Advocates for increased local control over Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry welcomed a decision by environmental regulators to revoke their own permit for an injection well to be built in a rural township, on the grounds that the well would violate the town’s home rule charter.
The Department of Environmental Protection rescinded a 2017 permit granted to Pennsylvania General Energy to build the Yanity well that would allow wastewater to be taken from hydraulically fracked natural gas wells and injected into a disused gas shaft beneath Grant Township in Indiana County. The township is about 80 miles west of State College.
Residents of the municipality, with a population of about 700, all have private water wells that they fear would be contaminated with frack waste delivered by a procession of trucks coming from gas wells elsewhere in the Marcellus Shale. Critics also note that injection wells have been linked to high levels of radioactivity and earthquakes in some places.
In a letter to the company on March 19, the DEP said that allowing the well would violate the charter, which among other things asserts citizens’ right to be free from fossil fuel production, and specifically bans the injection of oil and gas waste fluids.
“Operation of the Yanity well as an oil and gas waste fluid injection well would violate that applicable law,” the DEP said.
The charter, adopted in 2015, has been advocated by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a Mercersburg-based nonprofit that called the permit withdrawal “a stunning about-face” that should encourage other communities to assert their rights to control where oil and gas infrastructure is built.
“This decision … could have far-reaching and unpredictable impacts as more communities are encouraged to stand up to pass laws that protect their community,” said Chad Nicholson, Pennsylvania community organizer for the group. “These laws need to put the community’s rights first, and force our governmental agencies to protect people and the environment, and deny permits for harmful corporate activities.”
There are 36 Pennsylvania townships that have home rule charters, according to the Department of Community and Economic Development.
Despite DEP’s reversal, it continues to challenge the legality of the township’s home rule charter in Commonwealth Court. On March 2, the court denied a motion by the DEP to dismiss a counter suit by the township, saying Grant could continue to argue its case.
The court said it had already ruled that the township could pursue its claims that the disposal of fracking waste would violate residents’ rights under the Pennsylvania Constitution’s Environmental Rights Amendment, and so DEP’s effort to have Grant’s suit dismissed was “nothing more than a collateral attack on that decision.”
In 2017, DEP sued Grant Township and another home-rule municipality in Elk County, saying it wanted the court to rule on whether state law took precedence over the local charters, which both explicitly ban injection wells.
Grant Township has been fighting the injection well for years. In 2014, it passed a Community Bill of Rights in an attempt to assert a legal basis for blocking the injection well. A federal court ruled that unconstitutional, and the next year, the township approved the Home Rule Charter that includes a provision that the community has a right to be free of activities that harm soil and water, such as an injection well.
CELDF’s Nicholson said he was unaware of any other case in Pennsylvania where the DEP has revoked a permit because of a community law that bans a project.
Stacy Long, one of the township supervisors, said she was elated by the DEP’s reversal on the well but confused by the apparent inconsistency of that decision with the ongoing lawsuit.
“This is why the DEP sued us, because of that law, and now they’re rescinding a permit they issued over the same law, and it took them three years to figure it out,” she said. “How schizophrenic is the DEP over this?”
While welcoming the permit withdrawal, Long said she does not expect it to be the end of the matter, and predicted that the company will seek other legal avenues for building the injection well. She said the township avoided paying $103,000 in legal bills to the company, as ordered by a federal judge last year, after a settlement.
Warren-based Pennsylvania General Energy, which said it operates more than 1,500 oil and gas wells, declined to comment because litigation is ongoing, said Karen Thomas, a vice president at the company.
DEP spokesman Neil Shader acknowledged the court’s ruling against it but declined comment on the active litigation.
“In its March 2, 2020 opinion the Commonwealth Court declined to review the lawfulness of Grant Township’s Home Rule Charter,” Shader said in a statement. “Thus, though DEP considers the Home Rule Charter to be flawed for the reasons set forth in its filings and arguments, the Charter remains in effect at this time.”
Rich Raiders, an environmental and land-use attorney who sometimes represents landowners in disputes with the oil and gas industry, predicted that DEP’s recognition of the home rule charter is likely to encourage other municipalities to assert their own right to control siting by the energy industry – a right that was established by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s landmark Robinson Township decision in 2013.
“This sets a precedent that DEP will honor local zoning,” he said. “Now the industry has to be more careful about finding friendly places where they can inject produced water before the locals ban the practice.”
Correction: This story originally posted with the incorrect byline.
Kim Paynter / Newsworks/WHYY
The United Mineworkers of America is asking the federal government to issue emergency rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside coal mines.
