03/17/2020 - Shell keeps massive construction site in Beaver County site open despite coronavirus worries

Shell says construction will go ahead at its Beaver County petrochemical plant despite the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

The company says it is following guidance of federal regulators and altering some aspects of its operations to promote social distancing at the site, where 6,000 people are working, even as some workers said they are worried about transmission of the virus there. 

Several workers, speaking on condition of anonymity because they believe speaking publicly could jeopardize their jobs, said they were concerned about the ease of transmission on a site with so many workers. They said social distancing is difficult on the shuttle buses workers must take into the site, and because large groups of workers attend meetings and meals together. 

KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh reported Monday that workers at the site said conditions there were “unsanitary” and “raised concerns” about crowded spaces. 

But the company is staying open and taking steps to reduce the risk of transmission, said Shell spokesman Michael Marr.

“There have been no presumptive or confirmed cases of Coronavirus among our site’s workers,” Marr said.

Marr said “health care professionals” from the company and its construction contractor Bechtel “are monitoring the situation closely and providing ongoing guidance to site leaders about how to address the challenges associated with the virus.”

Among the changes to its operations: the company is obtaining more buses to reduce crowding on the shuttles that convey workers from satellite parking lots onto the site; staggering shifts and lunch times to promote social distancing; and curtailing large meetings. 

It has also “initiated regular deep cleaning including our buses, common areas and trailers,” Marr said in an email. “We are also cleaning lunch areas between lunch times and have increased the placement of hand-sanitizer dispensers across the site.”

The company is “reviewing new guidance from OSHA and will incorporate relevant new elements from that guidance into our response, as appropriate.”

On Monday, state health officials reported the first positive case for the coronavirus in Beaver County. There are 10 cases in Allegheny County and two in Washington County. New research from China suggests people without symptoms can still spread the virus

Union leaders expressed confidence in the steps the site managers had taken to increase social distancing. 

“They’re taking the necessary precautions which we all are taking to this situation that is so new to us,” said Ken Broadbent, business manager of Steamfitters Local Union 449. 

Larry Nelson, president of the Beaver County Building and Construction Trades Council, said anyone who felt worried about conditions on the site could go home and collect unemployment benefits. When the virus has passed, they’ll be eligible to get back on the site. 

If you feel you have some anxiety about working there or some reservations about being around a lot of people, then you need to remove yourself from that situation,” Nelson said. The bathrooms are cleaned, extra times. They’ve actually put more workers on, to clean and sanitize.”

Nelson said he was at the Potter Township site Monday, and it looked like “a normal job site.” 

“I talked to a number of different workers, but nobody, nobody presented any fears to me,” Nelson said. He said he got there after lunch was over and did not observe any of the regular worker meetings. 

Nelson said unions at the site had agreed to changes in the lunch schedule to reduce crowding. “We’re trying to limit somewhere right around 175 to 200 people in a tent that normally holds around 500.”

The White House has recommended gatherings be limited to 10 people. 

Nelson said people are leaving the site during the virus outbreak and that if that keeps up, overcrowding “could take care of itself.” 

But several workers told StateImpact Pennsylvania and the Allegheny Front they were worried about the proximity of workers on shuttle buses and in common rooms like worker lunch tents. 

The company did not respond to requests for comment about the workers’ concerns. But Nelson, of the building trades council, said he thought the workers were being protected by Shell’s actions. “You know, this has come upon us pretty quick here in the last week. And, you know, we can’t expect everything to change overnight.”

On Monday afternoon, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all non-essential businesses to shut down for two weeks. That order did not apply to construction sites like Shell’s, but a release from Wolf encouraged those sites “to employ social distancing practices.”  

Wolf’s office did not respond to questions about whether the governor would take further action on the Shell site or other construction projects, and referred to its release

Pennsylvania AFL-CIO president Richard W. Bloomingdale sent a letter to Wolf asking for “action to protect all working people across the Commonwealth, union members or not.”

Those actions include paid sick leave and “enhanced unemployment benefits” for all workers.  

“No one should be required to choose between their paycheck and the health and the safety of themselves and others,” the letter said. 

Food & Water Action, an environmental group, called on the governor to shut the plant down. 

