The Department of Environmental Protection last month directed Mariner East pipeline pipeline builder Sunoco to find a new path for about a mile of its 20-inch pipeline at a site in Chester County, after a drilling spill of more than 8,000 gallons closed part of Marsh Creek Lake to the public.
The DEP order was the first in the troubled 43-month history of the pipeline’s construction to require a route change. It followed criticism that dozens of fines and notices of violation in response to earlier problems had done little to force Sunoco to improve construction practices.
Now, a string of spills and notices of violation at a horizontal directional drill (HDD) site in Lebanon County, at Snitz Creek in West Cornwall Township, are prompting questions about whether it’s technically feasible to run the pipeline under the creek, given the fragile karst limestone geology of the area, or whether another route for the pipeline is the only realistic option.
Sunoco reported five spills, or “inadvertent returns,” of drilling mud at the site between Aug. 13 and Sept. 18, according to the DEP’s Pipeline Portal, bringing to 12 the number of such incidents there since construction began in February 2017. In response, the DEP issued four notices of violation of two environmental laws, and told Sunoco that it could not restart the operation without approval from the department.
DEP spokesman Jamar Thrasher said the department has no rule for the number of spills that would lead to an order to reroute the pipeline. “We generally review each site on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
Chester and Lebanon counties share the karst limestone geology that creates problems for industrial projects that use underground drilling.
Sunoco did not respond to a request for comment, but the Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, which advocates for the industry, said that any rerouting of the pipeline would mean a further delay to the already years-late project.
“Any new route would require a major modification of the existing DEP permit,” said Kurt Knaus, a spokesman for the alliance. “This project is nearly complete, and these remaining drills are connecting parts of the line that are already finished and in the ground. What we need to do is get the job done.”
The project already carries natural gas liquids from southwestern Pennsylvania and Ohio through 17 counties to a terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia, where most of it is exported. Although not all sections of its three pipes are complete, different combinations of pipe have been carrying ethane, propane and butane eastward since December 2018.
Whether the repeated failure of HDDs at Snitz Creek means that Sunoco will be required to choose a new route at that site could depend on whether it can find a way of drilling through the fragile limestone without spilling fluid.
Rich Raiders, a land-use attorney whose clients include those fighting Sunoco over the pipeline project, said DEP should already have ordered a reroute at Snitz Creek because of its karst formation.
“Lebanon County is a patchwork of karst and related fractures, and the area along that stretch of Snitz Creek is notorious for subsidence events,” he said. “I think this entire problem speaks to the limits of what an operator can do to prepare for HDD given tough geology problems.”
But finding a new route anywhere in the county won’t be easy, because the fragile underground formation extends well beyond the creek, Raiders said. “If I were DEP, I’d make them show why this is an appropriate place to put in a pipeline. If they can’t, then make them come up with an alternative that works better than this.”
Raiders, who was a member of a DEP task force on trenchless technology, said the group concluded that there are some locations where HDD “just can’t be done.”
Porous geology has caused sinkholes in other parts of the line, notably at Lisa Drive, a suburban development in West Whiteland Township, Chester County, where construction was halted after several holes opened up near homes starting in late 2018.
Concerned Citizens of Lebanon County, an activist group that opposes the pipeline, said the spills have become a pattern that Sunoco appears unable to stop.
“After each IR at Snitz Creek, Sunoco was required to stop drilling until DEP approved its restart report, then another IR occurred almost immediately after drilling was resumed, and the cycle was repeated,” the group said in a statement.
Alex Bomstein, an attorney with the environmental group Clean Air Council, said it’s time for Sunoco to consider an alternative route at the site. “Continuing to repeat the same failure again and again is not an acceptable option,” he said.
This story originally appeared in Inside Climate News, and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
In Maine, state officials are working to help residents install 100,000 high efficiency heat pumps in their homes, part of a strategy for electrifying the state. In California, an in-demand grant program helps the state’s largest industry—agriculture, not technology—to pursue a greener, more sustainable future. Across Appalachia, solar panels are appearing on rooftops of community centers in what used to be coal towns.
The Trump administration may have pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord, but most states and many rural areas in America have developed their own plans for reducing carbon emissions and moving away from fossil fuels as they maneuver—often aggressively—to address the threat of climate change.
“Even if the U.S. government has decided to leave the Paris Agreement, we see in the U.S. an enormous movement in favor to climate action,” United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in an interview with Covering Climate Now on Monday. “We see companies, we see cities, we see states, we see the civil society fully mobilized.”
Many state and local officials, including those in rural areas, hope stimulus funds aimed at helping rebuild economies ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic will support renewable energy and other “climate smart” initiatives that cut carbon emissions, while often creating more jobs in emerging industries than traditional infrastructure spending.
The plans for decarbonizing America have been sown and exist like seeds in a parched field, waiting for a drenching rain.
Here are five examples.In Maine, federal funding ‘would make a big difference’
The fingerprints of climate change are all over the state of Maine, from the invasion of temperate species into the rapidly warming Gulf of Maine to summers that are now two weeks longer than they were a century ago. But despite all this change, one thing will stay the same: Winter in Maine will still be cold.
