While Trump keeps bringing it up in the campaign, Pennsylvania voters are most focused on health care, the pandemic and the economy.
A professional geologist who worked on the Mariner East pipeline project says pipeline builder Sunoco/Energy Transfer prevented him and other geologists from inspecting and reporting on dangerous subsidence, or sinkholes, during construction.
The whistleblower says professional geologists were prevented from speaking to drillers, unable to gain access to drill sites, told to change the name from subsidence to “earth feature” in reports, and had their mandated reports to agencies like the Department of Environmental Protection edited and changed by non-geologists.
He says the company had what they called a “limited disturbance policy” whereby geologists should only report subsidence issues within a specific area. Failing to follow the policy would risk termination.
The claims are detailed in a notice of intent to sue Sunoco by the Clean Air Council. The legal notice was sent to the company on Tuesday. The whistleblower is not identified in the document.
Tim Fitchett, staff attorney for Fairshake Environmental Legal Services, is representing Clean Air Council in the case. Fitchett said Sunoco fired the geologist after he reported a sinkhole in Chester County that lay outside the area defined by the company’s “limited disturbance policy.”
Clean Air Council sued Sunoco in 2017, which resulted in a settlement agreement with the company and DEP.
“Sunoco is so scared of what its scientists will find in investigating its pipeline construction that it’s muzzled them and doctored their reports,” said Joseph Minott, executive director and chief counsel of Clean Air Council.
Sunoco’s erosion and sediment control permits issued by the Department of Environmental Protection require the company to report subsidence and stop work until a plan is created and approved by DEP. But Fitchett said the geologist witnessed examples where work stopped for about a week, the subsidence was “cursorily” monitored, and reports issued to DEP claimed no issues. At that point, work would restart at the site.
Fitchett said the geologist saw issues similar to the kinds of subsidence that occurred in Beaver County at another Energy Transfer pipeline construction site, which led to an explosion in September 2018. No one was injured in the Revolution Pipeline incident, but it burned a house to the ground. Fitchett said the geologist decided to inform the Clean Air Council of his experiences due to safety concerns.
Chester County resident Eric Friedman, who opposes the Mariner East pipeline and is active with DelChesco United for Public Safety, said this is further evidence the pipeline should shut down.
“When the Revolution pipeline blew up… a house burned down but here we have elementary schools and a densely populated area,” he said.
Under Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law, a citizen suit requires 60-day notification to the defendant. During that period, Sunoco could reach an agreement with Clean Air Council to change its practices, or DEP could intervene in the case.
Neither DEP nor Sunoco/Energy Transfer would comment on the notice to file suit. Fitchett said both the DEP and the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office are aware of the whistleblower’s claims. The Attorney General’s office also had no comment.
Murray said he worked in underground mines and is entitled to benefits. He disputed that he fought against regulations to quell the disease or fought against miners receiving benefits.
This story originally appeared in Rolling Stone, and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
When he talks about the Trump administration, David Doniger likes to say: “Imagine where we’d be if they knew what they were doing.” The climate lawyer and senior advisor to the NRDC Action Fund spends his days defending the environment from the U.S. government, and for the past three and a half years, that’s meant a front-row seat to the Trump administration’s relentless attacks on any regulation that’s meant to slow the climate crisis.
But it’s also been a window into the hasty, sloppy, and legally dubious ways that they’ve gone about it. “One of the hallmarks of this administration is how incompetently they’re doing this,” says Doniger. “It shows up in how slowly they’ve been able to work, and how flimsy their legal rationales are.” Almost all of Trump’s attempts at deregulation — some 100 rules that he’s tried to eliminate or weaken — are being challenged in court, and environmentalists are steadily winning. According to the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University, the Trump administration has lost 69 of the 83 legal challenges it’s faced in its deregulatory blitz.
