News

03/06/2019 - Neighbors urge DEP to deny permits for Bucks County industrial-waste plant

Vocal opponents of a controversial proposal to build an industrial-wastewater treatment facility in lower Bucks County packed a public hearing in Langhorne hosted by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

A boisterous crowd of about 350 responded with a chorus of boos and cheers Tuesday night as area residents challenged DEP’s experts on the environmental impact of the proposed plant.

Elcon Recycling Services LLC is seeking three permits from the DEP to treat up to 210,000 tons per year of hazardous wastewater generated during the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, chemicals, electronics, and other industrial products. Elcon’s treatment plant would be situated in an industrial park near the Delaware River in Falls Township, and many nearby residents fear it could contaminate the region’s water supply.

Air pollution released during the treatment of hazardous chemicals also was cited as a concern by those objecting to the Elcon plant.

“We already have terrible air quality here, it’s horrible,” Morrisville resident Chris Brown told the DEP panel.

“It’s a dumping area,” he said, to applause from the crowd.

Many others shared the view that lower Bucks County already has too much industry actively polluting the local environment.

“There’s tons and tons of heavy industrial facilities,” said Lise Baxter of Protect Our Water and Air, a local group formed to oppose Elcon’s plans. “We feel it’s all too concentrated and too close to people.”

The group is working with a coalition of environmental nonprofits, including the Sierra Club and PennEnvironment, to oppose the plant.

Elcon’s website for the project states that any air emissions would be 99.9 percent free of pollutants, and that it would meet all environmental regulations to prevent contamination of the river or groundwater.

Treated waste from the plant would not be discharged into the river, but opponents are concerned about accidental spills from trucks transporting hazardous waste to the facility and catastrophic floods reaching storage tanks.

Elcon was not part of the official presentation Tuesday night, and supporters of the company, many of them from the construction industry, were in the minority. But they said Elcon had proved its commitment to protecting the environment.

“Everything we’ve seen to this point, there’s nothing dangerous whatsoever, despite what the community may think,” said Bernard Griggs Jr., a representative from the Building Trades Council of Philadelphia.

Griggs said he supported the project for the local jobs it would create. Elcon has said the plant would create up to 200 temporary construction jobs and 55 permanent jobs.

The company has been working on the proposal since 2014, and is nearing the end of the regulatory-approval process. A DEP recommendation is expected in May. A final decision on the permits could come in the summer.

03/06/2019 - Three Mile Island Documentary Preview Screening

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island. WITF presents a special preview screening of two new original documentaries. One looks back at the accident, while the other looks forward to the future of the plant and the nuclear industry. Join us Tuesday, March 26 from 6-8 p.m. at the WITF Public Media Center in Harrisburg. After the screening, stay for a panel discussion led by WITF’s Scott LaMar and featuring StateImpact Pennsylvania reporter Marie Cusick, PennLive reporters and more.

iPhone and iPad users: click here to RSVP.

Can’t make the screening event?

Don’t miss the March 28 Documentary Premieres:
Meltdown at Three Mile Island: 40 Years Later at 8pm
followed by TMI: The New Nuclear Dilemma at 8:30pm

This event is presented by:

03/06/2019 - Why one pizza shop owner is worried about Three Mile Island closing — but some don’t see a major impact

If TMI closes this year, it'll have a ripple effect in Middletown and the surrounding area. But some say the loss would not be economically devastating to the region.

03/05/2019 - Chester County investigation of pipeline builder Energy Transfer now includes grand jury

Energy Transfer, parent company of Sunoco Logistics and builder of the Mariner East natural gas liquids pipelines, is the target of a Chester County grand jury investigation.

Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan would not confirm or deny the grand jury investigation, which was reported by the Delaware County Daily Times newspaper editor Phil Heron, who had been called as a potential juror last week.

Hogan announced a criminal investigation into the company’s practices building the Mariner East pipelines in December. In January, Hogan hired a former federal prosecutor to assist with the investigation.

At the time, Hogan said Seth Weber’s appointment “certainly sends a message that we are taking it very seriously, and that somebody who has experience in this field is taking it very seriously.”

