News

07/26/2019 - Fracking in Ohio: Amid industry activity, residents start their own shale gas-related health registry

It's an "attempt to collect the contacts of people who live close enough to any aspect of shale development, that they might be affected," said the physician leading the effort.

07/25/2019 - Cities, attorneys general call for new leader of PJM Interconnection to focus on clean energy

The power grid operator’s board has received appeals from around the country to ensure its next leader prioritizes clean energy

07/25/2019 - Cities, attorneys general call for new leader of PJM Interconnection to focus on clean energy

The power grid operator’s board has received appeals from around the country to ensure its next leader prioritizes clean energy

07/25/2019 - PES refinery fire highlights need for better air monitoring, experts tell Pa. lawmakers

Scientists and regulators appeared before Pennsylvania state lawmakers Wednesday to discuss the environmental impacts of the fire that ripped through Philadelphia Energy Solutions last month, and they almost universally made the same recommendation:

Improve the city’s air-quality monitoring.

After the explosion, which occurred in the PES refinery’s alkylation unit, Philadelphia’s Air Monitoring Service said the air was safe to breathe, given readings from both on-site monitoring systems and handheld monitors. In particular, regulators were looking for the possible release of hydrogen fluoride, or HF, which is used as a catalyst in the alkylation unit to turn crude oil into high-octane fuel. If released, HF vaporizes and can travel quickly, causing severe health conditions and, potentially, death.

But the experts before the committee questioned whether the air monitors were appropriately positioned to measure contaminants.

“None of the routine air-monitoring locations from the city were along the wind axis at the time of the fire,” said Charles Haas, head of the Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering at Drexel University. “And, therefore, peak exposures could not be measured. Some of the peak exposures could have occurred in southeast Philadelphia, and then after traversing the Delaware River, into southern New Jersey.”

The city maintains that the readings were accurate and that the public was kept safe.

“There has been continuous monitoring of HF at the refinery before and after the fire,” said Philadelphia Department of Public Health spokesman James Garrow. “No one, whether it be PES or any of the agencies investigating the fire, have detected HF with a functioning meter, at any point.”

Garrow conceded, however, that one of the city’s meters, which was being used to confirm PES’s own zero readings, had not been functioning properly.

“[Air Monitoring Service] inspectors tested for the presence of HF to confirm the zero readings reported by PES,” Garrow said. “Due to the meter not being properly calibrated, the inspectors requested that the EPA and PES confirm the zero readings. Both confirmed that there was no HF present in the air. The AMS inspectors took the improperly calibrated meter out of service.”

Marilyn Howarth, director of community outreach and engagement at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology, said faulty equipment isn’t acceptable.

“There should have been a backup that was readily available,” she told lawmakers. “But frankly, the real question is why didn’t they have the right equipment in the right places, in the neighborhoods where people were potentially affected, right then?”

Howarth and others also noted that handheld monitoring devices are not always reliable when used outdoors. Nevertheless, she said this was an opportunity to improve air-quality monitoring, not just in Philadelphia but across the state.

“I think that a systematic analysis of exactly what kind of monitoring should be done in the context of this kind of an industry, throughout Pennsylvania,” she said. “Whoever is charged with doing local monitoring to protect the public, they need to be integrated into the emergency response program, and we need to make sure that they have the appropriate equipment that can be immediately deployed so that people can be protected.”

State Sen. Anthony Williams, who convened the meeting, said he heard the message loud and clear.

“Everybody agreed pretty much that the detection system needs to be significantly reviewed, if not upgraded to guarantee that the conclusions that we’re reaching are founded in science,” he said.

Philadelphia is one of only two counties in the state in charge of monitoring its own air quality (the other being Allegheny County), which is why the city communicates directly with the EPA and not the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

“They’re keeping us informed through our department,” said DEP regional director Patrick Patterson. “We consult with them occasionally, but they’re doing the active monitoring and work for that.”

However, the DEP is in charge of regulating 246 storage tanks at the refinery, as well as the two industrial wastewater treatment facilities to which the refinery discharges its waste — including the 33,000 gallons of HF from the alkylation unit that the refinery still needs to dispose of safely.

That storage tank is the reason some investigators — including ones from the DEP, who need to examine other tanks on-site for structural integrity — haven’t had access to the site.

“The reason the exclusion zone is still the exclusion zone is largely because they want to get this material neutralized and disposed of before they clear the site,” Patterson said.

The low pH of the hydrogen fluoride solution makes it a hazard for the places into which the effluent is discharged — in this case, the Schuylkill River — so the solution has to be neutralized before it is processed by a treatment plant.

There’s also a lot of the low pH solution, so they need to make sure the system can handle it.

“So we have to be real careful about how much volume they put through that system at any given time,” Patterson said, “and make sure that they have the ability to hold volume and kind of slow-release to the system, so that the system does not get overwhelmed by super [low pH] material.”

