News

06/03/2019 - Pennsylvania’s had a lot of tornadoes this year. But scientists don’t know if there’s a climate change link

It’s already hard to predict whether tornadoes will pop up within a few hours’ time frame.

05/31/2019 - Judge bars release of document in gas drilling suit

A Washington County judge has issued a court order barring The Allegheny Front, StateImpact Pennsylvania and 90.5 WESA from publishing the content of a publicly available legal document obtained by a reporter for the news organizations, pending a hearing next week.

The legal document is an Aug. 30, 2018 Memorandum Order entered in the case of Stacey Haney and several of her Washington County neighbors.

The group sued gas-drilling company Range Resources in 2012 for allegedly contaminating their air, groundwater, and soil from activities related to fracking. The suit alleged Range and two contracted laboratories committed fraud and conspiracy by manipulating test results to obscure their findings from the plaintiffs.

The case was settled in 2018. The settlement reached at that time is filed under seal.

Washington County Prothonotary Joy Ranko said Thursday the memorandum order should not have been public. “This document was never scanned into the public database,” Ranko said.

But the document was publicly available over the course of at least two days, May 28 and May 29, on the Washington County Prothonotary’s Public Case File Database. Reid Frazier, a reporter for The Allegheny Front and StateImpact Pennsylvania, printed it off the prothonotary printer at 25 cents a page.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has been involved in ongoing litigation to get the court to unseal the settlement. Range Resources, however, is arguing that it should remain sealed. In early May, Judge Emery turned down a request by the gas driller to subpoena reporters and an editor of the Post-Gazette to “test the veracity” of the newspaper’s request.

When Range Resources attorneys learned that Frazier had a copy of the order, they sent him a cease-and-desist letter. Attorneys for the plaintiffs and Range Resources both informed Judge Katherine Emery of the release of the document. Emery then issued the injunction and set the hearing date. The injunction bars the news organizations from “directly or indirectly publishing, circulating, disseminating, disclosing, describing, duplicating, or otherwise sharing in any way contents of the Sealed Documents.”

The Haney case and lawsuit are detailed in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Amity and Prosperity,” by the journalist Eliza Griswold.

A court date has been set for Tuesday, June 4 at 10 a.m. for a hearing on the order at the Washington County Courthouse.

05/30/2019 - Wolf rejects Senate’s infrastructure proposal funded by forest drilling

After months of Democratic Governor Tom Wolf promoting a sweeping infrastructure plan funded by a tax on natural gas drillers, some Senate Republicans have come up with an alternative.

It would fund a smaller slate of infrastructure improvements by opening up more gas drilling in state forests.

The Senate proposal comes from Republicans Camera Bartolotta and Pat Stefano, of Beaver and Fayette Counties respectively. It hasn’t been formally introduced yet, but an official bill is expected out in the coming days.

Bartolotta and Stefano say they can raise about a billion dollars annually for things like parks and flood control by lifting Wolf’s moratorium on new gas drillers leasing state land.

Pennsylvania’s state forests were once largely wiped out. Now the state manages about 2.2 million forested acres, and a large portion is already open to drillers.

Bartolotta said she doesn’t think more drilling would be invasive, since it’s largely done underground.

“This is in no way putting a drilling rig in the middle of a forest,” she said. “Three miles away, these things can be done. And it’s six thousand feet underground.”

Conservationists have raised concerns that even non-surface drilling damages habitats and can introduce invasive species, thanks to well pads tamping down soil and roads being carved through the trees.

If passed, Wolf’s plan would raise $4.5 billion.

His spokesman said the Senate plan doesn’t do enough. But so far, his severance tax is a nonstarter among Republicans.

Bartolotta called it unrealistic.

“If you go into a municipality where half of their township has been flooded, yes they’re going to cling to any kind of hope that they have been offered,” she said. “But you know what, you can’t dangle a carrot in front of someone when there isn’t a buffet.”

Likewise, Wolf’s spokesman said Bartolotta and Stefano’s bill doesn’t meet the state Supreme Court’s requirement that any revenue from state forest drilling be routed toward environmental initiatives.

The proposal, he said, “appears to be unconstitutional.”

Bartolotta said she believes the infrastructure initiatives are targeted enough that they would all count as conservatory in nature.

05/25/2019 - Delaware, New Jersey lawmakers accuse EPA of deceit over clean car standards

Reed Saxon / AP Photo

An employee parks a Toyota gas-electric hybrid automobile in a row of similar cars at a dealership in Los Angeles Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012. Del. Sen. Tom Carper and NJ Rep. Frank Pallone say EPA has deceived Congress over the impacts of a planned rollback on clean car standards. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Delaware Sen. Tom Carper and New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone say the Trump Administration has deceived Congress and the public over a planned rollback of clean car standards.