In a state that uses more home heating oil per capita than anywhere in the nation, Maine’s climate hawks are looking to make a major change in the way people heat their homes, and help mitigate climate change at the same time.
In 2019, Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill with the goal of installing 100,000 heat pumps into homes in Maine by 2025. This would represent nearly a fifth of the homes in the state.
“It’s clearly the electrification strategy,” said Hannah Pingree, the state’s director of the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future. “Electrify homes, electrify transportation. That’s a strong theme of the Climate Council.”
Maine’s Climate Council—a group of scientists, industry leaders, local and state officials and residents—is charged with figuring out how Maine will meet a trio of ambitious goals: reducing emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and at least 80 percent by 2050; increasing the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard to 80 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050; and making the state carbon neutral by 2045.
Heat pumps—which also cool homes—draw in air from outside and use the difference in temperature between inside and outside air to keep a home comfortable. They are run on electricity, and can be paired with clean energy sources like solar or wind power to eliminate the carbon footprint of home heating.
Mills’ plan offers incentives for installing the pumps, thanks to state funding that’s being supplemented by some federal low-income housing funds. The program is up and running, but it’s something that Pingree said could benefit from an infusion of federal funds.
“The governor’s heat pump program is already ambitious and innovative, but to really get to the full scale and take it even further, federal investment would make a big difference,” said Pingree, who co-chairs the Climate Council. “Especially when it comes to people’s homes, investments in transportation and housing stock, the federal government’s participation is extremely helpful and it helps put people to work.”
The heat pump program is part of a bigger picture of state and local governments working to get consumers to move away from using fossil fuels for heating. Some local governments in other states are banning natural gas hookups for new construction, and some electric utilities and clean energy advocates are asking California regulators to enact a statewide ban as part of the next update of the state’s building code.
Heat pumps are just one part of Maines’s strategy, which will likely include a massive expansion of offshore wind and community solar projects and a push to electrify the transportation sector. At a meeting earlier this summer, more than 230 people from six working groups presented ideas to the council—more than 300 actions in all—which are being weighed now.
“If you look at the recommendations from the working groups, one of the cross-cutting ones is finance. We do need to raise revenue, and we also need the federal government to step up,” said David Costello, the clean energy director of the Natural Resource Council of Maine. “It’s going to be hard for Maine to implement many of the actions that we’d like to implement without increased funding.”California’s grants for ‘climate smart agriculture’ are successful—and threatened
To say California farm country is central to its ambitious plans to combat climate change seems redundant. The $50 billion agricultural sector is a pillar of the state’s economy, the world’s fifth largest, encompassing 70,000 farms and ranches.
With such a vast and vital industry (which includes parts of every county in the state), California has created a suite of “climate smart agriculture” programs. The first-of-their-kind programs, launched in 2014 and expanded in 2017, are helping farms become more resilient to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conserve land and protect ecosystems and communities.
The programs provide grant funds and technical assistance to farms in four key areas: conserving agricultural land against non-farm development; increasing on-farm water efficiency; improving soil health and managing manure to mitigate its climate impacts. The programs, popular with farmers, are receiving at least twice as many applications as there are grants.
They are also popular with nonprofit environmental and agricultural advocacy organizations. The California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN), evaluated the programs’ climate benefits and found impressive results. To date, the programs collectively have funded more than 1,250 climate smart agriculture projects and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by more than 1.1 million metric tons of CO2 e (carbon dioxide equivalent) over the life of the projects, the equivalent of removing 67,000 passenger vehicles from the road for a year. The water efficiency programs have saved more than 110,000 acre feet of water (the equivalent of more than 50,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools).
They are also affordable, costing between $43 and $100 per metric ton of CO2 reductions. In a pre-pandemic California, one with a budget surplus and climate policy priorities, the programs would be expanding. Instead, climate smart agriculture funding is in jeopardy. The state, still partially wracked by the coronavirus, is in a worsening recession. Supporters of climate smart agriculture programs worry the state will spend its funding on other priorities.
This at a time when the coronavirus has exposed the need for greater investment in farm country, said Jeanne Merrill, CalCAN’s policy director. “We’re seeing the pandemic impacts on farmers is clearly a major disruption,” she said, “and it’s a disruption that can point to weaknesses in our current system. We’re taking the lessons learned from the pandemic and applying that to how we can prepare for greater climate extremes. Investing in resilient farming is key.”Across Appalachia, a new post-coal economy beckons
Coal mining jobs have been crashing for decades in eastern Kentucky, from roughly 30,000 in 1984 to about 3,000 now, undercutting what has long been among the most impoverished regions of the country.
For a long time, elected leaders held what turned out to be false hope that the coal industry would come back.
But a nonprofit based in Berea, Kentucky, the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, has been working toward a post-coal economy since 1976.
Among its programs: training entrepreneurs and providing low-interest loans to small businesses. In the past dozen years, MACED added energy efficiency and solar power to its mix of programs, saving clients money and cutting carbon emissions at the same time.
It’s an ironic twist that rural Appalachian counties that helped power the nation with cheap—though dirty and climate warming—coal have seen residents’ electricity bills skyrocket as coal has given way to cheaper natural gas and increasingly competitive wind and solar. Utility customers have been shouldering the costs of shuttering old coal-burning power plants and cleaning up the toxic messes they leave behind, while the power companies doubled down on more expensive coal.