UMWA President Cecil E. Roberts sent a letter this week to the Mine Safety and Health Administration asking for the agency to issue emergency standards for disinfection, social distancing, and access to protective gear inside coal mines.
MSHA currently points coal mine owners to the Occupational Health & Safety Administration’s COVID-19 guidelines, but the union says there should be different standards for the confined work spaces inside coal mines.
The union says its members are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the novel coronavirus because they work in tight spaces, riding elevators and transport cars into work zones.
“Our miners work in close proximity to one another from the time they arrive at the mine site,” Roberts said in the letter. “They get dressed, travel down the elevator together…work in confined spaces, breathe the same air, operate the same equipment, and use the same shower facilities.”
The letter also states that many miners are older and suffer from underlying health conditions, like pneumoconiosis, or Black Lung disease, which may “greatly exacerbate the severity of the symptoms related to COVID-19.” In addition, most live in rural areas “that do not provide the same access to healthcare centers as workers in urban areas. This makes miners one of the most vulnerable populations for the virus.”
The union is requesting a suite of “best practices” be implemented, including that disinfecting wipes and spray be available in common eating, changing, showering, and bathroom areas; that standards are established for disinfecting equipment between shifts; and that additional nitrile gloves and N95 respirators be made available.
“What we want to make sure that the companies do is just regular sensible things like putting additional disinfectant in the areas where miners congregate, where they take showers, where they change clothes,” said Phil Smith, a UMWA spokesman. “The main thing is that these regulations need to be developed right away. They need to be applied right away. Because what we’re seeing out there is while some companies are trying to do the right thing, there is no consistent standard in place.”
The union represents about 25 percent of the country’s 50,000 coal miners, including 450 at Cumberland Mine in Greene County, Pa.
Rachel Gleason, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, an industry trade group, said in an email that federal guidance was “always welcomed during these uncertain times” and that her group “has communicated with our producer members to ensure CDC recommended guidelines are implemented at our mine sites and facilities.”
Ashley Burke, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, an industry group, said in an email the group was still reviewing the UMWA letter but “we absolutely share their concerns about miner safety.”
“We are working to adjust to these unprecedented times that present challenges never before encountered,” Burke said. “We are following government guidelines with distancing measures being taken, increased cleaning schedules in-place, and limits on gatherings of groups.”
Burke said the industry trade group was working “to develop a list of recommended regulatory updates” to improve miner safety in the time of the coronavirus.
Mariner East pipeline builder Sunoco, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer, wants to continue construction at 16 separate work sites across the state, including three horizontal directional drilling operations, amid the coronavirus pandemic that has led the state to restrict business activity.
Sunoco submitted six requests for continued construction on Friday after Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all “non-life sustaining” businesses to suspend operations to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The order includes pipeline construction among its list of hundreds of required closures, but companies can seek waivers. The state says it has fielded about 16,000 requests so far.
Energy Transfer said it had suspended all of its drilling operations by Saturday, but ongoing maintenance and repair work continues — including along Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township, Chester County, the site of multiple sinkholes.
It’s unclear if the state has granted some or all of Energy Transfer’s requests, but a company spokesperson did confirm it has permission to “stabilize, secure and demobilize” all construction sites. The company had sought a 10-day waiver for securing all sites.
In a letter sent Monday to Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission chair Gladys Brown Dutrieuille, and Ramez Ziadeh, executive deputy secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Energy Transfer vice president Joe McGinn detailed the waiver requests and said they were necessary to “comply with permit conditions, security and safety concerns.”
Neither the PUC nor the DEP have authority to grant requests.
A spokesperson for the Department of Community and Economic Development said DCED has no plans to release details of companies seeking waivers, including approvals or rejections, or details on how those decisions are made.
Energy Transfer spokesperson Lisa Coleman said completely halting construction activities could have adverse impacts.
“Our top priority is the safety and protection of the Pennsylvania communities where this work is taking place,” Coleman wrote in an email.
But pipeline opponents say the company is skirting the rules to rush through a project that has already damaged wetlands, streams and private property, especially when the agencies tasked with oversight like the DEP and PUC are also operating at reduced capacity due to the coronavirus outbreak.
“This is the very definition of a non-essential business,” said Eric Friedman, who has long opposed construction of the pipeline through his residential neighborhood in Delaware County. “A pipeline that’s intended to export fracked gas by-products overseas to make plastics is the very definition of a business not essential to sustaining life.”
