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05/07/2019 - ‘What does the science say?’: Bipartisan group of legislators reintroduces bills to get Pennsylvania 100% powered by renewable energy

The measures include language creating a Just Transition Community Advisory Committee, to help ensure workers displaced from fossil fuel industries find new jobs.

05/06/2019 - EQT fined $330K for erosion violations in Allegheny County

Natural gas driller EQT was fined $330,000 by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for erosion violations at two natural gas sites in Allegheny County.

The agency said sediment from two well pads in Forward Township was eroding into a tributary to Kelly Run, which flows into the Monongahela River.

The problems were first spotted by a DEP inspection in February 2018, when inspectors found “sediment laden waters” were flowing over erosion control barriers at the Fetchen and Prentice well pad sites.  

The agency found the company built a road at the Prentice site without first getting a state permit to do so. The company was also cited for not informing the DEP of its erosion problems, which it is required to do by the conditions of its state-issued erosion control permits. The erosion problems continued until EQT corrected them in May 2018 at the Prentice site and November 2018 at the Fetchen site.

“DEP expects all permittees — particularly large, longtime operators — to construct facilities and report problems in accordance with state regulations and permit conditions, but these failures demonstrate the importance of verifying compliance and enforcing the regulations,” said DEP Deputy Secretary for Oil and Gas Management Scott Perry, in a statement.

EQT spokeswoman Linda Robertson said in a statement the company “takes environmental compliance seriously” but blamed abnormally wet weather on some of the companies erosion problems. Despite the company’s efforts, “EQT did not keep up with the continually changing weather and precipitation. In fact, Pennsylvania experienced unprecedented rainfall in February 2018, which resulted in challenging (erosion) conditions.”

Last year was the wettest on record in the Pittsburgh region. Though scientists are reluctant to attribute last year’s wet weather to climate change, they say that global warming will bring warmer, wetter weather to Pennsylvania. Precipitation in the state is expected to increase another 8 percent by 2050, according to the DEP.

05/06/2019 - PFAS chemicals have contaminated 17 sites in Pennsylvania, data shows

Seventeen sites in Pennsylvania have been contaminated by PFAS chemicals in recent years, and are still likely to contain at least some of the toxic material even if water supplies there have been treated by local authorities, according to data released by a national advocacy group on Monday.

Environmental Working Group compiled PFAS reports from local utilities, the Department of Defense, and researchers at Northeastern University, and presented the information in a national map showing public water systems, military bases, civilian airports, industrial plants and dumps where contamination has been found at various times since 2013.

The utilities include one in the eastern Pennsylvania town of Horsham where five PFAS chemicals, including PFOA and PFOS, were detected at more than 44 million parts per trillion (ppt) in 2014, thousands of times higher than a level recommended — but not required — by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as being protective of human health.

Environmental Working Group

The Environmental Working Group and the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute, at Northeastern University, used public data to compile a map showing PFAS contamination in the U.S. as of March 2019. This section of the map shows PFAS sites in Pennsylvania and New Jersey (Atlantic City, not shown on this screenshot of the map, has a PFAS contaminated site). Locations are approximate. Copyright © Environmental Working Group, www.ewg.org. Reproduced with permission.

Horsham officials say they have since cut PFAS levels to below the recommended health limit by installing carbon filters. Public and private water wells in the Horsham area have been contaminated with high PFAS levels because the chemicals were a component of firefighting foam used by the military on two nearby bases.

Aqua, an investor-owned utility that also serves Horsham Township, said on May 3 that the combined PFOA/PFOS level there was 10.8 ppt, well within the EPA limit of 70 ppt for those two chemicals. Aqua spokeswoman Donna Alston said all the company’s water systems in Bucks, Montgomery and Chester counties showed PFAS levels below the EPA’s threshold in the latest tests in March.

Although many utilities use the EPA’s PFOA and PFOS level as a benchmark, advocates say it’s too high to protect public health. For that reason, state scientists in New Jersey have recommended – and environmental officials are in the process of adopting – levels that are some five times lower than the federal standard.

In the EWG data, one of the bases, the former Willow Grove Naval Air Station at Horsham, had combined PFOA and PFAS contamination as high as 86,000 ppt, affecting 108 out of 161 wells on-base in testing during 2017, DoD data show. Public wells near the base had contamination of up to 1,000 ppt.