“The company’s assurances that it will conduct more thorough cleaning practices are totally insufficient,” the group said in a statement. “While Governor Wolf has pushed ‘non-essential’ businesses to close for two weeks, he should take more proactive steps to keep Pennsylvanians safe during this public health crisis.”

03/17/2020 - PUC: Companies can’t shut off your utilities during state’s coronavirus disaster declaration

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission says companies can’t turn off customers’ utilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is beyond argument that the provision of public utility service is necessary for the safety of the public,” PUC chair Gladys Brown Dutrieuille said in a news release. “This is especially the case under the current challenges that resulted in the proclamation of a pandemic emergency.”

The PUC’s order means utilities including electric, natural gas, water and telecommunications cannot be turned off if someone falls behind on their bills. It will last as long as Gov. Tom Wolf’s declaration of disaster. It does allow for terminations for safety reasons.

The move was welcomed by Pennsylvania’s acting consumer advocate Tanya McCloskey. She noted that as employers shut down during the pandemic, people could be laid off or have their hours cut. She said access to utility services will be critically important in the coming weeks, and the commission did the right thing.

“But we’d also like to see the utilities work with their customers that already had their service turned off to get that service restored promptly and to work with customers on paying their utility bills,” McCloskey said. “As we know many customers are going to have financial difficulty over the next several weeks.”

McCloskey said the Office of Consumer Advocate is encouraging people to contact their utilities, and urging utilities to work with customers on reasonable payment plans or direct them to services that can help.

Customers can also contact the Pennsylvania Office of Consumer Advocate.

The PUC also suspended “all door-to-door, in-person and public event sales activities” by competing electric and natural gas suppliers in light of social distancing recommendations during the pandemic. Those marketing activities, Dutrieuille said, are “not a necessity at this time, given the need to protect the public health and safety.”






03/13/2020 - Owners of Pa.’s Beaver Valley nuclear power station will keep it open because of state’s climate plan

The owners of Beaver Valley nuclear power station in Shippingport, Pa. said they are reversing a decision to shut it down next year, citing a climate policy pushed by Gov. Tom Wolf.

Akron, Ohio-based Energy Harbor Corp. said Friday it had notified PJM Interconnection, the regional grid operator, that it would rescind March 2018 deactivation notices for the two power generating units at the plant, which employs 1,000. 

Those units were scheduled to permanently shut down in May and October 2021, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  

But Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s moves to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program intended to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, appear to have changed the company’s course. 

In October, Wolf signed an executive order mandating the Department of Environmental Protection to draft a regulation to put the state into RGGI.

“The decision to rescind the deactivations for Beaver Valley was largely driven by the efforts of Governor Wolf’s administration to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative,” said Energy Harbor President and Chief Executive Officer John Judge, in an emailed news release. 

Judge said the state’s inclusion into RGGI will “begin to help level the playing field for our carbon-free nuclear generators” and will help it market “carbon free energy” to customers. RGGI aims to cut carbon emissions, which contribute to climate change, by requiring polluters to pay for their emissions.

The states in the agreement are Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and  New Jersey. Virginia just passed a law that paves the way for it to join.

Republicans in the state House and Senate have questioned the legality of Wolf’s order, and said they could try to block the plan. Judge signaled that could trip up the company’s plans.

“We are excited about the RGGI process implementation in early 2022 but would need to revisit deactivation if RGGI does not come to fruition as expected,” he said.

In a statement, Wolf said the decision was “very encouraging” as his administration prepares to draft the regulation to enroll the state in RGGI.

“Climate change is the most critical environmental threat confronting the world and demands a multifaceted approach,” Wolf said. “Reducing emissions and maintaining existing clean energy resources are primary components in the fight to address climate change, and energy companies like Energy Harbor recognize this.”

The announcement is a reversal of fortunes for the 1,872-megawatt Beaver Valley plant. In 2018, FirstEnergy Solutions, its previous owner, filed for bankruptcy and announced the plant would begin deactivation by 2021. At the time, the company cited steep competition from cheap natural gas. 

The company then sought federal and state bailouts for its coal and nuclear plants. A federal bailout didn’t happen, but the company did score a $150 million-a-year ratepayer bailout in Ohio for its plants there. 

