Emergency Management, as well as the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the federal Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Fire Department spokeswoman Kathy Matheson said the investigations could take “months to complete.”
“The refinery site remains a very active scene that has yet to be put under control,” Matheson said.
About 50 refineries continue to use hydrofluoric acid across the country, including the PBF Paulsboro refinery in Paulsboro, New Jersey, and the Monroe Energy refinery in Trainer, Delaware County.
When I meet up with a group of scientists in the parking lot of Laurel Summit State Park, in southwestern Pennsylvania, there are clues about where we’re headed.
Kara Holsopple / The Allegheny Front
“I always go with a hiking pole, which is especially good for wetlands, and testing out how deep the water is where you might sink in,” advises David Yeany, an ornithologist with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. His colleague, Mary Ann Furedi pulls equipment from the back of her vehicle, and suits up.
“Everyone else is going with knee boots. I didn’t bring mine, so I’m going to go with chest waders,” she says.
Furedi is an ecologist with the conservancy, and the monitoring and assessment manager for an effort to study 30 peatland sites in Pennsylvania. Peat is partially decomposed plant, and sometimes, animal material.
Pennsylvania is home to a number of peatlands, which are mostly in the northeast and northwestern part of the state. But it’s just a short walk along a gravel trail here to see one.
These unique ecosystems are vulnerable to development and climate change, and these conservationists are trying to learn more about them.
Listen to the story:https://www.witf.io/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/AF072619_KH_Peatland.mp3
Ephraim Zimmerman is also gathering up gear, including a compass and water monitoring equipment. He is a plant community ecologist, and, like his colleagues, part of the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program, which looks at rare species and habitat in the state.
Kara Holsopple / The Allegheny FrontGraminoid, bryophytes and hummocks?
“This is a red oak, mixed hardwood forest that’s up at the top of this ridge,” Zimmerman says.
This spot is about 2,700 feet above sea level, which is pretty high for the Laurel Highlands. Along the trail we see rhododendron bushes, pink mountain laurel and a lot of thigh-high ferns. Then the forest shade opens up into a sunny wetland.
“This is the more graminoid-dominated wetland, or grass-dominated,” Furedi says. She points out some chokeberry bushes growing low to the wet ground.
A small boardwalk has been built here so that visitors can get a closer look at the flora, like carnivorous pitcher plants, which are blooming now with tall, purple flowers. They look like upside down umbrellas. A few different species of dragonflies zoom around.
“Spruce Flats Bog is the name of this locality, but there are no spruce here,” Zimmerman explains.
Kara Holsopple / The Alllegheny Front
Apparently, the frontier people and workers who logged this area a hundred years ago called any conifer tree a spruce. They removed a lot of the pine and hemlock, too.
“So, here in the wetland is one of the only places where there’s still the conifer component,” Zimmerman says.
Conifers are trees that produce cones. Taller, windswept ones line the perimeter, and spindly, little evergreens dot the interior, like islands. Some of the stumps from the old, logged trees create another feature of this landscape: hummocks.
“These hummocks themselves might only be a foot high, but in that small elevation change you have these moisture differences, and so you could have four, or five or six different species of moss growing there,” Furedi says.
Mosses are bryophytes, and it’s one type of plant they’re monitoring. Sphagnum moss is by far the most common here.
“It almost looks like a green shag rug from the 70s,” Furedi says. “I like to call it nature’s sponge, because it can just hold a tremendous amount of water.”
Kara Holsopple / The Allegheny FrontHabitat for vulnerable birds
Spruce Flats Bog is also a home for many common animal species, like deer and bear. But a butterfly called the bog copper relies on peatland habitat, and the wild cranberry plants found in Pennsylvania’s peatlands.
“There was a Canada warbler singing over here, and Canada warbler is one of our top focal species,” David Yeany says.
These are birds they are paying special attention to because the need for conservation is so high. In Canada, they’re listed as threatened. Yeany says the male has a slate gray back with a contrasting yellow face and chest. We can’t see it in the dense shrub, but we listen for the call.
Yeany says there are 90 bird species of greatest conservation need in Pennsylvania, and within that group are species like the yellow-bellied flycatcher and the blackpoll warbler.
“Without these wetlands, they wouldn’t have a place to breed in Pennsylvania,” Yeany says. “Birds are really linked to habitat type, and that’s one reason that we’re looking at birds, because they’re a good indicator of change.”
Yeanys says these birds have a boreal affinity — boreal meaning north.
Ephraim Zimmerman says that’s what makes these places in Pennsylvania so unusual.
“We’re in an area that has had so much recent human history, as opposed to farther north, and in Maine, Wisconsin and Canada, where you have these vast expanses of these boreal ecosystems,” he says. “So we have something that’s kind of a remnant a southern extreme of this type.Peat tells the story of centuries
To get to a study plot, where some of the plant and animal communities here are measured and recorded, we just walk off the trail, into the forest. The ground starts to become less solid within a couple minutes.
