News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US Steel spokeswoman Meghan Cox referred all comment to Merrion. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10/16/2020 - Report: Radiation levels higher downwind of fracking sites

Scientists say the levels are below public health limits, but are cause for concern and more study on fracking-related emissions.

10/14/2020 - DEP issues new fines for Westmoreland County landfill that accepts drilling waste

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection fined a Western Pennsylvania landfill that accepts solid fracking waste $59,000 for multiple violations over the past year. 

It’s the latest in a series of legal actions against the landfill.  

According to a consent order signed Oct. 7, the Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill in Rostraver failed to maintain up-to-date records, operated beyond permitted hours, and failed to maintain roads on multiple occasions between July 31, 2019, and Sept. 24, 2020. 

The agency said the landfill also allowed spills and leaks of leachate — wastewater that seeps through the landfill and must be treated before it’s disposed of. 

The landfill accepts oil and gas drilling waste, which is high in salts, metals, and radioactive materials, and many of these pollutants have ended up in the leachate. 

Last year, Pennsylvania’s Attorney General’s office said it was investigating the landfill’s handling of its waste, and a judge ordered the landfill to stop sending its leachate to a nearby treatment plant. 

That plant, which failed several state water quality tests, found high levels of contaminants common in fracking waste in the leachate it was receiving from the landfill.

In February, the DEP fined the landfill $24,000 for improper disposal of the leachate. 

The latest fine is for new violations, which include the landfill’s trucks tracking mud on nearby roads, failing to put adequate soil cover on top of waste, including drilling waste, and failing to maintain equipment. 

The department has ordered the landfill to come up with a plan to fix the violations. 

A spokeswoman for the landfill didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. 

10/13/2020 - Climate change could shift Pennsylvania’s wildfire season

Most of the state’s fires are small and are extinguished quickly.