Hogan is a former federal prosecutor himself, and has worked defending oil and gas industry clients in private practice.

Grand juries are typically convened in secret in order to protect the target of an investigation in which no criminal charges have yet been filed. Prosecutors have control of a grand jury, which reviews evidence, and can vote to issue subpoenas or recommend charges be filed.

Kathryn Urbanowicz is a staff attorney for Clean Air Council, which has filed lawsuits related to the Mariner East pipeline project in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and with the Environmental Hearing Board.

“It doesn’t mean any charges are going to result from this but it’s a very serious commitment of the D.A.’s time,” Urbanowicz said. “So I don’t think it’s a decision that’s made lightly.”

Construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline has resulted in more than 80 environmental violations. Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection assessed more than $12.6 million in penalties against the company for drilling mud spills that damaged waterways and sensitive wetlands. In Chester County, construction of the line resulted in the loss of private drinking water wells and  sinkholes that exposed the parallel Mariner East 1 line.

Regulators forced the company to shut down the Mariner East 1 line because of the most recent sinkhole. An exposed natural gas liquids line is at risk for explosion.

Rich Raiders, an environmental attorney who represents landowners involved in cases against Energy Transfer/Sunoco Logistics, said a grand jury could be seen as the “middle” stage of a criminal investigation.

“This tells me that they are dealing with a lot of very interesting issues,” Raiders said. “Normally, a grand jury doesn’t show up unless there’s a significant amount of work to do.”

Previously, Energy Transfer has said any allegations of criminal conduct are “baseless.”

03/04/2019 - DEP issues $1.5M fine for problems at Greene County pipeline construction site

State environmental officials have levied a $1.5 million fine against a natural gas pipeline company for problems at a construction site in Greene County.

The fine stems from violations that began in October 2017 along the Rice Midstream Holdings’ Beta Trunk Pipeline. The 7.5-mile line spans Aleppo and Richhill townships.

Water containing sediment, such as dirt, soil or clay, overtook erosion controls and flowed into tributaries, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. The department reports that some of those controls were not properly maintained, or they were missing entirely.

“We didn’t see any major impacts to aquatic life,” DEP spokesperson Lauren Fraley said. “However, sediment pollution is a major issue, and it’s something that we take very seriously.”

Construction stopped temporarily as the problem areas were fixed. Then in May last year, three landslides occurred, according to DEP.

“It happened in a rural area of Greene County where there aren’t a lot of homes nearby, but this is something that we have been and will continue to be doing regular inspections of,” Fraley said.

Equitrans Midstream Corp. now owns the pipeline after a merger last year.

A spokesperson for the company said in a statement that Equitrans Midstream is committed to responsible operations that will safeguard the environment.

“For this particular case, we wanted to proactively work with the PA DEP to resolve these historical issues and move forward in a compliant manner,” spokesperson Natalie Cox said. “We operate with integrity at all times and if something does not achieve the requisite compliance objective, we will take responsibility and do our best to implement the appropriate corrective actions.”

The Beta Trunk Pipeline is part of a larger system of pipelines that carry natural gas from several well pads to transmission facilities, according to the DEP. Some parts of the line are in service, and Fraley said most construction is complete.

03/04/2019 - Report: Coal Ash contamination widespread in U.S., PA

A new report finds coal ash pollution is leaking into groundwater at nine power plants around Pennsylvania and over 200 nationwide.

The report, from the Environmental Integrity Project, found over 90 percent of sites that store coal ash are leaking levels of contamination exceeding EPA health standards.

At one former coal plant near Pittsburgh, arsenic levels in the groundwater are 372 times EPA’s safe drinking water standards. Though groundwater near these sites isn’t necessarily used for drinking water, the contaminants can migrate underground into private drinking water wells, rivers and streams, and eventually into public drinking water systems, said the report’s lead author, Abel Russ with the Environmental Integrity Project.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Neil Shader said in an email that public water drinking water systems in the state are required to treat their water for pollutants found in coal ash, including arsenic.

Two of the nine sites are in central Pennsylvania, and the rest are in western Pennsylvania.