Other utility data show contamination well above the EPA’s health limit at Warminster and Warrington, two communities that have also been affected by PFAS chemicals from the military bases.

While utilities such as Horsham’s have largely removed PFAS from their systems since the samples were taken, the chemicals will still be present at some level because they don’t break down in the environment, said Bill Walker, vice president of EWG.

“When a water system is contaminated with PFAS, treatment will lower the concentration but not completely remove it. So the contamination is still there, just being treated at a cost to the water district and its customers,” Walker said.

U.S. House members tour site, urge action

In Fort Washington, Montgomery County on Monday, a panel of federal lawmakers and representatives of the EPA and the DEP faced questions from local officials and community activists demanding urgent action to clean up existing PFAS contamination. U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania’s 4th District said the group visited the nearby Willow Grove base, where officials are storing some 4,500 tons of PFAS-contaminated soil that had been due for delivery to a landfill in New Jersey. But the contract was canceled by the landfill early this year after media reported that the shipment was planned. Dean, a Democrat, said the Navy, which is trying to clean up PFAS from the base, has been unable to find anywhere else to take the soil, which is continuing to leak the chemicals into nearby waterways during heavy rains. “There’s an enormous pile of polluted dirert covered with a tarp with really no plan to get rid of it,” she said. Rep. Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat who co-chairs a Congressional task force on PFAS, said the federal government has been dragging its feet on protecting public health from the chemicals. “There needs to be more urgency. It shouldn’t take years and years,” he said. “Especially the Defense Department has a unique responsibility as a polluter to clean up the mess they created.” Rep. Paul Tonko, a Democrat from New York State who chairs the House Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee, accused the EPA of “punting” on the PFAS issue, and promised Congressional hearings this summer in the context of a number of bills that would regulate the chemicals in the absence of EPA action. “We need targeted policy that will set goals and standards,” he said. But in Pennsylvania, there appears to be little prospect of any bills becoming law in the Republican-controlled legislature, said State Rep. Ben Sanchez, a Democrat from nearby Abington. “Frankly, I’m not optimistic about these things making much progress,” Sanchez said. “It’s a rejection of science in favor of business. It’s the priority of some in Harrisburg and it’s sickening.” Group: Map shows scope, not severity, of contamination

EWG combined data from the three sources and presented it on the national map to show the widespread nature of the contamination rather than the severity of it, Walker said.

Nationally, there are now 610 sites in 43 states with PFAS contamination, the map shows. The last time the map was updated, in July 2018, there were 172 contaminated sites in 40 states. The two maps are not directly comparable because new data sources were added this time, but they show growing knowledge about a widespread national problem, EWG said.

EWG isn’t saying that every site on the map has water that’s unsafe to drink, but it does endorse research showing that PFOA and PFOS can harm human health at levels as low as 1 ppt, Walker said.

The chemicals, once used in consumer products like nonstick cookware and flame-retardant fabrics, are being increasingly regulated by states as more becomes known about their links to cancer and other health conditions including thyroid problems, low birth weights and elevated cholesterol.

In Pennsylvania, the Wolf administration said in February that it would begin to set its own health limits for PFOA and PFOS after the EPA declined to commit to doing so despite publishing an “Action Plan” that month to curb the chemicals.

Last September, Gov. Tom Wolf set up a panel of state officials to study the chemicals and recommend ways of curbing them. In April, the Department of Environmental Protection said it will begin sampling some 300 water systems around the state for six PFAS chemicals in a program that’s expected to take about a year.

In New Jersey, the state last year became the first in the country to adopt a tough standard for PFNA, a type of PFAS chemical, and is in the process of adopting low limits for PFOA and PFOS.

05/03/2019 - Congressional hearing puts focus on struggling PA nuclear industry

A Congressional hearing near Pittsburgh Friday highlighted the plight of the nation’s nuclear industry, which has struggled to compete against cheap natural gas and renewables.

The hearing was held less than a mile from Beaver Valley Power Station in Shippingport. The Beaver County plant, owned by FirstEnergy, is slated to close in two years, barring government action. Three Mile Island outside Harrisburg is also scheduled to close before its operating license expires.

Experts testified before a House Science, Space, & Technology subcommittee that nuclear energy is important in limiting air pollution from the power sector, and for national security.

They said it’s also key in the fight against global warming.

A recent UN report said the world needs to cut carbon emissions drastically to prevent devastating climate effects in the coming decades. In January, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order calling for an 80 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2050. Peter Lyons, a former assistant secretary of energy, testified nuclear’s position these days puts pledges like that one in jeopardy.  