Energy Harbor emerged out of the FirstEnergy Solutions bankruptcy last month as the new owner of Beaver Valley. Its announcement was a pleasant surprise for State Rep. Rob Matzie, a Beaver County Democrat who had tried unsuccessfully to get a bill that would have propped up nuclear power to pass the Pennsylvania legislature. The state’s Public Utility Commission had estimated the measure would cost ratepayers $458.9 million to $551 million a year.

“It’s a big deal,” said Matzie. “It stops the clock ticking. You know, they were talking of needing to make a decision by the end of summer whether to stay open or closed. So it gives us a little bit more time.”

03/13/2020 - Analyst: Oil price war might actually be good for Pennsylvania shale industry

Saudi Arabia and Russia are in the midst of a price war against one another that is also meant to hurt American oil companies, and analysts say it could hurt American shale companies that produce oil. 

But it might not actually hurt the shale gas industry in Pennsylvania, according to one analyst. That’s because the companies that drill for oil in places like Texas and North Dakota also extract natural gas — mostly as a byproduct — and if they stop drilling for oil, their natural gas output will fall, too. 

The ramifications of that is … oil production will start to decline. The associated gas that comes with it will start to decline” too, said Sam Andrus, executive director of North American natural gas, for the IHS Markit.

That could increase demand from the gas-rich Utica and Marcellus shale region in Pennsylvania, said Anne Robba, head of Americas gas & power for S&P Global Platts. 

“If we do lose that kind of (natural gas) volume from crude producers, (the market) is going to turn to Marcellus producers in Pennsylvania to make up” for the loss in production, Robba said. “Because they’re able to ramp up volumes fairly quickly to meet demand.”

Prices for natural gas, at some of their lowest levels since the 1970s, have actually increased this week, by about 10 percent since Monday, Robba said.

“What we’re actually seeing is a strengthening of natural gas prices,” she said. 

At the same time, oil prices have crashed around 20 percent to $33 a barrel. And the trend may not end soon.

Saudi Arabia said it would increase output even further to 13 million barrels a day, from 12 million barrels a day.

Robba said it might take several months for companies to change their drilling plans to adapt to the new price environment. 

“It wouldn’t happen right away. It would be more late 2020, early 2021,” Robba said. 

Andrus said companies in the Marcellus basin in the last year have had to cut back because there is an oversupply of natural gas in the U.S. and prices are low.

The natural gas drilling rig count in Pennsylvania is at 24, down from 47 rigs a year ago, according to the oilfield services company Baker-Hughes. Pennsylvania is the No. 2 natural gas-producing state, behind Texas.

Andrus said those companies might have to ramp up production in early 2020 to meet demand.

“Producers that were putting the brakes on in 2020 to try and stop their gas production will actually reduce gas production. All of sudden (they) need to jump back on on the drilling activity train and try and start going full speed,” Andrus said.

But he also said there are no guarantees that these companies will see a rebound in activity — if the economy takes a big hit from a prolonged coronavirus-related recession, there might not be that big of a market for Pennsylvania’s shale gas.

“You just don’t know how prolonged this is going to be. You don’t know if it’s going to throw the U.S. into a recession,” Andrus said. “We’ve already seen it’s been very disruptive to economies. But is it a disruption and economic disruption that lasts until September and then we start to recover? Or is it a disruption that lasts even longer than that?”

03/09/2020 - Fight over natural gas tax break divides Pa. Democrats

Lawmakers in Harrisburg have never overriden a veto from Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

State Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Luzerne, said that could change if the governor follows through with plans to veto a bill that would offer tax breaks to companies that use Pennsylvania natural gas to produce fertilizers and other chemicals.

Mullery said northeastern Pennsylvania needs the jobs, particularly after the state decided to close down a state prison and a facility for people with intellectual disabilities.

“We’ve taken too many hits,” Mullery said during a Capitol news conference Monday, where union workers and labor leaders joined lawmakers. “And if you’re going to veto this one, I’m going to tell you right now, we are going to work like you’ve never seen us work before to gather up the votes to override that veto.”

The tax credit legislation, House Bill 1100, is expected to reach Wolf’s desk next week when lawmakers return to legislative session in Harrisburg. The issue has divided Democrats and pitted unions against environmental groups.

Ed Mahon / PA Post

State Rep. Gerald Mullery (D-Luzerne) speaks in support of House Bill 1100 during a news conference at the state Capitol on March 9, 2020.