Since May 2015, MACED has helped with 30 solar installations, saving almost $400,000 in energy costs, said Ivy Brashear, MACED’s Appalachian transition director. And since 2008, MACED has helped hundreds of homes and businesses reduce their energy bills by scrutinizing them for errors and helping to pay for energy efficiency retrofits, she said. She added that it included, for example, helping a grocery store stay in business to prevent a rural area from becoming a food desert.
“We listen and collaborate with people who are living and working in these communities, and help advance that new economy in ways that are really just and really equitable,” Brashear said.
In solar work, MACED has focused on Letcher County, with a population of about 22,000, where businesses, faith communities and nonprofits are tapping their cultural strengths to create a new economy.
Whitesburg-based Appalshop, the 50-year-old arts and education nonprofit, for example, partnered with MACED to put solar panels on its new outdoor performance pavilion, which opened a year ago, to power its headquarters building and reduce electricity bills.
“In the last decade, our energy costs have gone up by 50 percent and were expected to keep rising,” said Alexandra Werner-Winslow, Appalshop communications director. “That was not sustainable.”
MACED, she said, “was tremendously helpful with our construction,” and with the low-interest loan. At the same time, Appalshop sees solar development and energy efficiency as an important economic engine for eastern Kentucky.
MACED’s funding includes grants from government and philanthropic foundations. With Congress weighing further ways to help the nation recover from an economic recession caused by the novel coronavirus, it could further a transition to cleaner energy and energy savings in rural areas through targeted investments and tax rebates, said Peter Hille, president of MACED.
“Anything that can (bring) down the front-end cost makes a big difference since that also reduces interest cost on financing over the life of the loan,” he said.Mountain towns in the West hope for a ‘green pathway’ stimulus
Jessie Burley is the sustainability director for the town of Breckenridge, Colorado, a posh, outdoorsy community in the Tenmile Range. Not only is Breckenridge a member of the statewide Colorado Communities for Climate Action but the town is also part of a national organization, Mountain Towns 2030, that’s swapping ideas about how to meet a goal of net-zero carbon emissions within a decade, and one of many tourist towns focused on clean energy long before the coronavirus pandemic.
And the resulting economic downturn hasn’t changed the goal, said Burley. Sustainability-minded communities recognize that jobs and businesses ought to be a focus of the Covid-19 recovery, since the pandemic has revealed how exposed existing economic systems are, she said.
“Whether it’s a virus or whether it’s global warming or whether it’s some other kind of disaster, we are more susceptible,” she said. “We also can’t lose sight of the fact that going back to business as usual is not going to be enough.”
Members of a Mountain Towns 2030 task force on Covid-19 are pressing for any new stimulus package to include provisions supporting “green pathway” programs, such as green infrastructure, electric vehicle charging or renewable energy jobs. In that spirit, although Breckenridge has suffered steep, pandemic-related revenue losses, a community solar program is pressing forward this year, its grants scaled back from 25 to 20.
Similarly, in Montana, where revenue from natural resource industries makes up 12 percent of the state’s general fund and paychecks for 1.2 percent of the workforce, a task force is finalizing a statewide climate change plan this month, said Mark Haggerty, an economist with Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics and a member of the governor’s climate task force. Planning is still underway to decarbonize Montana’s electricity sector by 2035 and to decarbonize Montana’s economy by 2050, he said.
“A lot of this needs to be done in recognition of the fact that [the energy transition] is already happening,” said Haggerty, noting that the task force is diverse, including everyone from conservationists to energy officials.
“It is a broad-based challenge, and everyone is affected regardless of where you live or what your political affiliation is,” he said of the new climate goals in a world also dealing with Covid-19’s economic fallout. “But, also, we need everyone to buy into and ultimately benefit from the changes that we can enact and that will benefit the entire state.”Virginia is the South’s first state to commit to carbon-free energy
In the wake of a political upheaval that put Democrats firmly in control of state government, Virginia in 2020 became the first state in the South to commit to 100 percent carbon-free energy and to join the northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
Most of the state’s coal power would have to shut down by 2024 under the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which also lays the groundwork for a burst of new renewable energy construction. Lawmakers declared large amounts of solar and wind energy and energy storage to be “in the public interest,” sweeping aside the regulatory barriers to new renewable energy projects.
This transition to renewable energy already has a footprint in the Hamptons Roads area, where the state plans to develop a wind industry hub to be overseen by a newly created state agency aimed at fostering offshore wind farms. The bill that created the agency stated Virginia’s opposition to offshore drilling.
About 25 miles east, Virginia Beach is considering an array of plans to protect homes and businesses from increased climate-related flooding, storm surges and sea level rise, hoping for either state or federal funds to do everything from buying out flood prone homes to possibly building large floodgates to protect its shoreline.
In Norfolk, the state is supporting construction of new reefs using crushed concrete and granite that can serve as a habitat for the eastern oyster and also help shield the city against storm surges and erosion. The effort enabled state officials last year to declare the Lafayette River fully restored under the Chesapeake Bay Watershed agreement.