“We were saved by their incompetence,” says Andrew Wetzler, from the NRDC Action Fund, mainly by their failure to follow basic rule-making procedures. They rushed through the process, often shortening or entirely skipping over the required 60 days for public comment, which provided a clear opening for their rule changes to be challenged in court. The administration’s ineptitude has given environmentalists hope that if Trump loses the election, the policy impact of his unrelenting pro-fossil fuel agenda could ultimately be short-lived. “If he’s a one-term wonder,” says Doniger, “the biggest consequence of the Trump administration may just turn out to be lost time.”
But time, at this hour of the climate fight, might be our most precious resource. As we stumble ever closer to the collapse of ice sheets, oceans and forests, the range of meaningful action we could take narrows. There is now believed to be more carbon dioxide in the air than any time in the last 3 million years. Our oceans are on track by the end of this century to become more acidic than they’ve been in some 15 million years — when they were enduring a major extinction event. Those oceans are also rising steadily enough to threaten the homes of 150 million people in the next three decades. “We lost years at a critical time,” says Wetzler. “We’re on the precipice of a number of climate and biological tipping points.” And, he says, we won’t fully understand the impact of that loss for years.
If Biden wins in November, environmentalists say, his administration would have a slim window of opportunity to get our agencies back on track to meet the enormity of the climate crisis. “It means being aggressive from day one,” says Brett Hartl from the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund. “And not futzing around — knowing what you’re going to do and implementing it immediately.”
Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania
Making up for the lost time won’t be easy. Despite his slap-dash approach, Trump still managed to scramble the trajectory of American climate policy, creating a tangle of legal fights that will have to be cleared up for U.S. climate policy to move forward. And he left almost no part of our environmental regulatory structure untouched — greenlighting fossil fuel infrastructure like the Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipelines, setting us back on emission-reduction goals by reversing the Clean Power Plan and higher fuel-efficiency standards, and gutting the federal agencies that should be at the helm of our climate response.
So how difficult will it be to unscramble this mess? It would have to happen in three parts, environmentalists say, and all three would have to start on day one. First, Biden would have a powerful arsenal of executive tools available to him — if he chooses to use them. A coalition of over 500 environmental groups has already assembled a plan for how he could effectively jumpstart our fight against the climate crisis using executive powers, which would avoid both going through Congress and the lengthy federal rule-making process.
Using executive power, Biden could declare a national climate emergency. It wouldn’t just send an important message to Americans — and the rest of the world — that we’re taking the climate crisis seriously; it would give the administration the power to mobilize the government on a massive scale, like ordering the Secretary of Defense to redirect military spending toward the rapid development of clean energy.
“I think that folks should be cautiously optimistic — but vigilant — on the prospect of climate being a priority early in the first term.” —Jamal Raad, co-founder and campaign director for Evergreen Action
Biden could also immediately order federal agencies to reverse the climate rollbacks Trump introduced through executive order — like allowing oil and gas companies to side-step state approval — and start issuing his own. Most urgently, Biden would have the power to keep more fossil fuels in the ground: He could direct the Secretary of the Interior to halt oil-and-gas leasing and fracking on federal lands, reinstitute the ban on exporting crude oil, and order all federal agencies to deny permits for new fossil fuel infrastructure, like pipelines, storage facilities, and refineries.
He’d also be able to change the ways that money moves through the energy sector. He could prohibit the U.S. government from financing fossil fuel programs overseas and end all Department of Energy loans for fossil fuels stateside, while also requiring the Federal Reserve to manage climate risks — forcing it to acknowledge the current and future impact of climate change on our economy.
Many of these tools were already available in the Obama era, but the administration chose not to use them. For example, “the Clean Air Act is actually quite clear that you have the authority to set national ambient air quality standards,” says Hartl. “It would have been incredibly bold, and it actually wouldn’t have had the problems that the Clean Power Plan had. They could have really moved the needle on greenhouse gases in a very, very powerful way.” But, Hartl says, the Obama administration shied away from these kinds of actions for fear of political consequences.