Trump plans to reverse Obama-era standards that would have drastically decreased greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated six billion metric tons of carbon. In a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Democrats Carper and Pallone say evidence shows the new proposal will increase carbon emissions by 8 billion tons.

In the letter Senator Carper and Congressman Pallone accuse EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler of listening to the fossil fuel industry over the EPA’s own expert staff.

“Moreover, the oil industry launched a covert social media and lobbying campaign to weaken the current standards and revoke California’s Clean Air Act waiver,” Carper and Pallone write. “The oil industry stands to reap the most benefit from the proposed rollback because Americans will be forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more for gasoline in the less efficient cars.”

Wheeler testified that the weaker Trump Administration rules would save lives and reduce emissions, and that the Obama rules were too costly.

“I live in the lowest lying state in America, the seas are rising around us,” Sen. Carper told StateImpact. “And our state is beginning to sink. We see the vestiges of sea level rise here every day. If we continue to use more and more fossil fuels, we’re going to see more and more extreme weather.”

Jeff Alson worked as an EPA engineer for 40 years until he retired last year. For ten years he helped develop the clean car standards. Alson says the standards marked the first time the federal government regulated greenhouse gas emissions.

“I was stunned by what I saw while I was still at EPA because this was such a historic regulation by EPA,” said Alson. “And yet while I was there EPA staff were not going to be allowed to participate in decision-making.”

Alson says some of the calculations used by the Trump Administration to justify the changes are laughable. As an example, he pointed to the claim that the new standards would reduce car fatalities by 1,000 each year. This, among other assumptions, was refuted by economists in an article published in Science Magazine last year.

“I don’t believe there has ever been such an important regulation that EPA has proposed to roll back without consulting its own expert staff,” said Alson.

In the letter, Carper and Pallone ask EPA to provide a number of documents detailing how the decision to rollback the standards were created.

When asked for comment on the letter, an EPA spokesman said the agency “will respond through the proper channels.”

05/24/2019 - AG Investigating Wastewater Case from Landfill that Accepts Fracking Waste

The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office is investigating the disposal of contaminated water from a landfill that accepts fracking waste to a sewage treatment plant in Fayette County.

The investigation comes a week after a judge barred the Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill in Rostraver Township from sending its wastewater to the nearby Belle Vernon Municipal Authority waste treatment plant for 90 days.

The issue involves the landfill’s leachate — water that percolates through the landfill and gets collected for disposal. The landfill is permitted to send 50,000 gallons of the leachate per day to the treatment plant. But, according to a complaint filed by district attorneys in Washington and Fayette counties, the landfill had been sending 100,000 to 300,000 gallons of leachate per day.

Beginning last spring, the treatment plant started seeing levels of pollution in its discharge to the Monongahela River go up and exceed state and federal limits. The treatment plant determined the contamination was coming from the landfill, which accepts fracking waste like drill cuttings.

“That water was contaminated with diesel fuels, it’s alleged, carcinogens and other pollutants,” said Rich Bower, Fayette County District Attorney. Bower and Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone petitioned Fayette County Court of Common Pleas Judge Steve P. Leskinen for a 90-day injunction against the landfill. The judge agreed and issued the injunction on May 17.

“We saw a serious problem with all of this because of the fact that the Monongahela River is a great source for drinking water around for all downstream,” Bower said.  

According to court documents filed with the case, the municipal authority’s supervisor, Guy Kruppa, notified the Department of Environmental Protection about the problems with the landfill’s leachate. The DEP responded by giving the landfill a permit to operate a “pretreatment” system to deal with contaminants in its waste.

In an affidavit, Kruppa said the pretreatment system “was completely unsuccessful” and that his plant’s discharge continued to violate its state and federal permits.

When the municipal authority petitioned the agency for help, a DEP engineer, Donald Leone, said in an email to a treatment plant engineer that the DEP was considering an arrangement where the sewage plant would continue to accept the waste. 

Under the arrangement, the landfill would “pay any penalties for effluent violations at the Belle Vernon plant” while the landfill came up with a better way to clean up its waste. “In turn Belle Vernon would need to let the landfill stay connected to their system.”

This arrangement stuck out to the two local prosecutors.

“It was troubling that the DEP had indicated (to the authority) to keep on discharging contaminated water and that the municipal authority should work out a deal for the landfill to pay the fines,” Bower said.