Recent federal rules require utilities to store coal ash in lined landfills or ash ponds. But Russ says the utilities are mostly using storage sites that pre-date those rules.

“So they dumped it in unlined pits frequently in contact with groundwater and they just kept filling them up for decades, and this is the end result,” Russ said. “We’re basically seeing the same thing everywhere, to a greater or lesser degree. Some sites have more, and some sites have less, but they all typically have unsafe levels.”

The report draws on newly available data, made public as a result of an Obama-era regulation on coal ash. The rule mandated that any facility still accepting coal ash monitor groundwater nearby and release its data.

The report examined that data from 265 coal plants or off-site disposal areas, including over 550 impoundments and landfills. It found that NRG’s New Castle Generating Station in Taylor Township, Lawrence County was among the worst offenders. The power plant converted to natural gas in 2016, but still has a 57-acre coal ash landfill and 2-acre impoundment “coal ash pond,” where ash is mixed with water. According to the report, which based its findings on company coal ash disclosures, parts of the landfill were built on top of an old, unlined landfill.

The groundwater beneath the site tested at 3,720 parts per billion arsenic; the EPA’s maximum contaminant load for drinking water is 10 parts per billion. The site also showed a level of lithium at 54 times federal health-based guidelines; and unsafe levels of boron, cobalt, molybdenum, and sulfate.

A spokesman for NRG, which also owns several other coal ash sites in Pennsylvania, did not respond to requests for comment.

Among the report’s key findings: More than 50 percent of sites had levels of arsenic above federal health standards; and there were unsafe levels of contaminants at 92 percent of coal ash ponds.

Russ said those sites — where coal ash is stored in artificial ponds — are prone to contamination for a variety of reasons.

“The ponds aren’t adequately lined, they’re too close to the groundwater, they’re full of water, so there’s a lot of hydraulic pressure pushing the pollutants out,” Russ said. “There’s really no good reason to let ash ponds continue to operate.”

Russ said the report’s findings likely underestimate the scale of the problem with coal ash, because the 256 facilities included in it are only those that reported data in 2018. Some plants received waivers for their reporting requirements. And the requirements only apply to those landfills and ash ponds accepting waste in 2016. He said there are likely hundreds of closed sites around the country not covered by the rule, whose contaminants are leaking into groundwater.

Last year, the Trump administration rolled back parts of the 2015 Coal Ash rule, making it easier for companies to get waivers for some groundwater monitoring requirements, delay closing some unlined facilities or those built too close to underground aquifers, and easing regulations on some contaminants.

The 2015 rule was made in response to the 2008 collapse of a dam at a coal ash impoundment in eastern Tennessee that released 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash slurry into nearby rivers and destroyed several houses below it.  

It was the largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

Pennsylvania has eight active coal ash landfills and 13 active surface impoundments, or ash ponds, EPA spokeswoman Terri White said in an email.

She said EPA was “reviewing the Environmental Integrity Project report issued today and cannot comment on its contents yet.”

White added the monitoring data collected and published by the utilities is only one part of the 2015 Coal Ash rule’s requirements. When a landfill or coal ash pond is found to be contaminating the groundwater “above specified levels, the regulations require the owner or operator of the facility to initiate measures to clean up the contamination,” White said.

Shader, the DEP spokesman, said in an email that Pennsylvania’s own rules for coal ash disposal “are, in most cases, more stringent than EPA’s.”

He said when groundwater monitoring shows increases in coal ash pollution above background levels, “evaluation and assessment requirements are triggered” — which can include cleanup.

Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, an industry trade group, said the groundwater data used in the report is only for groundwater at the edge of coal ash storage sites and doesn’t necessarily mean the contamination has gotten into the environment or drinking water supplies.

He said the report showed federal regulations on coal ash implemented under the Obama administration are working. If facilities identified in the report are threatening drinking water supplies, they will eventually be closed, he said.

“The facilities that are having an impact (on groundwater) are being identified, steps are being taken to address those impacts,” he said. “You know we care about protecting the environment and managing our coal ash in an appropriate manner, reporting that to the public and I think the data that are out there, the data that built these reports from these environmental groups are evidence that the rule is working and that the utility industry is committed to complying with that rule.”