The Legislature, meanwhile, considered, but rejected, the idea of a Virginia “Green New Deal” public works-style program. Instead, lawmakers opted for a business-friendly approach that had the support of the state’s big utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, by the time the legislation was signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam on April 11.
The new Clean Economy Act makes it easier for rooftop solar to spread across Virginia, by expanding “net metering” for households—giving electricity customers credit for the excess solar energy they produce and sell back to the grid. It enables Virginians for the first time to save money on their monthly electric bills by going solar.
If utilities fall short on their obligations to cut carbon energy and expand renewables, they will be subject to penalties that will go into an account to fund job training, with priority given to historically disadvantaged communities, veterans and individuals in Virginia’s coalfield regions. Some critics note that this set-up means there is no assured funding for worker transition programs, which could be provided by stimulus programs from the federal government.
Virginia already has more solar jobs (4,489) than coal jobs (2,730), and the latter are concentrated in the rural southwestern part of the state, a Republican stronghold which has lost political power to the state’s burgeoning northern suburbs. Diverse, highly educated and tech-heavy communities in the northern part of the state helped Democrats take full control of Virginia’s Legislature in 2019, paving the way for passage of Northam’s clean energy agenda. A chief challenge in implementing the law will be ensuring that the Republican-dominated, fossil fuel-dependent rural regions that have been resistant to change don’t get left behind.
"It just kind of changed the game for all industries, including this one," said a spokesman for a company that wants to build an ethane cracker. "And so they have had to put off their announcement of a decision.”
The board’s vote opens the next phase in the lengthy regulatory process.
A proposed update to Pennsylvania’s standards for science education could transform how public school students learn science — and expose them to more information on climate change.
Unconventional drillers extracted 6.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas last year, a more than 10 percent increase from 2018.
The Environmental Quality Board voted Tuesday to approve a draft regulation that would have Pennsylvania join RGGI. It next goes up for public comment.
Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
Pennsylvania environmental officials on Friday ordered Sunoco to reroute one of its problem-plagued Mariner East pipelines away from a site where construction spilled more than 8,000 gallons of drilling fluid into a lake and created a 15-foot sink hole.
The order from the Department of Environmental Protection was the first to demand a partial reroute of the pipeline in its troubled three-and-a-half year construction history, and follows criticism that a series of fines and shutdowns previously imposed by the DEP have done little to improve Sunoco’s performance on the project — which has prompted the department to issue more than 100 notices of violation.
“These incidents are yet another instance where Sunoco has blatantly disregarded the citizens and resources of Chester County with careless actions while installing the Mariner East II Pipeline,” said DEP Secretary Patrick McDonell, in a statement. “We will not stand for more of the same. An alternate route must be used. The department is holding Sunoco responsible for its unlawful actions and demanding a proper cleanup.”
The DEP ordered Sunoco to immediately stop all construction on a horizontal directional drilling site in Uwchlan Township, Chester County, and to prepare to reroute its 20-inch pipeline over an approximately 1-mile section that the company previously identified as being technically feasible but which was not implemented.
The company was also directed to submit full reports on how it spilled some 8,100 gallons of drilling mud into a stream that fed Marsh Creek Lake on Aug. 10, and how its construction led to the sinkhole the next day. And it was ordered to submit an impact assessment and cleanup plan for the incidents by Oct. 1.
The order said Sunoco re-evaluated the site, as ordered by a court, following two spills there in 2017 while it was building a 16-inch pipeline along the same route, and concluded there was a “moderate to high risk” that drilling fluids would be lost and there would be inadvertent returns.
The DEP noted that 33 acres of Marsh Creek Lake, in a state park less than 40 miles west of Philadelphia, had been closed to the public because of the spill.
DEP spokeswoman Virginia Cain said the order had been issued because of the spill but also because Sunoco had not acted on earlier assurances that it would prevent further spills at the site, following “inadvertent returns,” or spills, there in 2017.
“It was the nature of the spill, and the things that they said they would do if there was a spill, which they didn’t do,” she said.
Sunoco issued a statement saying: “We are currently reviewing the DEP’s Administrative Order and will continue to work closely with the DEP on this issue as we have done throughout the duration of this project. Our first priority remains the safe completion and then operation of this important infrastructure project. Beyond that, we will decline to comment on the DEP’s press release.”
Rerouting the 20-inch line will further delay the project, which began in February 2017, and will add to construction costs. Even though the project remains incomplete, the company started operating Mariner East in December 2018 by pumping fuel through different-diameter pipes, leading critics to dub the project “frankenpipe.”
The Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, which advocates for the industry, said the order was a significant blow to the state’s biggest infrastructure project.
“DEP’s order to reroute this portion of the project is no small matter, especially when you consider the pipe in this area is meant to connect two existing pipes that are already in the ground,” said Kurt Knaus, a spokesman for the group. “Communities that thought this project was coming to an end now face potentially many more months of disruption, because this action has the potential of dramatically extending the construction life of a pipeline project that was nearly finished.”
Food & Water Watch, an activist group that opposes the Mariner East project, said the pipeline should be shut down rather than just rerouted.
“Sunoco’s negligence has created a series of entirely predictable disasters, the most recent being the massive spill at Marsh Creek Lake. This dangerous, unnecessary pipeline does not need to be re-routed. It must be shut down entirely,” said Sam Rubin, an organizer with the group.Ginny Kerslake, a Mariner East opponent who lives near another drilling site in West Whiteland Township, Chester County, also called for the project to be shut down. “This action by the DEP is the least they could do,” she said.