Matt Slocum / AP Photo
Biden would face a very different national landscape. At the beginning of this year, two thirds of American adults said that protecting the environment should be a top priority of the federal government, up from only 30 percent at the beginning of Obama’s first term. In a poll last week, likely Democratic voters ranked climate change as the most important issue to them in this election, and Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, has found that talking about climate change could actually help persuade voters who are on the fence to vote for a Democrat. All of this is to say, a Biden administration could have an unprecedented political mandate to take action on the climate crisis.
In addition to issuing executive orders, beginning on day one Biden would also need to start the process of unwinding the deregulation efforts that Trump carried out through the federal rule-making process — like rollbacks on the Endangered Species Act and fuel-emissions standards — and writing new ones to take their place. Environmentalists are confident that a new administration could systematically undo each rollback, but that process could take two years, according to Hartl.
And the Biden administration would need to learn from Trump’s mistakes. Legal challenges from the industries that these regulations impact — the American Petroleum Institute, the National Mining Association — are inevitable, “so you have to go in and be prepared to defend it the first time,” says Hartl. That means following the process to the letter: establishing rules with legal backing from legislation like the Clean Air and Clean Water acts; opening the rule up to public comment; and then presenting a final rule that can stand up in court. Unlike Trump’s deregulation efforts, which were fighting against decades of environmental legislation, the law would be on Biden’s side. “The reality is that when Congress passed these laws,” says Hartl, “they were designed to make the environment better.”
“It’s true that we have 30 years [before an irreversible climate collapse], but when you act on that 30-year scale really affects how radically you have to act.” —Andrew Wetzler, NRDC Action Fund
Finally, Biden would have to start hiring like mad. Over the past four years, Trump’s EPA and Interior Department have hemorrhaged talent. The Bureau of Land Management moved the majority of its staff out of Washington, D.C., leading some 70 percent of that staff to resign, and the EPA is nearly as small as it was during the Nixon era, when the EPA was founded. “That pattern, in the most extreme way, is mirrored throughout the environmental agencies,” says Wetzler. “There’s been a real brain drain of people who can’t stand in an agency and support the agenda under the Trump administration, and we’ll have to put back the pieces of very demoralized, and in some cases broken agencies.”
But from those ashes, Biden could build a coalition of climate advocates across his Cabinet. His transition team, and the 4,000 people they appoint, are arguably more influential than any campaign promises he could make. “Personnel is policy,” says Jamal Raad, co-founder and campaign director for Evergreen Action, founded by former staffers of Gov. Jay Inslee’s presidential campaign. “We need to choose regulators that have a climate lens,” and that lens doesn’t end at the EPA — it can reach the Department of Agriculture, where we have to reimagine our food production to work with our changing climate, or the Treasury, where regulators could interpret the Dodd-Frank consumer protection act to include climate risks. And within the White House, Raad says, Biden could create a National Climate Council that’s equivalent to the National Economic Council. “There needs to be a plan to reorient the federal government so that climate is a lens in all decision making.”
Heading into the general election, pressure from the left wing of the party shaped Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan, which is “a green new deal in all but name,” wrote activist and journalist Julian Brave NoiseCat. “It’s the most progressive, forward-leaning environmental plan that any candidate for president has ever released,” says Wetzler of the NRDC Action Fund. “It would represent incredible progress.” And while the Biden campaign hasn’t laid out a timetable for the plan, “the Biden team has been signaling their prioritization of climate by making it central to their economic recovery plans,” says Raad. “I think that folks should be cautiously optimistic — but vigilant — on the prospect of climate being a priority early in the first term.”
Evan Vucci / AP Photo
Of course, this all hinges on what happens in November. And if Trump is re-elected, his administration would have the chance to establish a legacy of more than just incompetence and squandered time. Four more years of Donald Trump being in charge of the environment could permanently alter the American landscape.
In some cases, it would give the Trump administration time to fight back against the legal challenges they face, leaning on courts that they’ve stacked with anti-environmental judges. And damage could be done that will be near impossible to undo — rules can be changed, but mines can’t be unmined. The Trump administration has pursued the largest rollback of federally protected land in U.S. history. Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, for example, which Trump shrunk by 85 percent in 2017, is in the crosshairs of uranium developers. Trump’s move has been mired in lawsuits, but a second term could give them the time to untangle them, and hand the land over to the uranium lobbyists.