The fact that 33,000 gallons of HF are still on-site concerns Williams and some of his constituents, and he expressed disappointment in the decision by the city, PES (which is the midst of bankruptcy proceedings), and Evergreen Resources Management Operations (which has been remediating the site since 2012) not to attend the hearing, even though they were invited to testify.

“The lack of Philadelphia Energy Solutions being here, the foundation which supports the remediation not being here, is scary for those of us who may be left holding the bag if they walk away from this,” Williams said.



07/24/2019 - U.S. bankruptcy judge approves $65 million loan for PES refinery

U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Kevin Gross approved a request by Philadelphia Energy Solutions for a $65 million loan from debtor-in-possession financing Tuesday, as the company’s Chapter 11 case opened in Wilmington.

The company says the goal after Chapter 11 reorganization is to rebuild and continue to operate its South Philadelphia refinery complex.

In June, after a fire and explosions destroyed 57 percent of its capacity, the company announced it would shut down operations at the 1,300-acre complex, which consists of two refineries. The fire affected the alkylation unit at the Girard Point refining facility, which is currently inoperable and will require extensive rebuilding, according to the company. The Point Breeze facility is working with limited capacity.

The intention is to “continue to run it and process for as long as we have the inventory and the liquidity,” said Jeffrey S. Stein, a financial adviser focused on distressed debt who has been named chief restructuring officer by Philadelphia Energy Solutions’ parent company, PES Holdings LLC..

Before the fire, the PES complex produced a little more than one-quarter of the fuel consumed on the East Coast and employed roughly 1,000 workers.

June’s “historic, large-scale, catastrophic” blaze caused the company to lose momentum after successfully emerging from Chapter 11 just last August, Stein told the judge. PES had filed for bankruptcy on Jan. 21, 2018, citing the rising costs of the Renewable Fuel Standard, a program that forces refiners that don’t blend ethanol into what they sell to buy credits on the open market.

With this reorganization, Stein said, the company intends to use the tools of Chapter 11 to get the refinery complex going and maximize the value of its assets.

PES secured $100 million in debtor-in-possession financing, with an additional $20 million available upon consent of the lenders, to fund the bankruptcy case and restructuring. As of now, PES has $45 million cash in deposit accounts, and according to court documents its total debt was estimated at $1.75 billion as of July 2019.

During Tuesday’s hearing, PES’s attorneys entered motions to keep the company operating with minimal disruption or adverse effect on its business. Judge Gross authorized the company to pay critical vendors for their services; pay wages, salaries and other compensation to refinery employees and continue their benefit programs; pay certain taxes and fees; pay future utility services; continue insurance payments; and continue to operate its cash management system and other transactions.

The judge also authorized PES to file a consolidated list of creditors and to extend until Sept. 6 the period to file schedules of assets and liabilities, current income and expenditures, executory contracts and unexpired leases.

An objection hearing was scheduled for Aug. 14, with a final hearing on Aug. 21.

Stein told the court that PES took immediate action after the fire to preserve liquidity, hiring Kirkland & Ellis LLP as its legal advisers, PJT Partners Inc. as its investment bankers, and Alvarez & Marsal North America LLC as its restructuring advisers. Among the strategies mentioned by Stein was reducing the refinery complex’s workforce of about 1,000 employees, about 600 of whom are members of the United Steelworkers.

On June 28, two workers filed a federal lawsuit, saying they were not given enough notice or severance paid as required by law. On July 3, the company extended pay for the majority of workers through Aug. 25.  In testimony, Stein said the company informed 1,025 employees via written notices on June 26 in accordance with the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act.

PES also started to engage with its insurers to get an advance and a resolution of the losses caused by the fire, Stein said. PES could recoup losses up to $1.25 billion through property and business interruption insurance coverage, and Stein said the company has not yet obtained an advance.

“These insurance proceeds are the very heart of these Chapter 11 cases: The sooner the debtors can recover, the sooner the business can complete its recovery,” Stein told the judge.



07/24/2019 - Commonwealth Court issues split decision on industry challenge to state’s natural gas regulations

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A Marcellus Shale well in northeastern Pennsylvania is seen in this 2015 photo.

Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court has issued a split decision on environmental regulations for natural gas drilling. The Marcellus Shale Coalition filed its challenge to the regulations in October 2016, days after they went into effect.

The rules include requirements to clean up well sites shortly after drilling activities end and to make sure nearby abandoned wells aren’t contaminated by new drilling.

Both the coalition and the DEP declined interview requests, but provided statements via e-mail.