The multi-billion dollar pipelines carry natural gas liquids from southwestern Pennsylvania and Ohio through 17 counties to a terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia, where most of the fuel is exported. The project has been plagued by legal, technical and environmental problems, and has aroused strong opposition along the route because of disruption to private water supplies and concern about threats to public safety.
In January, the agency fined Sunoco $2 million for spilling more than 200,000 gallons of drilling mud into Raystown Lake. In 2018, the DEP penalized the company $12.6 million for multiple violations during pipeline construction.
The LNG export terminal proposed for Gibbstown, New Jersey, will have to wait a bit longer, now that the multistate Delaware River Basin Commission has postponed a vote on the project until data and documents in the case can be reviewed.
The project would involve construction of a new dock and partial dredging of the Delaware River off Gloucester County. It’s part of a plan by developer Delaware River Partners — an affiliate of New York hedge fund Fortress Investment Group — to ship liquefied natural gas from Wyalusing, in Pennsylvania’s gas-rich Marcellus Shale region, to Gibbstown, where the gas would be loaded onto ships and exported elsewhere.
To reach Gibbstown, the gas would be transported in trucks or rail cars. The final federal rule allowing for the nation’s first LNG-by-rail permit was published last month.
Plans for the LNG terminal were initially approved by the DRBC in June 2019, but that move was appealed by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and subsequently reviewed in a May adjudicatory hearing and public comment period. The officer overseeing that hearing ultimately recommended that the commission uphold its earlier approval.
DRBC members are required to vote publicly on whether to accept the hearing officer’s recommendation or reject it. On Thursday, they opted for a third option and delayed the decision, citing a need for more time.
“Given the size of the record, the technical nature of much extensive evidence, and the submission of briefs as recently as last week, completing a careful and thorough review by all of the commissioners by this meeting has not been possible,” the commission’s general counsel, Kenneth Warren, said Thursday. “Additional time for review and deliberation is required.”
The Gibbstown vote was not listed on the formal agenda for Thursday’s meeting, although local governments and environmental advocates hustled to oppose the decision and lobby their state’s representatives on the commission. The urgency may have stemmed, in part, from the fact that, if no action was taken, the developer could have begun constructing a dock and dredging the Delaware River as early as next week.
“Given its existing government approvals, [Delaware River Partners] could commence construction anytime after Sept. 15,” Warren said. “The commissioners may wish to preserve the status quo by staying the docket approval until the commission issues a final determination resolving the administrative appeal.”
Warren added that the decision to “stay” would not be indicative of any future choice by the commissioners to allow or deny the project.
Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA
The motion to postpone passed 3-1-1, with “yes” votes from New Jersey, New York and Delaware. Lt. Col. David Park voted “no” on behalf of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, while Pennsylvania abstained.
“I want to be clear: Delaware’s support is for us to reasonably complete the process and should not be read as anything else,” said Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Shawn Garvin, who serves as that state’s commissioner and current DRBC chair. “Our focus is and will be on those things that fall under DRBC’s jurisdiction, but at this point, we do need some extra time to make sure that we have fully and thoughtfully reviewed all of the information that was recently provided to us.”
More than 90 people tuned in to the commission’s third-quarter public hearing to hear the results of the vote. Environmental advocates praised the decision in a public comment session afterward, saying the commissioners were “making the right move.”
“As we face the future here in the Delaware River Watershed, the health of our river and its 13,000-square-mile watershed depends in large part on the big-picture decisions you make at these meetings,” Tracey Carluccio, of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, told the commissioners as she thanked them for a “thoughtful delay.”
“Any time you delay a bad project, it’s a win for the environment,” added New Jersey Sierra Club president Jeff Tittel. Plans that support fracking, or that send “bomb trains” through vulnerable communities could be devastating, he said, noting that “the more we know, the more we realize how bad it is for the environment.”
On Wednesday, representatives of both organizations had delivered flash drives to the governors of New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers, which holds the fifth vote on the commission. The drives contained 50,962 petitions, resolutions from local governments along the proposed LNG shipping routes, and multiple letters from community groups, scientists, and environmental groups opposing the LNG export terminal.
Among others participating in the petition campaign were 350 Philly, Better Path Coalition, Catskill Mountainkeeper, Clean Air Council, Clean Water Action, Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, Empower NJ, Food and Water Action, Friends of the Earth, Mark Ruffalo for Move.On, Natural Resources Defense Council, Protect Northern PA, and Surfrider NJ and NY. A group of health professionals and 133 environmental group representatives, as well as actor-activist Ruffalo, also submitted letters to DRBC calling for a no vote on the project.
That public opposition appears to be mounting, as local government units including Lehigh County, Kutztown Borough, and Clarks Summit in Pennsylvania and Runnemede Borough in New Jersey have passed legislation opposing the transport of LNG through their communities. Several Philadelphia City Council members have indicated similar concerns, noting that a rail route through the city would expose Black, brown and low-income communities to the most intense zones of impact in the event of a derailment or explosion.