03/01/2019 - US Steel appeals order to lower its sulfur emissions

US Steel is appealing an order from the Allegheny County Health Department to curb sulfur dioxide emissions at several of its Pittsburgh-area facilities, after a Christmas Eve fire damaged pollution controls at its Clairton Coke Works.

Since the fire, emissions of sulfur dioxide from US Steel’s facilities in Clairton, Braddock, and West Mifflin have ballooned to five times the amount normally allowed under their county air pollution permits.

On Thursday, the department issued an enforcement order giving the company five days to respond with a plan to reduce emissions from the three sites, collectively called the Mon Valley Works. On Friday, the company said it is appealing the order.

“We are committed to correcting the damage caused by the fire and completing equipment repairs within the next 8-9 weeks that will allow us to restart the environmental controls that will return our plant to compliance,” the company said in the statement. “Unfortunately, the Order included required actions and deadlines that would place the safety of our employees and local communities at risk.”

Clairton is the largest coke plant in North America. It produces coke, a key component of steelmaking, by baking coal at high temperatures.

The order mandated the facilities reduce their output of sulfur dioxide. One of the options that the county included was a “hot idle” of some of the plant’s coke ovens. In a “hot idle,” the ovens are kept hot but no coke is produced.

The company said it’s been undergoing changes to its operations, like extending the amount of time it leaves coal in its coking ovens, in order to reduce pollution. But it said extending them further would create problems with health and safety.

“We cannot extend those times on the schedule set forth in the Order without jeopardizing the safety of workers and the community, and also negatively affecting the Clairton Plant’s environmental compliance,” the company said.

Meghan Cox, a company spokeswoman, said the company would need “ample time” to properly adjust its coking times.

“Our safety concerns stem from the fact that longer coking times (over 26 hours) create a potentially dangerous situation on the coke battery. When times are extended, gas flow from the battery must be carefully managed to ensure an explosive atmosphere does not occur in the piping that collects coke oven gases.”

Ryan Scarpino, a spokesman for the Allegheny County Health Department, said in an e-mail:

“As a matter of policy, we do not comment on matters in litigation and so will have no further comment on the filings, or any statements made by the company.”

Scarpino did not provide details on how long the appeal would take to work its way to a resolution.

“When additional information is available regarding procedural steps, orders or decisions by the hearing officer, that detail will be provided,” he said.

Don Furko, president of the United Steelworkers Local 1557, which represents workers in the Clairton plant, said a hot idle could cause cracks inside its coke ovens. He said that could lead to more pollution.

“Whenever you bring it back online and start using the coke ovens again…you end up with emissions going up through the flues and that ends up going through the (smoke) stack,” Furko said.

He said extending coking times was a complicated procedure that, if done incorrectly, could create hazardous conditions in the plant. He said a hot idle would lead to layoffs, and if the hot idle leads to significant damage, “those layoffs might turn into permanent job losses.”

The health department issued the order after receiving new data from US Steel showing that the Mon Valley plants were emitting 70,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide a day. The plants are permitted to emit 13,000 pounds a day.

The Dec. 24 fire knocked out Clairton’s desulfurization units, which reduced the amount of sulfur dioxide its three Mon Valley plants produce.

Air monitors in the area have detected several spikes in sulfur dioxide since then, exceeding federal air quality standards. Sulfur dioxide can aggravate respiratory problems. In January, the county issued an air quality warning for the area that remains in effect.

The company says repairs to its pollution controls at Clairton could be completed by May. US Steel is appealing a different order the county issued in June 2018 that could require it to put parts of the plant on hot idle.

Environmental and public health advocates, who have pushed for the plant to be put on hot idle while it fixes its air pollution controls, said they were disappointed by US Steel’s decision.

“If US Steel can’t extend coking times and operate safely then perhaps they should go on hot idle until the desulfurization unit is completely repaired and back on line,” said Rachel Filippini, executive director of Group Against Smog and Pollution, in an email.