Reid R. Frazier / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A Congressional field hearing of the House Science, Space, & Technology Energy subcommittee held in Shippingport, Pa. May 3, 2019.

“Your governor issued an order to slash emissions — if your plants close, that won’t happen. And Pennsylvania will be transformed from a power exporter to a power importer.”

Democratic Congressman Conor Lamb, who represents the area near Beaver Valley, said keeping plants open is important in addressing climate change.

“If we allow these plants to go under, a lot of that power if not all of it will be replaced by fossil fuels, we will never reach our goals when it comes to climate and the environment if we allow nuclear energy to collapse,” he said. 

Lamb also touted the jobs these plants bring to the region. He said it would be a “disaster” to Beaver County’s economy if the plant, which employs about 1,000 people, were to close.

Think about what could happen to a school district if you lose 1,000 family-sustaining jobs,” Lamb said. “The tax base is destroyed, all of a sudden the public schools don’t have enough money to run right or to do what they need to do. It would be a complete disaster and it’s something that we can avoid.”

Reid R.Frazier / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Rep. Conor Lamb at a House Science, Space, & Technology subcommittee hearing.

Other experts testified that by allowing its nuclear industry to struggle, the U.S. could be losing out to rivals like China and Russia, who are building nuclear plants in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. Retired Navy Admiral William J. Fallon said that allows the Russians and Chinese to exert their influence around the world.

“We are strategically ceding the initiative increasingly to Russia and China,” Fallon said. “The Russians have $130 billion in signed orders to build plants. We have not a penny — nothing.”

The hearing comes as several bills to boost nuclear energy through tax credits or helping advanced nuclear technology have been introduced in Congress.  

States like New York and Illinois have bailed out their struggling plants, and Pennsylvania could do the same for Beaver Valley and Three Mile Island.

The state legislature is considering two bills to prop up its struggling nuclear plants, but they face opposition from the influential natural gas industry and consumer groups.

The state’s Public Utility Commission has estimated the measure would cost ratepayers $458.9 million to $551 million a year.

05/03/2019 - Pennsylvania youth join global student strike to demand action on climate change

'We’re not striking from school because we don’t want an education,' said 16-year-old Olivia Shumaker. 'We’re striking because it has become a priority that we have a livable future.'

05/02/2019 - In Pa., an echo of the fracking boom: Prosecutors eye potential ‘environmental crimes.’ Here’s a closer look

The attorney general, and local district attorneys, are digging into the conduct of drillers and a pipeline company. Subpoena power allows them to get past non-disclosure agreements.

05/02/2019 - U.S. Steel: $1B in upgrades to plants near Pittsburgh will help with air pollution, efficiency

Amy Sisk / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Steelworkers watch Thursday as U.S. Steel president and CEO David Burritt announces a $1-billion investment in upgrades at Clairton Coke Works and the Edgar Thomson plant near Pittsburgh.

Steelworkers, state and county officials, union leaders and business executives piled into the caster maintenance building at U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson plant Thursday for an announcement that the company plans over $1 billion in upgrades to its Pittsburgh-area plants.

The most significant overhaul will take place in that building, where the company will cast slabs of steel and roll them into coils in a single process, replacing two separate ones currently in place at Edgar Thomson.

U.S. Steel will also build a new cogeneration power plant at nearby Clairton Coke Works that will use coke oven gas to produce electricity for its Mon Valley facilities. The plant will generate hot exhaust as well, which will be further processed to create steam for use at the facility.

“I have never been more confident in the future than I am right now at U.S. Steel,” president and CEO David Burritt said. “This investment has something for everyone.”

Burritt said the upgrades have been in the works for years, and he said Edgar Thomson will be the first steel mill in the United States to use the new casting and rolling technology.

U.S. Steel’s announcement comes on the heels of two lawsuits filed against the company over the past month related to emissions problems following December’s fire at Clairton Coke Works that damaged equipment and prevented coke oven gas from going through its normal pollution controls. Another complaint could be coming, as several environmental groups on Thursday gave notice of their intent to sue, claiming U.S. Steel violated federal law by failing to report unpermitted releases of hazardous pollutants to the National Response Center.