Likewise, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was just approved in August, leaving little time for leasing, let alone actual development, before Inauguration Day. But if Trump wins, those leases are likely to move forward, as will the roads, pipelines, and oil rigs that come with them, doing permanent damage to a vital and fragile ecosystem. “Over time you’re looking at millions and millions of acres of fossil fuel leasing,” says Hartl from the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund. “And eventually, once you get to the point where they’re actually putting drills in the ground, it’s very hard to undo that. You’re locking in a tremendous amount of fossil fuel infrastructure.”Why does a few degrees Celsius matter for climate change?
Trump’s influence on the Supreme Court looms heavily for the environment as well. With Trump already raring to appoint a new justice to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a second term is likely to offer him a fourth Supreme Court appointment, which would mean the highest court would house seven Republican-appointed justices. When you’re suing over environmental issues, the court’s make-up can be the difference between having your day in court, and not. “For example, there’s a general judicial doctrine called ‘standing,’ or your ability to go to court to pursue your aggrieved interests,” explains Hartl. “Conservative judges want to narrow who has standing as much as possible, because that limits access to the courts. When you’re fighting for the environment, and your interest is protecting an endangered species or the atmosphere or the water, they’ve already made it hard for us to go to court, to have standing. And they can narrow it even further so that we don’t even have recourse. Our ability to just fight for the environment is at stake.”
The climate movement has never been more clear on what it is fighting for and what it needs to do, and finally has a presidential candidate who is signaling some willingness to do it. The prescription is fairly simple: Stop burning fossil fuels so we can begin drawing down the carbon in the atmosphere that’s overheating our planet and disrupting the systems that have supported life on Earth as we know it. The president has a lot of power to take that action, and we have no time to lose. “It’s true that we have 30 years [before an irreversible climate collapse], but when you act on that 30-year scale really affects how radically you have to act,” says Wetzler. “If you think about where the United States was at the beginning of the Trump administration — and where the world was, in terms of taking climate change seriously — it’s a huge, squandered opportunity.” This November, we can choose to act, and set ourselves back on course. “If this is a one-time, Black Swan event, we’re probably going to recover as a nation,” says Doniger. “This is the project of the century.”
Andy Kroll contributed reporting to this story.
Delaware County’s emergency operations director said Tuesday that authorities would not be able to quickly evacuate everyone within half a mile of a major leak from any of the Mariner East pipelines, but acknowledged that their builder, Sunoco, has attempted to educate the public about how to detect any leak and how to react to it.
Timothy Boyce was giving evidence at the final hearings of a case brought to the Public Utility Commission by seven residents of Delaware and Chester counties who want the PUC to rule on whether Sunoco’s plans to protect the public from any rupture in the pipelines are adequate. The so-called Safety Seven are urging the regulator, if it finds that Sunoco’s plans are lacking, to shut down the lines until safety is improved.
Critics say the safety of people who live near the 350-mile cross-state route is at risk because of the highly explosive nature of the natural gas liquids carried by the pipelines, especially in Philadelphia’s densely populated western suburbs.What are natural gas liquids, and what happens if they leak?
A crowd-funded report on the consequences of a major leak in Delaware and Chester counties predicted in 2018 that anyone within 60 feet of a quarter-inch leak of propane – one of the natural gas liquids – would be burned by what it called a “jet fire.” A 20-inch rupture of the pipe would release a 2,130-foot “flammable cloud,” according to the report by Quest, a consultant hired by Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety, a community group.
Still, the report said residents are much less likely to die from a Mariner East leak than they are from heart disease or a car accident.
Boyce, appearing before Administrative Law Judge Elizabeth Barnes as a witness for the complainants, said any “catastrophic” leak would likely result in injuries and property damage.
