Yesenia Bane, whose husband is a gas industry lobbyist, was involved in gas industry projects. But the Ethics Commission said it lacked evidence to find a violation.
A bipartisan group of state senators from Chester and Delaware counties wants to put off the reconfirmation of Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell until multiple criminal probes of Sunoco’s Mariner East pipeline projects are complete.
Led by Chester County Democrat Andy Dinniman, the group asked Sen. Gene Yaw, majority chair of the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, and Sen. John Yudichak, the minority chair, to delay what is typically a routine hearing on reappointment, which is scheduled for Tuesday.
In the memo to Yaw and Yudichack, the senators, who represent areas impacted by Sunoco/Energy Transfer’s Mariner East pipeline project, pointed to four separate probes including criminal investigations by both the Chester County and Delaware County district attorneys as well as an investigation by the Pennsylvania Attorney General.
In addition to Dinniman, the senators on the memo include Democrats Daylin Leach, Katie Muth and Tim Kearney, and Republican Tom Killion.
The memo also points to an investigation by the state Ethics Commission into the actions of Gov. Tom Wolf’s aide Yesenia Bane who is married to a gas industry lobbyist, and who acted as Wolf’s liaison to DEP during the permitting of the project. The commission closed its investigation of Bane on April 19, clearing her of wrongdoing.
Documents and text messages revealed previously by StateImpact Pennsylvania have raised concerns that Wolf injected political pressure into a decision over environmental permits that should be based solely on environmental standards. Dinniman worries those standards and regulations were subverted by DEP to help Sunoco make its projected timeline on the project.
Although the criminal probes are of the pipeline company, Dinniman says such an investigation would have to include the actions of DEP.
“You cannot investigate Sunoco without asking about the role of state regulators, the DEP and the PUC,” Dinniman said. “Why did they grant these water permits the way they did? What was the rush in February, 2017? Did anyone put pressure on them to encourage that?”
The DEP and the Governor’s office have denied any such pressure. They say the flurry of messages back and forth between DEP and the Governor’s office reflect the complexities of permitting such a large project that includes a 20-inch diameter, high-pressure natural gas liquids line tunneling beneath 17 counties and crossing more than 1,200 streams or wetlands.
Since construction began in February 2017, the project has led to dozens of drilling mud spills, polluted water wells and sinkholes. Many of the issues have occurred in densely populated areas of Chester and Delaware counties.
The DEP has issued Sunoco more than 80 violations, and fined the company more than $12 million.
“We’re not condemning Sec. McDonnell,” Dinniman said. “There are a lot of questions unanswered.”
The group also sent McDonnell a list of questions related to the oversight of the project they want McDonnell to answer.
Dinniman said they are not opposed to McDonnell serving in an interim capacity. He says if the hearing does go forward, he and Leach, who are on the Environment Committee, will ask McDonnell those questions.
DEP Press Secretary Elizabeth Rementer said the agency is “reviewing the questions to determine whether there are any that have not already been exhaustively answered.”
“The department has only heard from Sen. Dinniman via his press releases,” Rementer said in an email. “He has not requested an in-person meeting with the Secretary to share his concerns or those of his constituents in well over a year.”
Told of the DEP’s response, Dinniman said the department has stonewalled him in the past.
Neither Sen. Yaw or Sen. Yudichack could be reached for comment.
Opponents of the PennEast Pipeline are cheering the discovery that nine properties along the project’s proposed route in New Jersey could qualify for historic designation, creating yet another hurdle for the project and raising the prospect of further delays.
Katherine Marcopul, deputy state historic preservation officer for New Jersey, disagreed with a firm hired by PennEast Pipeline Co. that recommended only three properties in Warren and Hunterdon counties be considered for the state and national registers of historic places.
Several more sites require further study, Marcopul wrote in an April 17 letter. All have structures dating from the early to mid-nineteenth century and could be significant in the history of Hunterdon County agriculture, she said.