“We are pleased that the Commonwealth Court largely upheld the Department of Environmental Protection’s common sense regulations to protect Pennsylvania’s air, land and water from pollution by requiring natural gas drillers to identify wells in close proximity to proposed new wells, to restore well sites after they have been drilled, and to remediate spills of potential contaminants,” said DEP press secretary Elizabeth Rementer.

Coalition President David Spigelmyer said while he appreciated the court’s careful consideration of the issues, “several questions remain open in light of the partial nature of these summary judgment proceedings, questions for which the industry continues to seek resolution. As always, MSC continues to support fair, consistent and clear regulations, and our industry remains committed to working with state regulators to ensure the safe, responsible development of clean, abundant natural gas.”

The preliminary ruling from the seven-judge panel only addressed whether the Department of Environmental Protection had the statutory authority to make the rules. It didn’t evaluate each regulation on its merit and its impact on the industry and the environment.

Former DEP secretary David Hess said, for that reason, he can’t get too excited about the ruling.

“It’s sort of like the third round of a schedule 10 round bout in boxing between the two sides,” he said. “There’s a lot more to come.”

07/22/2019 - Refinery’s closure sparks calls for a ‘just transition’ in Philadelphia

Two very different views toward what should happen to it mirror a conversation that’s taking place across the country: How do we move toward a low-carbon future without displacing the more than one million people who make their living in fossil fuels?

07/22/2019 - Landowner sues Sunoco, saying horizontal drilling for Mariner East contaminated his water well

A Berks County homeowner is suing Sunoco, claiming its drilling for the Mariner East pipelines punctured the aquifer supplying his water well and led to e. coli contamination that made him ill.

David Anspach of Morgantown says he suffered gastrointestinal distress and had to undergo a colonoscopy because Sunoco’s horizontal directional drilling (HDD) starting in 2017 allowed naturally occurring e. coli and fecal coliform to contaminate his water. Medical tests concluded he contracted colitis from the contamination.

Anspach, who granted an easement to Sunoco in 2015 to build the pipeline on about an acre of his land, said the company knew or should have known that its drilling had “great potential” to contaminate his well, and should have warned him in advance that the water could become undrinkable.

He asked the Berks County Court of Common Pleas this week to prevent Sunoco from doing any more drilling that would deprive him of his well water, and to award him punitive and compensatory damages.

In his investigation into whether the drilling caused the contaminants to enter his well, Anspach hired a hydrogeologist who concluded that the disturbance created by HDD allowed e.coli and fecal coliform to get into his drinking water.

“They determined that the drilling process did not create the contamination but all of the surface disturbance and the drill itself caused a conduit for naturally occurring fecal coliform and bacteria on the surface to get into the water table and migrate into my well,” he said in an interview.

After the testing established a link between the drilling and contamination, Sunoco installed a water buffalo on Anspach’s property, and it remains there. He said his symptoms ceased after he stopped drinking his well water, but he is suing the company in order to be “made whole” after the illness and damage to his well.

“Defendant is strictly liable for the harm it caused, as HDD is an abnormally dangerous activity insofar as it relates to the risk of contaminating nearby water supplies,” Anspach’s complaint says.

Sunoco did its own tests on the well, the suit says, and concluded that both e. coli and fecal coliform were sharply higher than the zero level that the federal government sets as a maximum contaminant limit.

Sunoco rejected the claim that its drilling caused the well contamination. “We fundamentally disagree with the assertions by Mr. Anspach. We have been in discussions with him for quite some time and have conducted our own testing of his well and did not find any evidence to substantiate his claims. We shared our results of our investigation with the PA DEP,” the company said in a statement.

The cross-state Mariner East project, which began construction in February 2017, has contaminated surface and ground water in dozens of incidents, mostly because of the leak of drilling fluid in so-called inadvertent returns. Many of the leaks have drawn notices of violation from the Department of Environmental Protection.

Rich Raiders, an environmental attorney who represents other clients challenging the project, said it’s unclear whether Anspach’s case will go to trial because it may be less expensive for both sides to settle.

He said pipeline operators faced with such claims will typically try to switch affected residents to public water — as happened with about a dozen residents of West Whiteland Township in 2017 — or fix the well, rather than taking the case to court.

In cases where a house becomes uninhabitable, Raiders said Sunoco may try to buy out the homeowners, as it did with two homes on Lisa Drive, the Chester County development where sinkholes opened up behind a line of houses starting in late 2017.

In his suit, Anspach also accused the DEP of failing to conduct its own investigation into whether Sunoco’s drilling caused the contamination, and of simply accepting Sunoco’s conclusion that it was not to blame.

“It merely deferred to defendant’s own conclusion that its HDD activities did not contaminate Plaintiff’s well,” the suit says.

DEP said it does not comment on matters in litigation.

The multi-billion dollar Mariner East project, carrying natural gas liquids from southwest Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio to a terminal in Delaware County, began operating in December 2018.