The legislation would provide tax credits to businesses that purchase and use Pennsylvania natural gas to manufacture petrochemicals or fertilizers. Companies would have to make an at least $450 million capital investment to build a plant and create at least 800 jobs to receive the tax credit.

The bill is modeled after legislation that played a role in Shell’s decision to begin construction of a multi-billion dollar petrochemical plant in Beaver County. This measure is aimed at attracting investment in north central and northeastern Pennsylvania.

The bill passed the House and Senate with veto-proof majorities on Feb. 4, but a procedural issue has kept it off the governor’s desk. The Senate’s presiding officer hasn’t signed it yet.

Wolf plans to veto the bill.

“The governor could be supportive of awarding an incentive such as this, but only after a thorough analysis of a proposed project,” said spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger. “HB 1100 proposes 30 years of significant tax credits for a proposal that is currently unknown.”

The Department of Revenue estimates that a single plant would pay about $22 million less in taxes annually because of the tax break — making the 30-year impact for a single plant about $660 million.

On Monday, opponents and supporters of the measure gathered in the Capitol for competing demonstrations.

Opponents went first. They held signs saying, “No More Taxpayer Subsidies for Fossil Fuels!” and “Climate Change Rule #1: No Taxpayer Handouts for Corporate Polluters!” They urged Wolf to veto the bill — and they urged lawmakers to not override that veto.

“I hope that the legislators of northeastern Pennsylvania, who should have known better and yet still voted for this bill, will wake up,” said Rabbi Daniel Swartz of Scranton. “See through the fog of methane lies.”

State Rep. Sara Innamorato (D-Allegheny) said she wants her colleagues to see the negative health and environmental costs of petrochemical or fertilizer manufacturing plants. She organized a panel discussion last week on that topic.

“With my colleagues, they have to reconcile. Do they believe in making smart investments in the future, in sustainable growth of our communities and economies?” Innamorato said. “Or are they for corporate welfare?”

Ed Mahon / PA Post

State Rep. Sara Innamorato (D-Allegheny) speaks in opposition to House Bill 1100 during a rally at the state Capitol on March 9, 2020

Supporters of the effort, including union leaders, gathered for their own rally in a higher level of the state Capitol.

State Sen. John Yudichak (I-Luzerne) said he’s heard from the leaders of two businesses who say they are interested in investing in Pennsylvania if the tax credit goes through. He disputed the criticism that the bill represents a corporate handout, and said the companies are only eligible for the tax break once the plants are up and running.

“If you’re not for jobs, you’re not for organized labor,” Yudichak said. “You’re not for the men and women that helped send the senators and representatives to this chamber. You’re with us or you’re against us.”

03/09/2020 - Attorney General says he’s investigating ‘more than a dozen’ criminal cases into oil and gas companies

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro says he’s conducting “more than a dozen” investigations into companies involved in the oil and gas industry in the state.

It was the first acknowledgment by the attorney general of the investigations, which have involved an investigative grand jury in Pittsburgh for more than a year. 

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette first reported the attorney general’s statements. A spokeswoman for Shapiro’s office confirmed the investigations, but declined to discuss details.

It was the latest revelation into criminal investigations of the oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania. In his comments to the Post-Gazette, Shapiro said criminal charges were expected “in the near future” and that his office was putting “enormous resources” into the investigation. 

The Post-Gazette previously reported more than “a couple dozen” state Department of Environmental Protection officials, including top oil and gas regulator Scott Perry, testified to the grand jury in Pittsburgh in November.

Late last year, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania issued a federal grand jury subpoena to Energy Transfer over the Revolution pipeline, which exploded in 2018. 

Another Energy Transfer project, the Mariner East pipeline, is the subject of a joint investigation by Shapiro’s office and the Delaware County District Attorney. In December, the Chester County District Attorney brought conspiracy, bribery and related charges against five people, including Energy Transfer’s security manager, for allegedly hiring armed Pennsylvania constables to illegally provide security for the pipeline, then hiding how the constables were paid.  

The pipeline has a long track record of drilling mud spills, fines and regulatory shutdowns, and was issued a then-record $12.6 million fine by the DEP in February 2019. 

The FBI is also investigating the issuance of permits to the Mariner East pipeline by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, according to reports by the Associated Press. 