Patricia Kornick, a spokesperson for the PennEast Pipeline project, said the company has requested a meeting with New Jersey’s historical preservation office to learn more about the sites. The company could be forced to tweak its plans to mitigate any impact on the sites.
“We are committed to minimizing as much as possible the environmental footprint of the PennEast pipeline and will continue to work with the historic preservation organization as well as other organizations to best accomplish that,” Kornick said.
Environmental advocates who have been fighting the project for years said they were pleased New Jersey officials are working to preserve the state’s history and welcomed any delay the letter could cause.
“It could force them to make some significant changes to the project and that’s always difficult for them,” said Tom Gilbert, campaign director for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. “Time is money and sometimes projects get delayed to death. And that’s certainly a possibility here.”
PennEast has already had to push back its target date for starting construction on a $1 billion project that would carry Marcellus Shale gas from Luzerne County in northeastern Pennsylvania about 120 miles to Mercer County in New Jersey.
The company has said the line will bring needed natural gas to New Jersey and benefit households by providing cheaper energy. Opponents, however, say the project is unnecessary and poses a threat to sensitive habitat, open space and waterways.
PennEast pipeline has received key approvals from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Pennsylvania regulators but still needs permits from the Delaware River Basin Commission and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The project crosses dozens of waterways, including the Delaware, Lehigh and Susquehanna rivers.
Marcopul, the historic preservation officer, and the firm hired by PennEast agreed on three sites that should be considered for the state and national historic registers. They are the Belvidere-Delaware Railroad historic district that runs from Warren to Mercer county; the Hoagland Farmstead in West Amwell; and a nineteenth-century Gothic Revival house in Kingwood.
U.S. Steel on Thursday appealed a penalty from the Allegheny County Health Department over emissions violations at Clairton Coke Works.
The health department last month fined the company $700,000 for leaks of coke oven gas from the facility during the second half of 2018. Emissions can escape from various parts of the plant such as coke oven doors, and the gas includes pollutants like particulate matter, hydrogen sulfide and benzene, according to the department.
In its appeal, U.S. Steel said the department issued “excessive and unreasonable sanctions” for noncompliance. The company said it’s already implementing a plan to reduce emissions as a result of a separate order from the agency in June 2018.
The steelmaker also said the department relied on inappropriate data and that inspectors have failed to conduct fair evaluations.
This is the third penalty U.S. Steel has challenged over the past year for ongoing emissions problems at Clairton. A health department hearing officer is expected to issue a decision soon on the appeal over the June order, which fined the company over $1 million and threatened to idle some of the plant’s worst-performing batteries.
A hearing on the two most recent fines is slated for Sept. 16-18.
After issuing last month’s penalty, a health department official said the agency was seeing progress at Clairton as the number of emissions violations had dropped over previous quarters.
The nuclear industry says the power market isn't built to consider a value like carbon-free emissions. But one state representative, for example, is balking at the projected cost of the subsidy.
Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
A sinkhole opened up on Wednesday along a Sunoco pipeline route in Middletown, Delaware County, state, county and township officials said.
The sinkhole – called a “subsidence” by the Public Utility Commission – was in the right-of-way for a 12-inch pipeline that is part of the Mariner East system to carry highly volatile natural gas liquids and petroleum products, the PUC said in a statement late Wednesday.
No leaks or injuries were reported, and Sunoco officials have been working to “stabilize and monitor” the situation, the PUC said. The regulator said its Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement has launched a safety investigation.
Earlier this week, Sunoco restarted the Mariner East 1 pipeline which had been shut down for three months because another sinkhole exposed a section of the pipe on a construction site at Lisa Drive, a suburban development in West Whiteland Township, Chester County.
Sunoco confirmed that the new sinkhole had opened up but said Thursday morning that the hole has been filled and that there was no interruption to pipeline operations.