Clean Air Council, which has been involved in several lawsuits aimed at shutting down or ensuring greater safety of the line, said the requests for waivers are too broad and don’t all address safety concerns.
“It is frankly outrageous that in this time of crisis, Energy Transfer is trying to get around the critical protections Governor Wolf has put in place to minimize deaths of Pennsylvanians,” said Clean Air Council executive director Joseph Minott.
Energy Transfer’s waiver requests include two horizontal directional drilling operations in Westmoreland County, as well as an HDD site at Raystown Lake in Huntingdon County. Those operations are expected to be completed by May 1.
The waiver requests for two locations — in West Whiteland Township and in Middlesex Township, Cumberland County — were to avoid road closures.
McGinn said 11 locations needed continued construction due to “potential adverse impacts to human health or the environment.”
Those include open pit locations in Blair, Westmoreland and Berks counties as well as three locations in Chester County, and one each in Lebanon and Dauphin counties, where there exists a potential for bore hole collapse.
Other waiver requests include a testing site in Delaware County and a new gathering pipeline in Lycoming County to connect a well head to the main pipeline. That waiver request says cessation of the work could damage an exceptional value waterway.
The company also requested a waiver to continue working on securing the Revolution pipeline as part of the consent decree negotiated with the Department of Environmental Protection, resulting from the 2018 explosion and fire on the pipeline.
Energy Transfer says it is complying with Gov. Tom Wolf’s order to shut down construction of the Mariner East pipeline project while also applying for waivers to continue some work in the interests of safety.
In a statement submitted as part of ongoing litigation concerning the safe operation of the Mariner East 1 pipeline, which is currently before the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, Sunoco attorney Thomas Sniscak told administrative law judge Elizabeth Barnes of the request for a waiver on Monday.
“Consistent with the Governor’s order, Sunoco has made requests for waivers in selected circumstances where Sunoco believes that suspension of construction will create increased risks to safety and/or the environment,” Sniscak wrote. “As of this email, none of the waiver requests have been acted upon.”
A spokesperson for Energy Transfer said the company did receive permission from Wolf’s office to resume some work.
“This means we can stabilize and secure our construction sites,” said Energy Transfer spokeswoman Lisa Coleman in an email. “It also means we can perform inspection and maintenance activities to ensure compliance with our existing environmental permits.”
Neither the Department of Environmental Protection nor the Department of Community and Economic Development responded to questions about the waiver.
Pipeline construction remains years behind schedule due to environmental and safety violations. The DEP recently lifted a moratorium on construction that had been imposed after dangerous sinkholes developed in suburban Philadelphia.
The sinkholes resulted from horizontal directional drilling, or HDD, and the DEP forced the company to re-apply for permits to complete a number of sections of pipe. In the meantime, natural gas liquids have been flowing through a re-worked section of older pipe.
The governor’s Friday order to close all “non-life-sustaining” businesses in the state caused confusion over whether construction on the project could go forward. Late in the day, Energy Transfer confirmed that the shutdown order did include Mariner East pipeline construction.
Businesses seeking to continue operations can apply for a waiver through the Department of Community and Economic Development. As of Monday, DCED had received 15,092 waiver requests and approved 2,486.
There was some confusion after residents near the line awoke Friday to activity they thought was supposed to have stopped Thursday night. But construction of the pipeline will be suspended during the coronavirus pandemic.
Construction on the Mariner East pipeline appears to be halted by Gov. Wolf’s new order that shuts down all “non-life-sustaining” operations and businesses.
The new shut-down list released by Wolf Thursday evening indicates all construction projects, including “sub-utility” construction, cannot continue physical operations.
Neither Wolf’s office nor pipeline builder Sunoco responded immediately to requests to confirm that Mariner East construction must stop.
Earlier on Thursday, the company, as well as the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, had said construction would continue during the coronavirus outbreak despite criticism from pipeline opponents in suburban Philadelphia.
A statement from the PUC issued before Wolf’s latest order explained that since the commission had designated the natural gas liquid pipeline a public utility, and construction sites had not been included as part of Wolf’s list of “non-essential” businesses, construction on the line could continue.
“As they are essential services, utilities are expected to continue operations, including construction projects,” the statement reads.
The PUC said staff is coordinating with federal pipeline safety regulators, who have not directed pipeline builders to halt construction.
State Sen. Andrew Dinniman, a Democrat from Chester County who is a vocal opponent of the Mariner East project, had written to the PUC asking it to shut down construction in lieu of the coronavirus outbreak.
