News

04/19/2019 - Is state senator Gene Yaw out to lunch on key energy issues?

Proposing a (joke?) resolution wasn't the only thing Yaw was up to this week

04/18/2019 - Energy Transfer is under criminal investigation for Mariner East pipelines, and now a prominent GOP legislator is criticizing the company

State Sen. Gene Yaw, a staunch supporter of Pennsylvania's gas industry, said Energy Transfer is damaging the reputations of more responsible pipeline operators.

04/17/2019 - What other states are doing about plastic bags — and what might happen with Pa.’s proposed ban

Charging a 2-cent per-bag fee would have little impact on use, according to an advocate in New Jersey. Legislators in that state just introduced a stronger bill banning plastics than one the governor vetoed last year, saying it didn't go far enough.

04/16/2019 - Air pollution problems from steel industry prompt two lawsuits

Two lawsuits announced this week stem from air pollution problems tied to the steel industry.

In one, PennFuture, the Sierra Club and other groups seek to force the Environmental Protection Agency to update its standards for coke ovens across the country.

The other comes from an East Pittsburgh woman who filed a class action suit on behalf of Mon Valley residents following December’s fire that damaged pollution controls at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works near Pittsburgh.

The PennFuture suit against EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler focuses on two standards that have to do with how coke oven facilities are operated. Coal is baked in ovens at high temperatures to form coke, which is then used to make steel.

Emissions from coke ovens can cause cancer, and they sometimes escape through leaky doors and other parts of plants. Allegheny County health officials have fined U.S. Steel more than $2 million over the past year for emissions violations at the Clairton plant.

Other communities near coke ovens face similar issues, and environmental and health advocacy groups in Alabama and Louisiana are part of the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, where the Sierra Club is headquartered.

The standards targeted by the suit took effect in 2005. The EPA was supposed to review them after eight years, but it never did, said Tosh Sagar, an attorney with Earthjustice, which is representing the environmental groups.

“Fourteen years have passed and they haven’t done anything since, so the point of this lawsuit is to get the EPA to do its job to study the problem and figure out what additional protections should be put in place,” he said.

The review process involves consulting with the steel industry to determine the best practices and technologies in place at coke ovens, Sagar said.

A lawyer for PennFuture said the group would also be involved in that process.

“Most important for us is making sure that the air quality for those in the communities surrounding these facilities is sufficient,” staff attorney Alice Baker said.

The EPA said it does not comment on pending litigation. A U.S. Steel spokesperson said the company is reviewing the complaint and “will respond appropriately and in accordance with court requirements.”

The suit follows several recent cases where the EPA admitted it failed to update standards for air pollutants, Sagar said. Those pollutants come from industries ranging from copper smelting to spandex production to boat manufacturing.

“This is part of a long pattern where EPA has these deadlines to update standards for different types of industrial sources, and they’ve repeatedly and routinely failed to do that,” Sagar said.

Separate from the PennFuture complaint, Linda Hernandez of East Pittsburgh has filed a class action lawsuit against U.S. Steel on behalf of every resident of 22 Mon Valley communities affected by the fire at Clairton.

For over three months, the Clairton plant could not process coke oven gas through its normal desulfurization controls. It released five times more sulfur dioxide that permitted by the Allegheny County Health Department, according to the department’s calculations. Repairs on the equipment were completed earlier this month.

According to the complaint, filed in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Hernandez noticed chemical and sulfur smells on Christmas Eve after the fire. She experienced a burning throat, difficulty breathing, a headache and coughing. Some of those health problems persisted, limiting her activities outdoors. Other Mon Valley residents reported the same health problems following the fire, the complaint says.

The suit says U.S. Steel was negligent by failing in its duty to residents to exercise care in preventing offensive odors and noxious emissions, interfering with the “use and enjoyment of their properties.” It says the company did not develop adequate policies to prevent the fire, and it did not have a backup plan to control the release of gases.

The suit seeks unspecified damages to compensate residents, as well as punitive damages.

A U.S. Steel spokesperson said the company does not comment on active litigation, but said more information about the fire and repairs is available on the steel-maker’s website.

04/16/2019 - Citizen climate petition advances, after state board approves further study of cap-and-trade program

The ramifications of the petition could be politically significant-- allowing significant climate policy to be implemented without new legislation.

04/16/2019 - How much would a nuclear subsidy add to your electric bill? Here’s a breakdown

State lawmakers are considering giving out roughly half-a-billion dollars a year in subsidies Pennsylvania’s nuclear power industry. How much would it cost you?

04/16/2019 - ‘energy, explained’ podcast: Climate change’s big question: Can we get to zero carbon?