Soon it’s like walking on a waterbed, carefully placing our boots on stretches of moss. It smells a little like a wet basement. We move carefully between oak trees, as greenbriar thorns rip into our pants and shirts. When we arrive at the plot 15 minutes later, we’re ankle deep in water.
Zimmerman takes a soil core sample, to get a better picture of what’s happening in the muck beneath our feet. He slices through the roots of the living sphagnum moss, and removes the top layer. Then he grabs onto a longer tool, which looks like a pogo stick with a sharp end.
“This the soil auger, and this is what you can do to get the deeper material,” Zimmerman says. “I can’t reach my hand down that much farther.”
He pulls up progressively more decomposed material the deeper he plumbs. The peat gets progressively darker in color, too. There’s little oxygen, so the plants here decompose slowly, and the soil core samples tell a story.
“So at some of our peatlands, we’ve seen that there would be a layer of undecomposed peat, and then there would be a layer of very decomposed plant material, and then another undecomposed layer,” Zimmerman says. “So some kind of shift happened.”
He says there hundreds of years of data within these peatlands.
Kara Holsopple / The Allegheny FrontClimate change could alter the ecosystem
Climate models predict more wet weather for Pennsylvania. Zimmerman says that could mean changes in this ecosystem. The entire water table could rise and push the wetland out into the surrounding trees.
Mary Ann Furedi says the trees in this wetland act like straws, sucking up water. It then evaporates into the atmosphere. Hotter temperatures from climate change could increase evaporation, creating different patterns of drying here.
“The purpose of the work that we’re doing is just beginning to document what’s here,” Furedi says. “Without that good, solid baseline data, we don’t have a comparison for future scenarios.”
David Yeany says when they come back to do a third round of monitoring here in five to seven years, they’ll see how conditions have changed.
“But, a really important thing is to be able to provide this information to land managers and conservation groups,” he says. “We can provide them this information to help direct management and conservation activities that they might do here.”
Ephraim Zimmerman says one thing that they know for sure is that change is constant. This wetland will someday become shrub swamp, and then revert back into a hemlock forest, if the hemlock wooly adelgid pest doesn’t kill them first.
“But a little bit farther away, maybe a family of beavers move in, and flood the area, and turn it back into this open wetland, again,” he explains. “So the more that you protect the large areas like this, and connected landscapes, you can protect the high quality, small areas within that larger matrix.”
That approach could give the plant and animal species in this little pocket of habitat a chance to adapt, to climate change or even more human activity, like the development of new roads or natural gas infrastructure.
This story is part of the series “Wild Pennsylvania,” which is funded by the Richard King Mellon Foundation. To check out other stories in the series, click here.
Philadelphia’s newly formed PES Refinery Advisory Group will hold three public meetings in August to seek input on the future of the soon-to-be shuttered refinery in South Philadelphia.
An explosion and fire destroyed parts of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions facility in June. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this month.
The city’s 26-member advisory group draws from labor, academia, business interests, city government as well as environment and community groups.
Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy said the city wants a variety of input from all stakeholders, including those with environmental expertise, neighbors who live near the refinery and workers.
“We don’t expect them all to agree, but we do think all their voices are important to hear,” said Abernathy. “Those voices are also really important for the public to hear.”
The PES refinery struggled financially before the explosion led to the planned shutdown and bankruptcy earlier this month, which was the second bankruptcy in less than two years.
The shutdown will result in more than 1,000 people losing their jobs by the end of August. The union that represents about 640 workers at the plant is pushing for a buyer to fix and re-open the plant. But neighbors have complained for years about air pollution from the refinery, and environmental groups say that whatever happens, it should not become another refinery.
Several federal city and state agencies are investigating the incident, including the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Philadelphia Fire Marshal.
Abernathy said the city recognizes its limited role in determining the future of the 1,400-acre site.
“You’re not going to hear me say we can dictate what happens on that site,” he said, “but I think we can have some influence on what happens at that site, [including] through licensing and permits. I think it’s incumbent on us as the jurisdiction most impacted by the refinery, both the good and the bad, that we play a role here.”
Abernathy said the city wants to understand all the complex issues surrounding safety, public health, and jobs that the 150-year-old facility has brought to the area. The city has divided the group into four committees.
Mark Alan Hughes directs Penn’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy and is a member of the PES Refinery Advisory Group, as well as the chair of the environmental and academic committee.
Hughes said that while the city has limited influence on what a private company in bankruptcy will end up doing with the site, it does have a responsibility to residents.
“The city doesn’t necessarily have the big powerful governmental jurisdiction regarding oil refining,” Hughes said. “But it is on the frontline of what happens [at the site]. So it has a role, it’s a narrow role, but it’s an important one.”
Hughes said one thing the city does have authority over is land use.
“It is extremely important for the city to give people a chance to be heard,” he said. “That kind of democratic deliberation is an important part of the process, and it makes it much easier in the long run to make good and sustainable and stable kinds of decisions.”
Three public meetings are scheduled. The first one will be 5:30 p.m. Tuesday Aug. 6 at Preparatory Charter School in Point Breeze. Those interested in speaking should email email@example.com.