Dave Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said in an email: “While we cannot comment on broad, ongoing investigations, for Pennsylvania energy job-creators and their employees, including many in the union building trades, protecting and enhancing public health, safety, and our shared environment absolutely comes first.”

Shapiro’s investigators have been interested in the case of Stephanie Hallowich, a western Pennsylvania woman who testified before the grand jury in Pittsburgh in February 2019. 

Hallowich, at one time an outspoken critic of fracking, has not talked publicly about her case since signing a settlement with Range Resources in 2012.

In a lawsuit that preceded the settlement, Hallowich claimed Range Resources and two other oil and gas companies contaminated the air and water at her Washington County home. 

Shapiro also asked attorneys involved in a case between Range Resources and Washington County resident Stacey Haney and seven other plaintiffs to preserve documents and evidence in their lawsuit, in which they claimed the company contaminated their property and made them sick. That case ended with a $3 million settlement for the plaintiffs. Range spokesmen didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

03/06/2020 - Peach Bottom nuclear plant gets 20-year license extension

Peach Bottom nuclear power plant can operate into the middle of this century, federal regulators say.

The southern York County plant’s license was to expire in 2033, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is extending that license another 20 years.

Exelon Generation, the plant’s owner, said in a news release that its two reactors generate electricity for more than 2.7 million homes. Seven hundred fifty people work there full-time, the company says. Roughly another 1,800 workers are brought in for maintenance when the plant shuts down each year for refueling.

Exelon says in the past seven years, it has made “significant investments” in equipment and technology that have increased its capacity by about 12 percent. That work has included replacing or upgrading turbines and power transformers.

Peach Bottom is one of four nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania.

Three Mile Island outside Harrisburg became unprofitable and shut down in September.

Both plants started up in 1974.

Exelon Nuclear’s chief nuclear officer, Bryan Hanson, said in the news release that the plant is “well-suited” to keep running. But he acknowledged the economic environment nuclear power plants have faced as they try to compete with cheaper natural gas in the electricity market.

“Nuclear plants must remain financially viable to continue to operate,” he said. “It’s critical tha twe continue to pursue policy reforms that value the environmental, economic and reliability benefits that zero-carbon nuclear energy provides.”

Proposed legislation aimed at propping up Pennsylvania’s nuclear industry failed last year.

Consumer advocates, environmental groups, business and manufacturing groups, and fossil fuel interests opposed the legislation. Their arguments included that subsides are too costly for ratepayers, distort competition, and don’t do enough to advance cleaner energy alternatives.

When that legislation stalled, Exelon announced it would close TMI.

03/05/2020 - Pa. proposes to relax non-residential lead cleanup standards

Pennsylvania is proposing to relax its non-residential standard for the concentration of lead allowed in the surface soils of obsolete contaminated properties that adhere to its voluntary cleanup program.

Such sites, like the South Philadelphia refinery complex, have potential for redevelopment as commercial or industrial ventures.

By entering into the state’s Land Recycling Program, more commonly referred to as Act 2, people or businesses agree to voluntarily clean up sites to certain standards so they can get liability relief. Those standards, for the concentrations of about 400 contaminants allowed to remain in the soil and groundwater, are revised at least every three years to incorporate new science and water-consumption rates.

Most of the cleanup-standard revisions proposed in February by Pennsylvania’s Environmental Quality Board, a 20-member independent committee that adopts all of the Department of Environmental Protection’s regulations, demand a more stringent remediation for owners or operators of sites polluted with toxic or carcinogenic substances including petroleum products, solvents, pesticides and others. This year, the EQB is adding new pollutants: three types of PFAS chemicals and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

But the proposed concentration of lead allowed to remain on the first 2 feet of properties being redeveloped into non-residential projects is being increased from 1,000 parts per million to 2,500 ppm.

Christopher Ahlers, a staff attorney with the Clean Air Council, said that creates an “unreasonable risk for public health,” especially in cities with a heavy industrial past and high rates of redevelopment, like Philadelphia.

“When people have to go and clean something up, under this proposed standard, it’s much more lenient, it’s much weaker,” Ahlers said. “Maybe it means that you don’t have to do anything. Or if you have to do something, it may mean you have to clean up less than you otherwise would have to do.”