A spokesman for the DEP didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

The landfill accepted 4,600 tons drilling waste in March, the latest month for which data are available, according to the DEP. This waste is mostly drill cuttings, which can contain naturally occurring radioactive materials, salts, and metals.

The landfill has agreed not to send its wastewater to the treatment plant, says Ro Rozier, a spokeswoman for Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill. “We have begun using approved alternatives for disposal of the wastewater,” Rozier said, in an email.  “Now, we will continue making large investments in onsite technology to improve leachate quality that will exceed government standards.”

Bower and Vittone have referred the case to the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office for further investigation.

“[We’re] asking them to determine whether or not there is any criminal activity that they’re going to be able to investigate and to prosecute,” Bower says.

Bower said it was a simple matter of manpower: the Attorney General has the staff and expertise to investigate environmental criminal cases that local district attorneys do not.

The Attorney General’s office confirmed it has taken over the case, but a spokesman declined further comment.

05/21/2019 - Federal pipeline safety regulators issue warning on floods and subsidence

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Crews work at the site of a sinkhole along the Mariner East pipeline route near the Pennsylvania State Police barracks on Route 1 in Delaware County on Thursday, April 25, 2019. Pipeline builder Energy Transfer/Sunoco said there were no leaks and no pipelines were exposed. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Citing a number of recent incidents, including one in Pennsylvania, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, sent a warning to natural gas and hazardous liquids pipeline operators earlier this month detailing the dangers of flooding and heavy rain events.

The advisory points to “land movement, severe flooding, river scour, and river channel migration” as causes of the type of damage that can lead to leaks and explosions. It outlines current regulations, and details requirements for insuring safe pipeline construction and continued monitoring once a pipeline is in operation.

The agency issues these types of advisories if it sees a trend, they do not necessarily lead to further rulemaking. In this case PHMSA says earth moving incidents have increased across the country, particularly in the east.

Lynda Farrell, director of the Pipeline Safety Coalition, says it’s an indication that PHMSA officials are worried about recent events that have led to spills.

“They’re saying ‘it’s a bad idea to put pipelines in areas where damage to the pipeline could be caused by earth movement,'” she said. “If you know there’s potential damage, don’t put them there.”

The advisory does not have the weight of a regulation, it simply sounds an alarm and reiterates regulations associated with pipeline safety. PHMSA lists seven incidents that have occurred in the past several years, including the release of more than 1,238 barrels of gasoline into the Loyalsock Creek from a Sunoco/Energy Transfer pipeline in Lycoming County in October, 2016.

Flash floods and landslides led to the rupture of the line, which was built in 1937.

Rosemary Fuller / Submitted

A sinkhole on Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township, Chester County revealed part of the Mariner East 1 pipeline. The sinkhole was caused by construction of the Mariner East 2 line, which cuts through unstable limestone.

Although not listed in the PHMSA bulletin, officials also suspect that heavy rains and landslides caused the explosion of Energy Transfer’s natural gas liquids Revolution Pipeline in Beaver County last September. The explosion destroyed a house and knocked down power lines.

An investigation by Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found the pipeline company had violated permit obligations, which included unreported landslides and erosion into nearby streams.

Following the explosion, DEP inspectors also discovered Energy Transfer illegally eliminated 23 streams and 17 wetlands, and shortened the length of 120 streams while altering 70 wetlands during construction.

The Revolution Pipeline remains shut down.

According to the Capitol Forum, officials in West Virginia have cited Energy Transfer multiple times for erosion issues along the Rover Pipeline, which gathers Marcellus and Utica Shale gas from points in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio for shipping across the country.

In Chester County, Sunoco/Energy Transfer pipeline construction of the Mariner East 2 through karst, or limestone, created sinkholes in residential neighborhoods. The subsidence led to the exposure of the Mariner East 1 natural gas liquids line and a temporary shut down of the line. The company recently bought two homes from impacted residents.

A spokesperson for the DEP says the agency was not aware of the PHMSA advisory bulletin but that the state’s “erosion permit already requires a geo-hazard analysis for things like landslide prone soils of karst geology.”

While DEP issues earth moving and water crossing permits for pipeline construction, safety of current pipeline operations falls under the authority of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

PUC spokesperson Nils Hagen-Frederiksen says the agency is aware of the bulletin and says earth movement is closely monitored.

“As cited in the advisory, earth movement is an identified potential risk and must be considered in a pipeline operator’s Risk Assessment/Integrity Management Plan,” Hagen-Frederiksen said in an email.  “Those plans are inspected annually and the Pipeline Safety Division works to ensure that earth movement is included as an identified risk.”