Company officials said the upgrades will help address air quality concerns. They said the projects will make the Mon Valley facilities run more efficiently and reduce emissions. U.S. Steel estimates a 60 percent decrease in particulate matter, a 50 percent drop in sulfur dioxide and an 80 percent reduction in nitrogen oxides as a result of its investments.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald praised the company for its planned environmental improvements.

“We have a responsibility to make sure we make our communities better, both with jobs and with the environment,” he said. “Today’s investment is an investment in both.”

One environmental group, Clean Water Action, which released a report Thursday documenting air quality problems in the Mon Valley, expressed concern that the upgrades do not include an overhaul of Clairton’s coke ovens. The ovens and other parts of the plant sometimes leak raw coke oven gas, which can contain pollutants like benzene, particulate matter and hydrogen sulfide.

“There is a huge amount of pollution from the plant that will not be addressed,” said Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania director for Clean Water Action.

Thursday’s announcement at Edgar Thomson drew a long list of speakers. Among them were several steelworkers, who said the company’s investment helps provide job security within the local steel industry.

Bob Williams Jr., process coordinator for blast furnace operations at Edgar Thomson, stood alongside his son who also works at the plant. He said he has worked at the facility for two decades and called the upgrades “the best news I’ve heard in 20 years.”

“This place has been putting food on my table, clothes on my back my entire life,” he said. “To hear news like this, I know it’s going to continue for my family.”

Company officials said they do not anticipate any layoffs once construction is complete on the two projects, despite increased technological efficiencies. They said some positions could be affected by attrition, and some may require retraining.

The projects still need to obtain governmental permits. U.S. Steel anticipates beginning production with its new technology at Edgar Thomson in 2022.

04/29/2019 - Groups sue U.S. Steel, alleging potentially ‘thousands’ of Clean Air Act violations

The lawsuit alleges that the company's decision to flare coke oven gas, instead of stopping the coke-making process or putting the plant on hot idle, put public health at risk.

04/29/2019 - Pennsylvania commits to Paris Agreement climate goals; state’s plan calls for 80 percent carbon cuts by 2050

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Climate scientists say the Pennsylvania can expect more precipitation as global warming continues. 2018 was the wettest year on record for Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bi-partisan group of two dozen states committed to goals outlined in the 2015 U.N. Paris Climate Agreement. Gov. Tom Wolf announced the move at an event in Harrisburg while releasing the state’s latest Climate Action Plan, which includes 100 ways to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. The cuts are based on 2005 emissions levels.

The Paris Agreement committed countries to reduce carbon emissions in order to prevent global average temperatures from rising beyond 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. President Trump has said he will withdraw the U.S. from the accord.

“In the absence of leadership from the federal government and the wholesale dismantling of national climate and environmental policies,” Wolf said, “I am proud to join with states that are leading the way toward new climate solutions.”

Pennsylvania becomes the 24th state to join the bipartisan group.

Wolf said climate change has already affected Pennsylvanians. 2018 was the wettest year on record, which resulted in some devastating floods.

“And we know why our storms are becoming more frequent and more intense,” he said. “We know why our planet is becoming warmer and we know we need to change course before it’s too late.”

The actions include increasing incentives for solar and wind power, energy efficient buildings and electric vehicles. Wolf said 15 actions related to those aims alone would reduce emissions 21 percent by 2025. Wolf’s carbon emission reduction goals include a 26 percent reduction by 2025 from 2005 levels.

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell said reducing emissions is a “team effort.”

“Government leaders must lead by example, and businesses, farms, community organizations, and citizens can all make a difference to fight climate change,” he said.

Wolf encouraged Pennsylvania residents to take steps, including the use of energy efficient light bulbs, smart thermostats, or simply turning off the lights.

But former DEP Secretary John Quigley criticized the emissions targets as insufficient, especially given the state’s emissions have already been reduced by the switch from coal to natural gas. Pennsylvania’s carbon emissions dropped almost 23 percent from 2005 to 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“So a 26% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2025 requires no action and is business as usual,” said Quigley in an email, “if PA’s nukes remain online.”

Wolf did not get into specifics about the current nuclear bailout bills. But one of the report’s 100 actions includes maintaining the state’s current nuclear energy output as carbon-free. And the goals would be nearly impossible to reach without preserving current nuclear energy production.

Wolf recognized the state’s role as an energy producer, without calling directly for any reductions on fossil fuel output.

“But Pennsylvania has always been a place populated by intelligent and forward thinking people,” he said. “So I’m confident that we can make smart decisions that will advance our economy while ensuring the Pennsylvania we pass on to future generations is even healthier than the one we inherited.”