“What we see here is that the PUC is trapped in its initial decision,” Dinniman said. “The PUC defined this pipeline as a public utility based on a 1930s gasoline line. The truth is the pipeline does not provide any essential public utility service in the Commonwealth.”
The original Mariner East line, Mariner East 1, is a former gasoline pipeline built in the 1930s to transport gas from Philadelphia refineries to rural Pennsylvania.
The PUC approved public utility status for the line when Sunoco, now owned by Energy Transfer, proposed to reverse flow and ship natural gas liquids through the line. The Mariner East 2 and 2x lines were green-lighted based on the original utility status that dates back to the 1930s.
The lines now ship natural gas liquids across the state for export to a plastics manufacturer in Scotland. While construction on the lines is mostly complete, some parts of the line were held up after sinkholes developed in Chester County. The company only recently got the approval from the DEP to restart construction on the remaining sections.
A union representing some of the pipeline workers says he feels the sites are abiding by proper coronavirus precautions.
“As long as the job is open, our members want to work,” said Jim Snell, business manager for Steamfitters Local 420. “I have not heard of any issues. That said, we are taking all necessary precautions (hand wipes, soaps, sanitizers, social distancing, etc.) with LU420 and our contractors.”
Snell said if someone feels sick, there is no pressure for them to work.
That sentiment differs from the building trades rank and file at the Shell cracker plant in Beaver County, who flooded their local representatives with calls about concerns over coronavirus and crowding at the job site. The Shell cracker plant shut its operations on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Energy Transfer posted on its website that it was taking “all possible precautions to protect personal and public health and safety,” including social distancing, at Mariner East construction sites.
Federal authorities have charged a Mariner East pipeline worker with fraud related to work designed to ensure the safety of pipeline construction.
The U.S. Attorney’s office filed charges March 10 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh, alleging that Joshua D. Springer, of Scottdale, Pa., falsified documents while working as an x-ray technician on a section of pipeline construction that stretched from Washington County’s Houston, Pa. to Delmont, Pa. in Westmoreland County.
Springer worked on the pipeline in the second half of 2017. Springer’s job included taking x-rays of welds, examining the work and certifying whether the welds complied with safety standards. The U.S. Attorney says in the charging documents that “the weld had not been properly x-rayed, interpreted and deemed acceptable.”
Pipeline welds are crucial to the safe operation of any pipeline system. The Mariner East pipelines carry natural gas liquids, which are heavier than air and can cause a catastrophic explosion if they leak.
The Revolution pipeline, another newly built Energy Transfer project, leaked and exploded in September 2018, causing a massive fireball and a family to flee for their lives. Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued a $30 million fine for the incident.
Energy Transfer spokeswoman Lisa Coleman said Springer worked for a third-party consultant and was fired, and that Energy Transfer itself had reported the incident.
“Immediately upon learning of the situation, we reported it to the appropriate regulatory agencies and re-inspected all welds in that section and confirmed that they were in compliance with our welding specifications and Title 195 Code requirements,” Coleman said in an email.
Coleman said the company x-rays 100 percent of welds, while regulations require just 10 percent. She said their auditing system detected the falsification.
Springer is the only person facing charges.
Neither Springer nor his attorney could be reached for comment.
The case was investigated by both the FBI and the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General.
Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
Air pollution in Philadelphia right now is at one of its lowest levels.
“Is it the cleanest we’ve ever had? The data isn’t showing that yet. But is it cleaner than it would have been otherwise? I think that’s something that we can say,” said Peter DeCarlo, an air-quality expert and former Drexel professor now with Johns Hopkins University.
Air-quality experts believe that there might be one upside to the region’s partial shutdown to stop the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19: cleaner air.
Government officials have been recommending that people stay at home since Tuesday, after both city and state officials ordered all nonessential businesses, including government operations, to close starting Monday evening.
“I would expect our air pollution levels will probably go down because the number of vehicles in the streets are less, and we know that vehicles are our biggest source of air pollution,” said city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley.
In Philadelphia, about 400,000 people drive to work every day — 341,670 by themselves and 55,071 in carpools, according to U.S. Census data from the 2018 American Community Survey.
With dramatic reductions in people driving to work and buses transporting children to school like the ones we are seeing this week, levels of nitrogen dioxide — the noxious gas emitted from burning fossil fuels — go down. The gas worsens coughs, reduces lung function, and increases asthma attacks, according to the American Lung Association.