And then there are the people of Gibbstown, who would be directly affected.
“I’m just a mom,” said Vanessa Keegan, one of the last to offer a comment at the meeting Thursday. She turned the camera to her 3-year-old son, Theo.
“Those signs in the Pennsylvania report that just came out, kids with the bloody noses and problems, that’s going to be us. And I am begging you to save my family — and that’s all I really wanted to say today, is that there are real people here, and I hope you protect us.”
Clarification: The timeline of the federal rule allowing LNG-by-train was unclear in a previous version of this story. It has been updated.
(Washington) — Laura Leebrick, a manager at Rogue Disposal & Recycling in southern Oregon, is standing on the end of its landfill watching an avalanche of plastic trash pour out of a semitrailer: containers, bags, packaging, strawberry containers, yogurt cups.
None of this plastic will be turned into new plastic things. All of it is buried.
“To me that felt like it was a betrayal of the public trust,” she said. “I had been lying to people … unwittingly.”
Rogue, like most recycling companies, had been sending plastic trash to China, but when China shut its doors two years ago, Leebrick scoured the U.S. for buyers. She could find only someone who wanted white milk jugs. She sends the soda bottles to the state.
But when Leebrick tried to tell people the truth about burying all the other plastic, she says people didn’t want to hear it.
“I remember the first meeting where I actually told a city council that it was costing more to recycle than it was to dispose of the same material as garbage,” she says, “and it was like heresy had been spoken in the room: You’re lying. This is gold. We take the time to clean it, take the labels off, separate it and put it here. It’s gold. This is valuable.”
But it’s not valuable, and it never has been. And what’s more, the makers of plastic — the nation’s largest oil and gas companies — have known this all along, even as they spent millions of dollars telling the American public the opposite.
NPR and PBS Frontline spent months digging into internal industry documents and interviewing top former officials. We found that the industry sold the public on an idea it knew wouldn’t work — that the majority of plastic could be, and would be, recycled — all while making billions of dollars selling the world new plastic.
The industry’s awareness that recycling wouldn’t keep plastic out of landfills and the environment dates to the program’s earliest days, we found. “There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis,” one industry insider wrote in a 1974 speech.
Yet the industry spent millions telling people to recycle, because, as one former top industry insider told NPR, selling recycling sold plastic, even if it wasn’t true.
“If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment,” Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, one of the industry’s most powerful trade groups in Washington, D.C., told NPR.
In response, industry representative Steve Russell, until recently the vice president of plastics for the trade group the American Chemistry Council, said the industry has never intentionally misled the public about recycling and is committed to ensuring all plastic is recycled.
“The proof is the dramatic amount of investment that is happening right now,” Russell said. “I do understand the skepticism, because it hasn’t happened in the past, but I think the pressure, the public commitments and, most important, the availability of technology is going to give us a different outcome.”
Here’s the basic problem: All used plastic can be turned into new things, but picking it up, sorting it out and melting it down is expensive. Plastic also degrades each time it is reused, meaning it can’t be reused more than once or twice.
On the other hand, new plastic is cheap. It’s made from oil and gas, and it’s almost always less expensive and of better quality to just start fresh.
All of these problems have existed for decades, no matter what new recycling technology or expensive machinery has been developed. But the public has known little about these difficulties.
It could be because that’s not what they were told.
Starting in the 1990s, the public saw an increasing number of commercials and messaging about recycling plastic.
“The bottle may look empty, yet it’s anything but trash,” says one ad from 1990 showing a plastic bottle bouncing out of a garbage truck. “It’s full of potential. … We’ve pioneered the country’s largest, most comprehensive plastic recycling program to help plastic fill valuable uses and roles.”
These commercials carried a distinct message: Plastic is special, and the consumer should recycle it.
It may have sounded like an environmentalist’s message, but the ads were paid for by the plastics industry, made up of companies like Exxon, Chevron, Dow, DuPont and their lobbying and trade organizations in Washington.
Industry companies spent tens of millions of dollars on these ads and ran them for years, promoting the benefits of a product that, for the most part, was buried, was burned or, in some cases, wound up in the ocean.
Documents show industry officials knew this reality about recycling plastic as far back as the 1970s.
Many of the industry’s old documents are housed in libraries, such as the one on the grounds of the first DuPont family home in Delaware. Others are with universities, where former industry leaders sent their records.
At Syracuse University, there are boxes of files from a former industry consultant. And inside one of them is a report written in April 1973 by scientists tasked with forecasting possible issues for top industry executives.
Recycling plastic, it told the executives, was unlikely to happen on a broad scale.
“There is no recovery from obsolete products,” it says.
It says pointedly: Plastic degrades with each turnover.
“A degradation of resin properties and performance occurs during the initial fabrication, through aging, and in any reclamation process,” the report told executives.
Recycling plastic is “costly,” it says, and sorting it, the report concludes, is “infeasible.”
And there are more documents, echoing decades of this knowledge, including one analysis from a top official at the industry’s most powerful trade group. “The costs of separating plastics … are high,” he tells colleagues, before noting that the cost of using oil to make plastic is so low that recycling plastic waste “can’t yet be justified economically.”
Larry Thomas, the former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, worked side by side with top oil and plastics executives.