“A subsidence feature did occur yesterday along our right of way,” said Vicki Granado, a spokeswoman for Sunoco’s parent, Energy Transfer. “The appropriate regulatory agencies were notified and an investigation determined our pipelines in the area are safe and secure. Nothing was exposed. The area was immediately contained and grouted. We placed our personnel in the area to continue to monitor the area. Our pipelines remain in service.”
The incident was the latest to hit Sunoco during the troubled Mariner East construction, which began in February 2017. The project has been bedeviled by drilling fluid spills, contaminated aquifers and sinkholes, has prompted millions of dollars in fines for environmental violations, and has been shut down several times by regulators because of safety concerns.
After rising criticism from community groups, some lawmakers, and this year from Gov. Tom Wolf, the company acknowledged in February that it had made “mistakes” that would not be repeated.
The hole measured about 12 feet deep by 12 feet wide and 12 feet long, and was in front of a barracks occupied by Pennsylvania State Police, according to a statement from Middletown Township on Wednesday.
The township said the affected area is at the end of a horizontal directional drill being used in construction of the new Mariner East pipelines – Mariner East 2 and 2X.
“Investigation into the subsidence is ongoing; an environmental engineer was on site and advised flowable fill was to be used to repair the subsidence,” the township’s statement said.
Township manager Andrew Haines said that the sinkhole was across the street from Granite Run Farms, a senior residential center, but said there was no risk to residents’ safety.
“We do not have any emergency concerns for any of our residents at this time,” Haines said in an interview.
Opponents of the Mariner East project say it represents a grave risk to public safety, especially in densely populated areas like Delaware County, because any leak of natural gas liquids could cause a deadly explosion.
Such safety concerns were raised by a PUC administrative judge who temporarily halted the operation of Mariner East 1 and construction of Mariner East 2 in May 2018 following the sinkholes at Lisa Drive.
Sunoco decided last year to use the 12-inch pipeline, first built in the 1930s, as a temporary part of its Mariner East 2 line because new construction at some places in Delaware and Chester Counties had not been completed. Critics said repurposing the old line fanned safety concerns because of its history of leaks, most recently in June 2018 when it leaked some 30,000 gallons of gasoline into Darby Creek near Philadelphia.
Timothy Boyce, director of Delaware County Emergency Services, said Thursday that the new hole had been filled and there was no risk to public safety.
“At no time was there ever reported any danger from it,” Boyce said. “It was in a grassy area so there was no property damage, and we never received reports that the pipelines in the area were exposed or undermined.”
Mariner East 2, which carries natural gas liquids to a terminal at Marcus Hook in Delaware County, began operating on Dec. 29, 2018.
Scott Blanchard/StateImpact Pennsylvania
The Pennsylvania department of health has determined that there is no cancer cluster in a Washington County school district. The agency conducted the study after several cases of Ewing sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, were reported there.
The department looked at statistics from the Pennsylvania Cancer Registry dating to 1985. In addition to Ewing sarcoma, the agency looked at other types of cancer rates: liver, brain, bone, lung, and breast cancers. It compared cancer rates in Washington County and Canon-McMillan School District against statewide rates.
In a report released Tuesday, the state concluded that rates of Ewing sarcoma weren’t “consistently or statistically significantly higher than expected” in either Washington County or the school district.
The study did find that between 2005 and 2017, rates of Ewing sarcoma were three times higher than expected in the school district. The rare tumor mainly affects young people and can be fatal.
The authors said the number of cases was so small — just three instances of Ewing sarcoma in the district over those years — that the higher-than-expected rates weren’t “statistically significant.”
Only about 200 cases of the tumor are reported in the U.S. each year.
Jian-Min Yuan, a professor of epidemiology at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, said the state used appropriate methods in analyzing whether the Washington County cases represented a cancer cluster or were a statistical anomaly.
He said the sample size of cases in the district was too small to determine whether there was a cancer cluster.
“It is unusual for this small area to have three Ewing cancers occur in a very short time period, but the scientific evidence does not support it yet,” Yuan said.