“If you want to ask can you evacuate a half mile in one of the most densely populated areas in 10 minutes, the answer is no,” he said, in answer to a question by Laura Obenski, an independent complainant. “If it’s a catastrophic release, for us to say there’s going to be no injuries and no property damage, no, that’s unlikely.
“The evacuation issue, which to me would be one of the hardest things we would face if this product was released catastrophically – you are talking about a large area that needs to be addressed, a lot of people need to be communicated with, and very dense populations. We do not have that capacity,” he said.
But under questioning from Robert Fox, an attorney for Sunoco, Boyce said the company has taken steps to warn the public about the potentially hazardous nature of the products being carried by the lines, and had distributed brochures describing what to do in the case of a leak.
Sunoco’s instructions include how to recognize a leak, Boyce said, but he acknowledged that there’s no requirement to add odor or color to the NGLs so that they can be detected by the public. And he said he was unaware of any regulation demanding that a pipeline builder install an early-warning system for any leak.
“When a product is odorless – and that’s true of the product we are dealing with here – that’s difficult,” he said. “Anything that’s not easy to detect is going to be harder to develop a plan to respond.”
Opponents of the pipelines have derided Sunoco’s emergency instructions, asking how residents could recognize a leak of the colorless and odorless liquids, which are pumped through the line in gaseous form. They also question how anyone suspecting a leak can notify authorities when they are also advised not to use potential ignition sources like cellphones or cars.
George Alexander, a spokesman for Del-Chesco United, said the hearings would likely be a “critical milestone in the Mariner East saga.” Although construction is not yet complete, NGLs have been flowing since December 2018 when Sunoco joined together sections of different-diameter pipes so that the fuel could start moving from southwestern Pennsylvania and Ohio to an export terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia.
Boyce said a catastrophic leak in the line would likely overwhelm the ability of authorities to quickly ensure public safety.
“If there’s a rupture in the pipeline and it ignites relatively quick, you are going to have damage in the area, you are going to have potential injuries in the area,” he said. “I am concerned every day about our ability to serve the whole community.”
The PUC, as the state’s pipeline regulator, has been under pressure since the start of Mariner East construction in February 2017 to crack down on what critics say are sloppy construction practices by Sunoco. Dozens of drilling mud spills have damaged private water wells, leading to several state-ordered shutdowns and about 100 notices of violation by the Department of Environmental Protection.
Opponents include several school districts along the line. A representative of one of the districts is due to testify on Wednesday, along with a township official and other witnesses.
The hearing is due to continue until Oct. 14. After that, the parties are required to submit written briefs and responses by the end of the year. Judge Barnes will then submit her recommendations to the full commission which will make a final decision to accept or reject them.
For more than a decade, taxing carbon was often at the forefront of plans to address climate change — and even held the promise of garnering bipartisan support. But now, Republicans and Democrats are largely silent on the idea, if not outright hostile to it.
A pipeline that blew up in Beaver County and destroyed a home two years ago is back under construction.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has given Energy Transfer, the Texas-based pipeline company, the go-ahead to re-route the Revolution Pipeline.
The new route will avoid the site of the September 2018 blast that occurred on a section of the line less than one week after it was put into service. The natural gas pipeline ruptured after the hillside it was built on gave way following heavy rains. One house burned to the ground and several other buildings were damaged. Noone was injured.
Both the U.S. Department of Justice and the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office have opened up investigations into the blast.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection fined Energy Transfer a record $30 million, and noted thousands of infractions in the construction of the project. Since then, the agency has issued over 1,500 new violations against the company, according to compliance reports from the DEP’s web site.
This month, the agency approved a plan by Energy Transfer to re-route the line, and authorized a separate permit to permanently stabilize the site of the blast. A spokeswoman for the company said work on the project has begun.
The Trump administration set about weakening or scrapping a slew of environmental rules that bound the industry. But there are about 5,000 fewer miners than when Trump took office.
The violations included failure to properly maintain erosion and sedimentation best management practices, drilling fluid spills, and sediment discharge into waterways.
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