Sunoco/Energy Transfer spokesperson Vicki Granado says safety is a priority for the company.

“The advisory is a reminder of existing pipeline regulations such as patrolling, continual surveillance, etc.,” she wrote in an email. “It is also a reminder of safety-related issues that can result from earth movement and other geologic hazards. Safety has always been our first priority – the safety of the communities through which we pass, the safety of the environment and the safety of our employees.”

05/21/2019 - What is cap-and-trade?

Pennsylvania environmental regulators are studying a citizen-led petition to implement a cap-and-trade program in the state, with the goal of dramatically cutting climate-damaging greenhouse gas emissions.

So, how does cap-and-trade work?

05/20/2019 - Trying to Keep Bats Flying in the Face of an Epidemic

“We are just seeing massive declines,” says one researcher, trying to save bats before it's too late.

05/20/2019 - DEP accused of ‘foot-dragging’ on 2-year-old request to regulate PFAS chemical

An environmental group asked a Pennsylvania appeals court on Thursday to order the Department of Environmental Protection to complete its review of a petition to set a health limit for a toxic PFAS chemical.

Delaware Riverkeeper Network said DEP failed to deliver a required report on its request for the agency to set a maximum contaminant limit on PFOA, part of the PFAS family of chemicals.

Even though the state’s Environmental Quality Board unanimously accepted DRN’s proposal two years ago that the state adopt a safe drinking water limit of 1-6 parts per trillion for the chemical, the DEP has still not delivered a report even though it is required to do so within 60 days under state law, DRN said. It also said DEP missed its own subsequent deadline of June 2018 to deliver the report.

DRN accused DEP of “indefensible foot-dragging” and asked the Commonwealth Court to instruct DEP to produce the report, and set a maximum contaminant limit (MCL) for the chemical.

DEP will soon begin sampling for PFOA and related chemicals in a statewide program that will lead eventually to it setting an MCL for two of the chemicals, PFOA and PFOS. The administration of Gov. Tom Wolf follows a federal health advisory for the two chemicals, but in February said it would begin the process of setting its own enforceable limit after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency refused to commit to setting national standards.

Even though DEP’s process is underway, it is not acting fast enough for DRN, and the petition for review is designed to hasten the day that an MCL is set, said Maya van Rossum, who heads the group. She denied there would be any duplication of effort if the court orders DEP to complete its review.

“We feel mandating compliance with the law as the law is written is more likely to result in faster protective action,” she said.

Elizabeth Rementer, a spokeswoman for DEP, rejected DRN’s “foot-dragging” claim as “utterly false” in view of DEP’s commitment to setting a health limit for the chemical. She also dismissed DRN’s claim that the agency didn’t act on the petition, saying that officials continue to review it.

“In 2018 DEP presented its findings, which noted that DEP needs more time to review the petition and that DEP needed a toxicologist to be able to determine the appropriateness of an MCL and if appropriate, what the level should be,” she wrote in an email. “DEP is still in the process of getting that outside expertise.”

Rementer said DEP is “absolutely committed” to setting an MCL and that it is a “top priority” of the Wolf administration.

It’s “not a simple task,” she said, and is expected to begin after the sampling process, which is due to start later this month and take about a year. In total, it typically takes about two years before an enforceable rule is put in place, and DEP is working as fast as possible on this case because of its “significant health implications,” she said.

In its complaint to the Commonwealth Court, DRN said DEP could have used a PFOA standard recommended by New Jersey’s Drinking Water Quality Institute, a panel of scientists that advises that state’s environmental officials. The New Jersey DEP is now putting in place the institute’s  recommendation for a PFOA limit of 14 ppt, slightly looser than that sought by DRN.

DEP could also have relied on research from DRN’s own consultants, but failed to do either, and “has made no meaningful progress in establishing an MCL in two years’ time,” DRN said.

It is asking the court to rule that DEP violated the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act and the Environmental Rights Amendment of the state constitution.

PFOA and related chemicals, once used in consumer products like nonstick cookware and flame-retardant fabrics, have been linked to cancer and other health conditions including low birth weights, high cholesterol, and immune-system problems. Even though their use has been discontinued by U.S. manufacturers, they don’t break down in the environment, and so are being subject to strict state regulations as more becomes known about their threat to public health.

At the federal level, the chemicals would be curbed by several recent bills introduced by lawmakers, including some from Pennsylvania.

05/20/2019 - Everything you need to know about the cicadas that will soon swarm southwest Pa.

An expert answers questions about one of our loudest spring residents.