When the department announced it was performing the study, it said it would be looking into “possible environmental risk factors” for cancer in the area. The district includes a former radium and uranium plant in Canonsburg. It’s also in one of the busiest natural gas areas in the state, near more than a thousand shale gas wells and several compressor stations and other natural gas processing facilities.
The agency said it will continue to monitor the rate of pediatric cancers in the district as new data become available.
While Pennsylvania officials weigh how to regulate emissions from natural gas well sites, a panel of state senators on Tuesday heard how leak detection technology is advancing and creating more jobs.
Several members of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee met in Pittsburgh for a hearing on methane, the main component of natural gas and a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.
Arvind Ravikumar, assistant professor of energy engineering at Harrisburg University, said crews historically have had to drive to gas sites and operate a camera to spot emissions. New technologies make that possible from drones and planes.
He said businesses are forming around those technologies in Alberta, where he’s worked with regulators and the oil and gas industry.
“Many of these start-up companies will be setting up offices in Calgary to cater to their Canadian clients,” he said. “Given the scale of natural gas activity in Pennsylvania, I see no reason why we cannot have these companies set up operations out of Pittsburgh.”
Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection is proposing a regulation on gas companies, requiring them to conduct quarterly checks for volatile organic compounds, which contribute to ozone and sometimes escape from existing gas wells. While the proposal does not target methane specifically, the agency has said that repairing leaks of VOCs would also help prevent methane emissions.
Ravikumar said some of the emerging technologies target methane rather than VOCs.
“A regulatory regime that does not target methane will not be able to take advantage of the latest cost-effective approaches to leak detection,” he said.
Regardless, the proposed DEP regulation would result in more jobs for businesses tasked with finding those leaks in Pennsylvania, according to one such company that operates here.
“Immediately, I probably will have to hire up to 10 technicians to meet the needs of our clients after these regulations are put into play,” said Jared Metcalf, U.S. operations manager for Target Emission Services, which works with natural gas producers to identify leaks.
Some environmental groups told lawmakers that the proposal could be made stronger by addressing methane because the makeup of natural gas is different throughout the Marcellus Shale play. Andrew Williams, director of legislative and regulatory affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund, said natural gas in the northeastern part of the state contains few volatile organic compounds.
He added that the proposal is too lenient in exempting low-producing gas wells. As a result, EDF estimates it would cover only 21 percent of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.
“I think it’s important to point out the flip side of that,” he said. “There are 79 percent of the emissions going unchecked across the state.”
DEP’s proposed regulation recently got approval from an advisory committee and is continuing through the agency’s rulemaking process.
A DEP spokesperson said in an email that addressing climate change is a top priority for the Wolf administration, and that the proposed rule stems from a federal requirement to limit VOC emissions. The agency estimates the regulation would reduce what it considers a “significant amount” of methane by 20,080 tons per year.
“DEP takes comments from the public seriously and, depending on the public comments received, DEP may amend the draft rule or re-evaluate after implementation of final rule,” DEP spokeserson Elizabeth Rementer said.
While no natural gas companies testified at Tuesday’s hearing, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group, said in a statement that it has concerns about the potential cost of the DEP proposal and suggested the agency delay it given regulatory uncertainty at the federal level. The Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration directed states like Pennsylvania to address volatile organic compounds, but the agency last year proposed withdrawing that requirement.
“Our industry is laser focused on ensuring methane, the product we produce and sell, as well as related emissions are effectively and safely managed,” the Marcellus Shale Coalition said. “To continue to build upon our air quality-related successes, we’re enhancing best practices, utilizing new technologies and collaborating as an industry around these shared environmental and business goals, all while pushing record production levels.”
Lawmakers at the hearing also heard from several southwestern Pennsylvania residents who live near gas wells.
Jane Worthington of Washington County tearfully recounted the health problems her daughter has experienced, which she attributes to natural gas development in the area, including near her child’s school.
She spoke of her daughter’s headaches, bleeding noses, bruises, and her own frustrations trying to obtain test results showing what was happening.
“We need methane regulations now, and I can’t say it strong enough,” she said.