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Anspach v. Sunoco complaint (PDF)

Anspach v. Sunoco complaint (Text)

07/19/2019 - Report: Without bold climate action, deadly heat waves in store for Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania faces unprecedented, deadly heat waves in the coming decades unless aggressive action is taken to combat climate change, according to a new report published Tuesday by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Historically, Pennsylvania has experienced an average of eight days per year where the heat index (the temperature it feels like, with humidity taken into account) surpassed 90 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the report. Under a “slow action” scenario for addressing climate change, the UCS analysis finds that number would increase to 40 days per year on average by midcentury. “Slow action” assumes carbon emissions start declining at midcentury and the global average temperature rises 4.3 degrees Fahrenheit by century’s end.

On current emission pathways, with no action taken, Pennsylvania would see 71 such days by the century’s end.

The analysis covers the lower 48 states and includes interactive maps showing projections by county and state. It finds large swaths of the country could become dangerously hot. The report authors examined temperature and humidity projections, based on scenarios of little to no action on climate change, versus aggressive climate action. Then they ran those projections through the National Weather Forecast heat index equation and looked at how conditions are likely to change for different communities.

For example, with no action taken to curb climate change, parts of Florida and Texas would experience the equivalent of five months per year on average when the heat index is greater than 100 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.

“If we wish to spare people in the United States and around the world the mortal dangers of extreme and relentless heat, there is little time to do so and little room for half measures,” the report’s authors write. “We need to employ our most ambitious actions to prevent the rise of extreme heat — to save lives and safeguard the quality of life for today’s children, who will live out their days in the future we’re currently creating.”

The 2015 Paris climate agreement seeks to strengthen the global response and avoid the worst effects of climate change, by limiting a global temperature rise in this century well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. A stark United Nations report issued late last year calls on governments to do even more — and try to keep the warming below 1.5 Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). The scientists who authored it concede that there is “no documented historic precedent” for such a rapid transformation of the global economy.

The Union of Concerned Scientists’ analysis examines four levels of heat index thresholds: above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, above 100, above 105, and “off the charts” — an extreme scenario in which the heat index reaches 127 degrees Fahrenheit or greater — effectively limiting the body’s ability to cool itself.

With no action taken on climate change, parts of south-central and southeastern Pennsylvania would experience an average of at least one day per year with an “off the charts” heat index by mid-century, the report finds.

Rachel Licker, a senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the analysis is meant to deliver very fine resolution information to communities across the country about how extreme heat is likely to play out.

“These kinds of dangerous temperatures can exacerbate pre-existing health conditions, like cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease. It can affect children,” she said. “It can affect the mentally ill, who may not be able to protect themselves. Heat is one of the top weather-related causes of death across the United States. As we see more extreme temperatures, that’s just going to make matters worse.

07/19/2019 - Extreme weather causes fumes to escape fire-stricken PES refinery

Emma Lee / WHYY

A large flare burns off fuel at Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery while firefighters battle a fire there.

Heavy rains and high temperatures shifted the lid of a 6 million gallon tank containing gasoline components at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery, according to a spokesperson for the company. The incident caused fumes to escape, prompting complaints from nearby South Philadelphia neighbors.

The refinery is in the process of winding down operations after a fiery explosion tore through the facility last month. The financially troubled company announced it would close the facility within days of the blaze. Crude oil refining operations are expected to halt next week, according to Reuters.

Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management sent an alert message through ReadyPhiladelphia to residents Wednesday afternoon telling them not to be alarmed by the fumes, and that odors may continue to be released as the shutdown continues.

But PES spokeswoman Cherice Corley said neighbors should not anticipate continued odors as a result of the closure.

“We will do everything we can to insure safe wind down of operations here at PES and not impact the community,” Corley told WHYY. “The community is our priority.”

No ‘abnormal’ pollution

Corley said the refinery is using hand-held air pollution detectors and stationary air monitors to measure volatile organic compounds, or VOCs in the air around the refinery. They haven’t recorded abnormal levels of pollution, she said.

The Philadelphia Fire Department’s Hazmat unit has also been on site measuring for chemical releases. A spokesperson for the city said their tests revealed no unusual chemicals or air pollutants.

“We have found no abnormal levels associated with this alert,” said Noëlle Foizen, deputy director for the city’s Office of Emergency Management.

PES is continually placing foam blankets on the roof of the tank to address the fumes. Corley said the rain and high heat have impeded those efforts. Workers are transferring the contents of the 6 million gallon tank to another vessel, which should be complete by the end of the day.

Daniel Harris lives two blocks from the refinery. He said he didn’t get an alert or smell anything unusual.

“Just a little bit of fumes, but that’s normal out there,” he said.

Health Department spokesman James Garrow said the city is sampling for standard air pollutants, such as particulate matter and ozone, 24/7.