He’s retired now, on the coast of Florida where he likes to bike, and feels conflicted about the time he worked with the plastics industry.
“I did what the industry wanted me to do, that’s for sure,” he says. “But my personal views didn’t always jibe with the views I had to take as part of my job.”
Thomas took over back in the late 1980s, and back then, plastic was in a crisis. There was too much plastic trash. The public was getting upset.
In one document from 1989, Thomas calls executives at Exxon, Chevron, Amoco, Dow, DuPont, Procter & Gamble and others to a private meeting at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington.
“The image of plastics is deteriorating at an alarming rate,” he wrote. “We are approaching a point of no return.”
He told the executives they needed to act.
The “viability of the industry and the profitability of your company” are at stake.
Thomas remembers now.
“The feeling was the plastics industry was under fire — we got to do what it takes to take the heat off, because we want to continue to make plastic products,” he says.
At this time, Thomas had a co-worker named Lew Freeman. He was a vice president of the lobbying group. He remembers many of the meetings like the one in Washington.
“The basic question on the table was, You guys as our trade association in the plastics industry aren’t doing enough — we need to do more,” Freeman says. “I remember this is one of those exchanges that sticks with me 35 years later or however long it’s been … and it was what we need to do is … advertise our way out of it. That was the idea thrown out.”
So began the plastics industry’s $50 million-a-year ad campaign promoting the benefits of plastic.
“Presenting the possibilities of plastic!” one iconic ad blared, showing kids in bike helmets and plastic bags floating in the air.
“This advertising was motivated first and foremost by legislation and other initiatives that were being introduced in state legislatures and sometimes in Congress,” Freeman says, “to ban or curb the use of plastics because of its performance in the waste stream.”
At the same time, the industry launched a number of feel-good projects, telling the public to recycle plastic. It funded sorting machines, recycling centers, nonprofits, even expensive benches outside grocery stores made out of plastic bags.
Few of these projects actually turned much plastic into new things.
NPR tracked down almost a dozen projects the industry publicized starting in 1989. All of them shuttered or failed by the mid-1990s. Mobil’s Massachusetts recycling facility lasted three years, for example. Amoco’s project to recycle plastic in New York schools lasted two. Dow and Huntsman’s highly publicized plan to recycle plastic in national parks made it to seven out of 419 parks before the companies cut funding.
None of them was able to get past the economics: Making new plastic out of oil is cheaper and easier than making it out of plastic trash.
Both Freeman and Thomas, the head of the lobbying group, say the executives all knew that.
“There was a lot of discussion about how difficult it was to recycle,” Thomas remembers. “They knew that the infrastructure wasn’t there to really have recycling amount to a whole lot.”
Even as the ads played and the projects got underway, Thomas and Freeman say industry officials wanted to get recycling plastic into people’s homes and outside on their curbs with blue bins.
The industry created a special group called the Council for Solid Waste Solutions and brought a man from DuPont, Ron Liesemer, over to run it.
Liesemer’s job was to at least try to make recycling work — because there was some hope, he said, however unlikely, that maybe if they could get recycling started, somehow the economics of it all would work itself out.
“I had no staff, but I had money,” Liesemer says. “Millions of dollars.”
Liesemer took those millions out to Minnesota and other places to start local plastic recycling programs.
But then he ran into the same problem all the industry documents found. Recycling plastic wasn’t making economic sense: There were too many different kinds of plastic, hundreds of them, and they can’t be melted down together. They have to be sorted out.
“Yes, it can be done,” Liesemer says, “but who’s going to pay for it? Because it goes into too many applications, it goes into too many structures that just would not be practical to recycle.”
Liesemer says he started as many programs as he could and hoped for the best.
“They were trying to keep their products on the shelves,” Liesemer says. “That’s what they were focused on. They weren’t thinking what lesson should we learn for the next 20 years. No. Solve today’s problem.”
And Thomas, who led the trade group, says all of these efforts started to have an effect: The message that plastic could be recycled was sinking in.
“I can only say that after a while, the atmosphere seemed to change,” he says. “I don’t know whether it was because people thought recycling had solved the problem or whether they were so in love with plastic products that they were willing to overlook the environmental concerns that were mounting up.”
But as the industry pushed those public strategies to get past the crisis, officials were also quietly launching a broader plan.
In the early 1990s, at a small recycling facility near San Diego, a man named Coy Smith was one of the first to see the industry’s new initiative.
Back then, Smith ran a recycling business. His customers were watching the ads and wanted to recycle plastic. So Smith allowed people to put two plastic items in their bins: soda bottles and milk jugs. He lost money on them, he says, but the aluminum, paper and steel from his regular business helped offset the costs.
But then, one day, almost overnight, his customers started putting all kinds of plastic in their bins.
“The symbols start showing up on the containers,” he explains.
Smith went out to the piles of plastic and started flipping over the containers. All of them were now stamped with the triangle of arrows — known as the international recycling symbol — with a number in the middle. He knew right away what was happening.
“All of a sudden, the consumer is looking at what’s on their soda bottle and they’re looking at what’s on their yogurt tub, and they say, ‘Oh well, they both have a symbol. Oh well, I guess they both go in,’ ” he says.