Public Utility Commissioner Andrew Place sent a memo last week outlining why he thinks the Senate version of the nuclear subsidy bill is a bad idea.
Eric Friedman. / Submitted
Sunoco plans to restart the controversial Mariner East 1 pipeline on Monday afternoon after agreeing to new safety measures demanded by Public Utility Commission investigators.
The PUC said Sunoco gave 72 hours’ notice on Friday afternoon of its intention to restart the natural-gas liquids line, which was shut off Jan. 20 after a section was exposed by a sinkhole at Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township, Chester County.
After discussions with the PUC’s Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement, Sunoco has agreed to inspect Mariner East 1 daily until it completes grouting along the Lisa Drive section of the line, as well as report its findings to the bureau and perform geophysical tests of the land there every six months for two years.
The company also agreed to use a strain gauge, an instrument that measures force and pressure, to monitor any underground movement of the pipeline, which runs through an unstable limestone formation and a few yards from a line of suburban houses.
Sunoco has used the instrument at Lisa Drive since 2018, the PUC said, and has not detected any movement of Mariner East 1 before, during or after the latest sinkhole appeared on Jan. 20.
Engineers from the bureau’s Pipeline Safety Division will be on site on Monday to monitor the restart, the PUC said in a statement.
Opponents of the multibillion-dollar Mariner East project say the 8-inch-diameter Mariner East 1 line is a particular cause for concern because it was first built in the 1930s, has a history of leaks, and has been recently repurposed from carrying gasoline to carrying highly volatile natural-gas liquids.
In April 2017, the line leaked about 20 barrels of ethane and propane at Morgantown, Berks County, in an incident that PUC inspectors later attributed to corrosion. Sunoco agreed in early April this year to pay a $200,000 fine for the Morgantown leak, and to monitor the line more rigorously.
In May 2018, a PUC administrative judge shut down operation of Mariner East 1 and construction of the adjacent Mariner East 2, a 20-inch-diameter line, at Lisa Drive after the appearance of an earlier series of sinkholes. Judge Elizabeth Barnes said public safety was at risk because the operational line was running through unstable ground on the same right-of-way where the new line was being built. Her ruling was later reversed by the full PUC.
Concerns about the safety of the aging line were underlined by Gov. Tom Wolf, who in February ordered the PUC to conduct an “end of life” study on it, using independent experts.
Sunoco, a unit of Energy Transfer, has said throughout the troubled two-year construction of the new Mariner East pipelines that they meet or exceed all state and federal safety regulations. But the parent company has recently acknowledged its mistakes during the project, and promised to stop further errors such as drilling mud spills and the disturbance of private water wells.
The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the agreement to restart Mariner East 1.
Critics of the Mariner East project say the pipelines represent a grave risk to public safety because any leak of natural-gas liquids in densely populated areas like West Whiteland could result in an explosion and heavy loss of life.
Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety, a coalition of community groups in Delaware and Chester counties, said Sunoco’s new assurances to the PUC inspectors don’t make the line any safer.
“Applicable rules require the PUC to obtain credible guidance for the public to use in the event of continued leaks from Sunoco’s Mariner East pipelines,” the group said in a statement on Saturday. “Yet PUC has not done so. PUC clearly is offering no assurances against further leaks. So its policy, evidently, is to hope for the best.”
Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, a PUC spokesman, responded to the Del-Chesco statement, saying that the Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement has been in “extensive discussions” with Sunoco over the project at Lisa Drive, and that the company has taken “numerous additional steps” in response to concerns raised by inspectors.
He said the new agreement has no impact on “more than half a dozen” other complaints related to the Mariner East project that are being litigated before the PUC.
The Mariner East pipelines carry ethane, propane and butane some 350 miles from southwest Pennsylvania and Ohio to a terminal at Marcus Hook, Delaware County, where most of the material is exported for plastics manufacture overseas. The newest section of the project, Mariner East 2, began operating on Dec. 29, 2018.