At a Jan. 29 public event, three experts peered into the future -- near-term and long-term -- to offer

04/16/2019 - Wolf’s PFAS Action Team gives update on water-testing plans to frustrated Pa. residents

The state's actions include sampling urine, dust, and water from Bucks and Montgomery county residents whose blood was already tested. Some people at Monday's meeting said Pennsylvania isn't moving fast enough to deal with the family of toxic chemicals.

04/15/2019 - ‘Razorblades and feathers in my throat’: A fire at a U.S. Steel plant near Pittsburgh made a major polluter even worse

Pollution controls damaged by a Christmas Eve fire are working again. But many people in nearby communities are still feeling the effects -- and worrying about their health.

04/12/2019 - DEP to begin statewide sampling for six PFAS chemicals

Pennsylvania environmental officials said on Friday they will soon begin testing for toxic PFAS chemicals in public water systems near likely sources of contamination including military bases, landfills and factories.

The Department of Environmental Protection said it will sample more than 300 water systems starting in May in a program that is due to last a year.

In a 66-page description of its sampling plan, the DEP’s Bureau of Safe Drinking Water said it aimed to identify known location and potential source of PFAS contamination across the state, assess the risk to drinking water sources, and select public water systems as a control group.

The bureau said it will test for six PFAS chemicals including PFOA and PFOS. It did not name specific locations for sampling but published state maps showing potential water sources for testing, and other places including industrial sites and airports. The map of potential water sources shows a concentration of sites in southeastern Pennsylvania including Lancaster, Berks, Lehigh, Chester, Montgomery, Bucks, Philadelphia and Delaware counties.

A full list of the sampling locations will be published when monitoring is complete, said DEP spokesman Neil Shader. He said the program will not be a comprehensive survey of all public water systems but a “representative sample” to determine the prevalence of PFAS chemicals.

Any system that exceeds the EPA’s health advisory limit will have to confirm its tests and to notify the public, Shader said.

PFAS chemicals have been found in the blood serum of 97 percent of the U.S. population, the plan description said, and in 38 U.S. states including Pennsylvania, although there is “limited occurrence data” in Pennsylvania.

The $250,000 initiative follows Pennsylvania’s announcement in February that it will begin to set its own health limits for PFOA and PFOS. The state announced its plan the day after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did not commit to setting national limits as part of a long-awaited “Action Plan” to curb the chemicals.

“DEP will not hesitate to step up when the federal government fails to,” DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said in a statement.

In the absence of federal regulation, and amid rising public concern about the chemicals’ risk to public health, some states have set their own strict limits on the most commonly found PFAS chemicals. New Jersey last September became the first state to regulate PFNA, and has recently adopted tough standards on PFOA and PFOS.

Pennsylvania does not set its own limits for the chemicals — which are linked to health conditions including cancer, low birth weights, and elevated cholesterol – but relies on an EPA lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOS and PFOA combined, a level that advocates say is much too lax to protect public health.

On April 15, the Wolf Administration is due to hold the latest public meeting of its PFAS Action Team, a panel of state officials who are charged with investigating the contamination and recommending cleanup strategies.

Some PFAS chemicals were used in consumer products like nonstick cookware and flame-retardant fabrics, starting in the 1940s. Although they are no longer made by U.S. manufacturers, they persist in many public and private water sources because they don’t break down in the environment.

The chemicals have also been used for decades in firefighting foam on military bases such as those near the eastern Pennsylvania town of Horsham, where water systems have been contaminated by PFAS chemicals. Local authorities there have taken their own measures to remove PFAS from water supplies, but local people are still concerned that the bases remain a source of contamination for groundwater.

Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental group that has long campaigned for strict limits on the chemicals, welcomed DEP’s plans to investigate contamination but said the process is already later than it should have been and the plan means it will be two years or more before any maximum contaminant limits on the chemicals are in place.

“We need the sampling data as soon as it can be gathered and compiled so that we will not have to wait another year before DEP proposes maximum contaminant levels for PFAS compounds,” said DRN’s deputy director, Tracy Carluccio. “We needed action yesterday, not years from now.”

In January, the Navy canceled a plan to ship 4,500 tons of PFAS-contaminated soil from the former air station at Willow Grove near Horsham to a landfill in southern New Jersey. The landfill dropped its agreement to take the soil following media reports on the plan.

In 2013-15, the EPA tested for six PFAS chemicals in Pennsylvania as part of a national monitoring program. That sampling included Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, both of which were found to contain PFOA and PFOS below the EPA’s 70 ppt level.