Ahlers cites the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery complex as an example. He said that according to a risk assessment done in 2015 by Evergreen Resources — the Energy Transfer subsidiary in charge of the cleanup of the legacy Sunoco contamination at the site before PES took it over in 2012 — two of the most heavily lead-polluted areas had 11 exceedances each, considering a lead standard of over 2,000 parts per million. If the current standard, 1,000 ppm, had been used, each area would have more than 50 exceedances.

“It makes a big difference,” Ahlers said. “The contamination that they have to deal with is significantly greater than what Evergreen states in their report.”

According to DEP documents, the new non-residential standard was calculated using updated models from the Environmental Protection Agency. The current value was calculated using a Society of Environmental Geochemistry and Health model from 1991 and a target adult blood lead level of 20 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL).

Instead of using an adult to determine the acceptable soil concentration, EPA’s new model, the Adult Lead Methodology from 2003, considers the potential fetus of a pregnant adult worker.

In the proposed standard revision, the Environmental Quality Board used 10 µg/dL as a target blood level. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says pregnant people and children with blood lead levels of 5 µg/dL are already in danger.

EPA currently advises regional risk assessors and managers to take into consideration that “recent scientific evidence has demonstrated adverse health effects at blood lead concentrations below 10 µg/dL down to 5 µg/dL, and possibly below,” and that the agency is developing a new soil lead policy.

Using 5 µg/dL as a target blood level would set the lead cleanup standard at 1,050 ppm.

lead model comparison presented to the Cleanup Standards Scientific Advisory Board, which provides science assistance to DEP and the Environmental Quality Board in developing statewide health standards, argues EPA’s guidance for the Adult Lead Methodology cautions that “the values calculated using this new model are high and may not be protective of all receptors, i.e. a school or playground that borders a non-residential property. This is not necessarily in-line with the purpose of the statewide health standard which should be protective across the entire state.”

Last year, Gov. Tom Wolf announced an initiative to keep Pennsylvania free of lead, after a statewide report found potential for harmful exposure in every county.

Why did the Environmental Quality Board choose to propose less stringent lead standards for non-residential sites? A DEP representative said the person best suited to answer that question was not available for an interview this week.

Colleen McCauley, health policy director for Public Citizens for Children and Youth, who advocates for lead-poisoning prevention, called the new standard concerning.

“Commercial and industrial sites that are allowed to have more lead on them could be contaminating homes around them, playgrounds around them, where children live and where they play, and it puts them at risk,”  McCauley said.

People working at those sites could carry lead into their homes on their clothes or shoes, she said. Demolition, construction and any other soil disturbance could also affect neighbors.

An atypical attempt to regulate PFAS

In addition to updating current cleanup standards, the state Environmental Quality Board is proposing to add three new contaminants from the PFAS family that could be present in soil and groundwater: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), and perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS).

PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals” because of their persistence in the environment, are a toxic class of chemicals used in firefighting foam in military bases but also in textiles, food packaging, personal care products, and cookware that are resistant to water, grease and stains. Exposure is linked to some cancers, high cholesterol and thyroid problems.

The proposed standards for these chemicals are based on toxicological studies and health advisory levels set by the EPA, which recommends a drinking water limit of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS combined.

Joanne Stanton, co-founder of the Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water, welcomed the news but said it was too little, too late.

Residents of Bucks and Montgomery counties have been heavily exposed to the chemicals, which were present in firefighting foam used on former military air bases in Horsham and Warminster. The Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water has been advocating for the EPA to regulate PFAS by designating them as hazardous substance and hazardous waste, and for federal or state authorities to establish a lower maximum contaminant level for the chemicals. New Jersey has set its own maximum level at 14 parts per trillion for PFOA and 13 parts per trillion for PFOS.

“Right now, there’s nothing out there in the state, so it’s great that the EQB has proposed these amendments. At least it provides some kind of risk assessment standard that somebody can go by,” Stanton said. “But the problem is that it’s not enforceable, so it is not really doing anything to protect public health or clean water sources right now.”

Pennsylvania’s voluntary cleanup program “does not create liability for, or the obligation to, address contamination for these and other chemicals,” according to the proposed regulation.

Harry Weiss, Ballard Spahr’s lead environmental attorney, said the amendment represents an initial attempt to regulate this class of chemicals because the DEP has the authority to regulate what’s in — or threatens to end up in — the waters of the state, through the state’s Clean Streams Law.