The bins were now full of trash he couldn’t sell. He called colleagues at recycling facilities all across the country. They reported having the same problem.
Industry documents from this time show that just a couple of years earlier, starting in 1989, oil and plastics executives began a quiet campaign to lobby almost 40 states to mandate that the symbol appear on all plastic — even if there was no way to economically recycle it. Some environmentalists also supported the symbol, thinking it would help separate plastic.
Smith said what it did was make all plastic look recyclable.
“The consumers were confused,” Smith says. “It totally undermined our credibility, undermined what we knew was the truth in our community, not the truth from a lobbying group out of D.C.”
But the lobbying group in D.C. knew the truth in Smith’s community too. A report given to top officials at the Society of the Plastics Industry in 1993 told them about the problems.
“The code is being misused,” it says bluntly. “Companies are using it as a ‘green’ marketing tool.”
The code is creating “unrealistic expectations” about how much plastic can actually be recycled, it told them.
Smith and his colleagues launched a national protest, started a working group and fought the industry for years to get the symbol removed or changed. They lost.
“We don’t have manpower to compete with this,” Smith says. “We just don’t. Even though we were all dedicated, it still was like, can we keep fighting a battle like this on and on and on from this massive industry that clearly has no end in sight of what they’re able to do and willing to do to keep their image the image they want.”
“It’s pure manipulation of the consumer,” he says.
In response, industry officials told NPR that the code was only ever meant to help recycling facilities sort plastic and was not intended to create any confusion.
Without question, plastic has been critical to the country’s success. It’s cheap and durable, and it’s a chemical marvel.
It’s also hugely profitable. The oil industry makes more than $400 billion a year making plastic, and as demand for oil for cars and trucks declines, the industry is telling shareholders that future profits will increasingly come from plastic.
And if there was a sign of this future, it’s a brand-new chemical plant that rises from the flat skyline outside Sweeny, Texas. It’s so new that it’s still shiny, and inside the facility, the cement is free from stains.
This plant is Chevron Phillips Chemical’s $6 billion investment in new plastic.
“We see a very bright future for our products,” says Jim Becker, the vice president of sustainability for Chevron Phillips, inside a pristine new warehouse next to the plant.
“These are products the world needs and continues to need,” he says. “We’re very optimistic about future growth.”
With that growth, though, comes ever more plastic trash. But Becker says Chevron Phillips has a plan: It will recycle 100% of the plastic it makes by 2040.
Becker seems earnest. He tells a story about vacationing with his wife and being devastated by the plastic trash they saw. When asked how Chevron Phillips will recycle 100% of the plastic it makes, he doesn’t hesitate.
“Recycling has to get more efficient, more economic,” he says. “We’ve got to do a better job, collecting the waste, sorting it. That’s going to be a huge effort.”
Fix recycling is the industry’s message too, says Steve Russell, the industry’s recent spokesman.
“I do understand the skepticism, because it hasn’t happened in the past,” he says, “but I think the pressure, the public commitments and, most importantly, the availability of technology is going to give us a different outcome.”
Larry Thomas, Lew Freeman and Ron Liesemer, former industry executives, helped oil companies out of the first plastic crisis by getting people to believe something the industry knew then wasn’t true: That most plastic could be and would be recycled.
Russell says this time will be different.
“It didn’t get recycled because the system wasn’t up to par,” he says. “We hadn’t invested in the ability to sort it and there hadn’t been market signals that companies were willing to buy it, and both of those things exist today.”
But plastic today is harder to sort than ever: There are more kinds of plastic, it’s cheaper to make plastic out of oil than plastic trash and there is exponentially more of it than 30 years ago.
And during those 30 years, oil and plastic companies made billions of dollars in profit as the public consumed ever more quantities of plastic.
Russell doesn’t dispute that.
“And during that time, our members have invested in developing the technologies that have brought us where we are today,” he says. “We are going to be able to make all of our new plastic out of existing municipal solid waste in plastic.”
Recently, an industry advocacy group funded by the nation’s largest oil and plastic companies launched its most expensive effort yet to promote recycling and cleanup of plastic waste. There’s even a new ad.
“We have the people that can change the world,” it says to soaring music as people pick up plastic trash and as bottles get sorted in a recycling center.
Freeman, the former industry official, recently watched the ad.
“Déjà vu all over again,” he says as the ad finishes. “This is the same kind of thinking that ran in the ’90s. I don’t think this kind of advertising is, is helpful at all.”
Larry Thomas said the same.
“I don’t think anything has changed,” Thomas says. “Sounds exactly the same.”
These days as Thomas bikes down by the beach, he says he spends a lot of time thinking about the oceans and what will happen to them in 20 or 50 years, long after he is gone.
And as he thinks back to those years he spent in conference rooms with top executives from oil and plastic companies, what occurs to him now is something he says maybe should have been obvious all along.
He says what he saw was an industry that didn’t want recycling to work. Because if the job is to sell as much oil as you possibly can, any amount of recycled plastic is competition.
“You know, they were not interested in putting any real money or effort into recycling because they wanted to sell virgin material,” Thomas says. “Nobody that is producing a virgin product wants something to come along that is going to replace it. Produce more virgin material — that’s their business.”
And they are. Analysts now expect plastic production to triple by 2050.