The Climate Action Plan does not see a future without fossil fuels. When it comes to natural gas, the plan encourages industry to curb methane leaks.

The report detailed future risks posed to the state by global warming, including more frequent extreme weather events, paired with periods of drought, heat waves, and increased precipitation overall. Public health risks from air pollution, decreased water quality and excessive heat are expected to increase, along with an increase in energy demand in the summer and decreased demand in winter. Farmers will face greater challenges from pests, weeds and diseases.

Philadelphia and communities along the Delaware River will see more frequent flooding and impacts from sea level rise. The tidal Delaware Estuary could experience diminished water quality. And areas in the Ridge and Valley region could see wetlands drying up.

04/29/2019 - Sunoco buys two homes at Chester County site of Mariner East 2-related sinkhole

Sunoco Pipeline bought two homes on Lisa Drive, the Chester County development and pipeline construction site where residents have been tormented by sinkholes since late 2017, according to state and county documents obtained on Monday.

The documents said Sunoco agreed to buy the homes and land of John Mattia and his next-door neighbors, T.J. Allen and Carol Ann Allen, for $400,000 each in transactions dated April 18.

A Realty Transfer Tax Statement of Value filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue records a “total consideration” of $400,000 for each of the properties.

The home sold by the Allens is estimated with a market value of about $300,000-$330,000, according to listings by Zillow and Realtor.com. The value of the former Mattia home is estimated at about $340,000, according to Redfin, a real estate brokerage.

The documents, posted on the Chester County Recorder of Deeds website, show the residents agreed to sell at a site where Sunoco has struggled to build and operate the Mariner East pipelines because of unstable limestone geology. The residents are subject to nondisclosure agreements.

Two of the Lisa Drive residents, Russell and Mary March, and another nearby homeowner sued Sunoco in March 2018, claiming the company had negligently drilled through porous rock near their homes without recognizing that sinkholes would likely result, and ignoring the results of a geotechnical investigation there. The suit was settled but the terms were not disclosed.

The company’s activities at Lisa Drive have been shut down twice by regulators on the grounds that public safety is endangered by construction of two new pipelines – Mariner East 2 and 2X – plus the operation of an existing natural gas liquids pipeline – Mariner East 1 – on a geologically unstable site.

A section of Mariner East 1 was exposed by the latest Lisa Drive sinkhole in January, and the whole cross-state pipeline was shut down by Public Utility Commission investigators for about three months before being allowed to restart on April 22.

Opponents of the multibillion-dollar Mariner East project have seized on Lisa Drive as an example of the project’s potential to endanger residents and disrupt their lives. They say Sunoco drove the new pipelines through the site too close to homes, and without fully studying whether the ground was stable enough to support the two new pipelines on the same right of way as the existing Mariner East 1.

“What happened and what is happening on Lisa Drive is emblematic of how Sunoco/ET is permitted to operate here in Chester County and throughout the Commonwealth,” said state Sen. Andy Dinniman, a Chester County Democrat. “The bottom line is people are being forced from their homes.”

Dinniman also accused the Public Utility Commission and the Department of Environmental Protection of “utterly and epically” failing to protect communities like Lisa Drive from the Mariner East project.

Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, a spokesman for the PUC, declined to comment on Dinniman’s statement. The DEP did not immediately respond.

Sam Rubin, an organizer with the anti-pipeline group Food & Water Watch, said: “Sunoco’s careless construction practices have literally driven these people from their homes. This is tragic, and it raises more questions about the safety of residents along the pipeline route.”

Joe Green, an attorney for Mattia and the Allens, said on Monday that his clients were not permitted to comment even though the sale documents are now public.

At a third Lisa Drive property, the residence of Russell and Mary March, moving ‘Pods’ were being loaded on Monday morning. Andrew Neuwirth, attorney for the Marches, has declined to comment.

The area behind the houses was filled with backhoes, orange plastic fencing, and wooden tracks for earth-moving equipment.

Sunoco, a unit of Energy Transfer, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its plans for the houses now that it owns them.

The Mariner East pipelines carry natural gas liquids some 350 miles from southwest Pennsylvania to a terminal at Marcus Hook in Delaware County where most of the product is exported for plastics manufacture overseas. The newest part of the project, called Mariner East 2, began operating on Dec. 29, 2018.