“This regulation does not intend to call these three chemicals hazardous waste or hazardous substance, therefore, under most traditional environmental law, you would say that this regulation does not seek to make that property owner liable for cleanup,” he said.

But assuming that owners or operators of polluted sites are voluntarily cleaning up to DEP’s standards to get liability relief, Weiss said, if the amendments are voted into regulation, most developers will probably choose to comply with the new rules.

“Pennsylvania is, in effect, trying to turn a unregulated chemical into a hazardous waste or hazardous substance without going through the normal course,” said Weiss, who has long-standing relationships with DEP and EPA hazardous waste regulators and clients negotiating with them.

According to the Environmental Quality Board, the proposed amendments will impact “owners and operators of storage tank facilities that have had a release of a petroleum or hazardous substance” — there are approximately 12,000 storage facilities in the state — and those undergoing voluntary cleanups, which on average include 800 contaminated properties.

“The amendments to the [medium-specific concentrations, or MSCs] in this proposed rulemaking would serve both the public and the regulated community because they would provide MSCs based on the most up-to-date health and scientific information for substances that cause cancer or have other toxic effects on human health,” reads the board’s proposed rulemaking, filed on Feb. 15.

Public comments on the proposal can be sent online or by mail to the board until April 14. The board will hold three public hearings, at 6 p.m. March 12 in Harrisburg; March 18 in Pittsburgh; and March 25 in Warminster.

03/04/2020 - Petrochemical town hall near Pittsburgh spotlights pollution, health worries

Subsidies for the petrochemical industry may bring a boost in construction jobs but could have a negative effect on Pennsylvania’s air quality and public health, according to speakers at a town hall held near Pittsburgh Wednesday. 

The panel was put together by state Rep. Sara Innamorato, a Democrat from Pittsburgh. Innamorato voted against HB 1100, which passed the House and Senate last month, and would give millions of dollars in tax breaks for companies to build new chemical plants using natural gas from Pennsylvania.

“We can be against corporate giveaways like HB 1100 and also be for good union jobs, family-sustaining jobs,” Innamorato said. 

She said she held the forum for the public to hear from people other than just business and trade unions that would benefit from the law. 

“Those include impacted residents that live outside of Allegheny County, those include economists that have been studying this issue. It includes medical professionals who know what the public health impacts can be,” she said. “It’s a dialogue that we’re going to have. This is the first conversation that our office facilitated with the public, and it’s not going to be the last.” 

Shell is building a multi-billion dollar petrochemical plant in Beaver County to turn the region’s ethane, a natural gas byproduct, into plastic. That plant is the beneficiary of a $1.65 billion state tax break. ExxonMobil may be looking to build another plant in the region, according to recent reports. 

Among the speakers was Nick Muller, a Carnegie Mellon economist who presented research showing the shale gas industry, which would supply the state’s petrochemical plants, has cost the region more in health costs and premature deaths than the economic boost of jobs created by the industry. 

The study, published last year in the journal Nature Sustainability, found that between 2004 and 2016, shale development created a regional economic boost of $21 billion, compared with $23 billion in the costs related to the 1,200 to 4,600 premature deaths linked to air pollution from the industry.

When that study was released, Marcellus Shale Coalition president David Spigelmyer said there are impacts and tradeoffs associated with all energy sources, and said “…natural gas is unquestionably enhancing our environment and air quality, boosting job creation and making American more secure.”

But Laura Dagley, a nurse and medical advocacy coordinator for Physicians for Social Responsibility, said the region’s air quality is already bad, and that the plant will be adding emissions, not just at the plant itself but in the production of oil and gas. The emissions include small particles and volatile organic compounds, like benzene and formaldehyde.

“These are known carcinogens and can cause short-term health effects from something as simple as upper respiratory symptoms to long-term health effects such as memory loss and cancer,” Dagley said. 

In attendance at the town hall was Darrin Kelly, president of the Allegheny/Fayette Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, but Kelly left the hearing about a half-hour into it. Kelly did not respond immediately to a request for comment. 

The House and Senate passed HB 1100 with veto-proof majorities in February. Gov. Wolf has vowed to veto the bill, but it has yet to arrive at his desk. 

03/02/2020 - Dickinson College takes big step toward becoming carbon-neutral

Dickinson College is partnering with three other schools on a renewable energy contract to help each one offset its greenhouse gas emissions.