DeCarlo said it’s too early to measure significant reductions in Philadelphia, adding that meteorological factors such as wind, air pressure, and rain have a big impact on air pollution. But after comparing levels of particulate matter for March starting in 2014, he said this year’s pollution is at the lower end.
In China, as a result of people working from home, a drastic reduction in flights, and industries working at lower capacities due to the virus, air pollution dropped by roughly a quarter in February, with levels of NO2 decreasing about 30%, according to NASA. Satellite images showed a similar situation in northern Italy after the government introduced severe measures to stop the coronavirus spread.
DeCarlo expects something similar to happen in Philadelphia, especially if the city goes into a total lockdown.
“I think this is an opportunity for people to go outside and breathe a little cleaner air and walk or bike more frequently,” he said. “While they might not be aware of it, I think they’re bodies might actually be aware of it.”
Marilyn Howarth, director of community outreach and engagement at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology, said the decrease in pollution has an effect on people’s health, even if it’s for only two weeks.
“It’s significant for reducing asthma exacerbation and heart disease and heart attacks. And it will probably have positive impacts on babies, pregnant women, and other vulnerable populations,” Howarth said.
And because dirty air worsens the health conditions of those more affected by the coronavirus, experts have linked air pollution to a higher COVID-19 death rate.
Ezra Wood, a professor of atmospheric chemistry and air pollution at Drexel University, said although there is a connection between air pollution and the virus, it’s too soon to say how much the current situation is going to help.
“It’s hard to say. It depends on how much air pollution comes down,” Wood said.
Robert Routh, a staff attorney with the Clean Air Council, regularly fights to implement policies to reduce emissions and the negative effects of climate change.
“The coronavirus is obviously not a good thing, and this catastrophe is not the way any reasonable person would plan on having the world lower its carbon footprint,” he said. “But if anything, it should demonstrate that climate change is driven by human activity and our actions and behaviors, on a wide scale, affect emissions.”
Routh said if people take this opportunity to reflect and end up adopting new habits, the temporary beneficial side effects of this crisis could become long-term.
On Tuesday, Shell said it was keeping the site open while working to limit the potential spread of the coronavirus. On Wednesday, it said suspending construction was in the "best long-term interest of our workforce, nearby townships" and the state.
With our coronavirus coverage, our goal is to equip you with the information you need. Rather than chase every update, we’ll try to keep things in context and focus on helping you make decisions. See all of our stories here.
(Philadelphia) — Electricity demand across the region has decreased as the coronavirus has closed schools and businesses and forced more people to work from home.
PJM Interconnection, which operates the electrical grid that serves 65 million people living in 13 states and the District of Columbia, reports demand on Monday dropped enough to ease pressure on its own staffing.
“This is a pretty unprecedented action we’re taking here in terms of the impact on the society in general, which of course is going to impact the demand for electricity as well,” said Mike Bryson, senior vice president for operations at PJM Interconnection.
Bryson said a typical Monday in spring would mean a demand of about 100,000 megawatts of power. (One megawatt typically powers 800 to 1,000 homes.) But demand on the grid on the first full day of social isolation for the region was just 94,000 megawatts.
The peak electricity pull from the grid has also shifted from about 8 a.m. to an hour later.
Unlike a lot of area companies, PJM had prepared for pandemics and even did dry-runs with their staff working from home.
Ed Mahon / PA Post
“The way we moved pretty rapidly to social distancing and quarantines probably took a lot of people by surprise, but we at least had a good solid foundation to implement some of the things we put in place,” Bryson said.
For example, PJM Interconnection headquarters in Audubon, Pa., has two control rooms where operators can be isolated, and each one is capable of running the grid.
He said the 2003 global SARS outbreak, along with the experience of power disruptions following Hurricane Sandy, led the grid operator to bolster plans to maintain grid reliability in case of disruptions. Most of the company’s 900 workers and contractors are working from home. But roughly 65 to 70 operators and IT specialists need to be on-hand at the headquarters in Montgomery County.
The decrease in energy demand helps with the reduction in staff.
All utilities across the tri-state region have suspended electricity shutoffs due to the coronavirus. Customers who previously experienced suspension of service are urged to contact their power companies.
Atlantic City Electric spokesman Frank Tedesco said the company doesn’t expect any disruptions in service.
“We have essential personnel in the field working every day to keep the lights on for our customers,” Tedesco said. “And we are practicing social distancing as we perform this critical essential service.”
Atlantic City Electric supplies power to about half a million residents in South Jersey. Tedesco urged customers to be vigilant against scams — including any that urge utility payment over the phone or ask for Social Security numbers.
WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.