News

09/10/2020 - At western Pa. gas drilling site, Pence talks jobs, repeats falsehoods on Biden’s fracking position

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden says he would oppose only new drilling on federal land. The Vice President touted the administration's commitment to 'American energy.'

09/09/2020 - Bill to keep Pa. out of regional cap-and-trade program passes, but faces governor’s veto

House Bill 2025 would require legislative approval for Pennsylvania to enter a program such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

09/09/2020 - WITF’s ‘Toward Racial Justice’ panel links environmental justice with health, human rights and self-determination

“The toxins that are being released in the air are affecting our families, are affecting our children, and that’s leading to our healthcare issues. It’s affecting our employment. It’s all interconnected," one panelist said.

09/03/2020 - For now, latest federal rollback of coal regs won’t affect PA plants

A Trump administration rollback of rules for toxic waste water from coal plants won’t have an immediate effect on coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania, because the state has already adopted tougher Obama-era EPA standards for treating the waste. 

But environmental advocates said the move could open up the possibility that coal plants could seek to release higher levels of pollutants into the state’s rivers and streams that provide drinking water for millions of people. 

The new rules, finalized by EPA this week, would exempt coal plants that run at lower capacity or are in their final years of service from having to comply with tougher standards adopted by the agency in 2015. In addition, it allows plants to use less expensive technology to clean up wastewater from smokestack scrubbers that remove air pollutants, and allows some treated coal ash slurry to be released into rivers and streams. It also pushes compliance for most plants back to 2025.  

The EPA says the rule changes would reduce costs for the coal power plant industry by $140 million a year. 

The power industry sought the changes to the 2015 rule, which the agency said at the time would keep 1.4 billion pounds of pollution out of rivers and streams. 

“The revisions provide environmental protections in a technologically and economically achievable manner, which is critical to EEI member companies’ ability to continue providing reliable, affordable, and clean energy to U.S. homes and businesses,” said Quin Shea, vice president for environment, natural resources, and occupational safety & health at the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), one of the industry groups that lobbied EPA for the changes.

But environmental groups worry the rule will allow coal pollution to continue for years in the U.S. 

“This is a very significant rollback of the protections the Obama administration put in place,” said Zachary Fabish, an attorney with the Sierra Club. “The Obama rule, as good as it was, was long overdue. And this rule just weakens and delays it even further.”

The wastewater regulated by the rule comes from scrubbers put on coal smokestacks to comply with federal clean air regulations, and from coal slurry used to transport coal ash to disposal ponds. Both contain some of the same toxic materials: mercury, arsenic, and selenium. The wastewater also contains bromides, a kind of salt that can create carcinogenic compounds in drinking-water plants. 

In 2018, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection agreed in a settlement with environmental groups to require the tighter Obama-era waste controls on 10 coal-fired power plants around the state. 

Since then, “all the water pollution permits for Pennsylvania’s coal-fired power plants have been updated in the last several years with the provisions from the Obama era…rule,” said Tom Schuster, Clean Energy Program Director for the Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter. 

Schuster said any plant that hasn’t already installed controls to comply with the stricter standards could try to have its permit changed to reflect the Trump administration’s more relaxed standards, “but it would be subject to public notice and comment, and we would aggressively fight the change.”

Fabish said the rollback puts the Pennsylvania DEP in a difficult position, if coal plants ask to have their pollution permits relaxed to be more in line with the new EPA rules. 

“The reality is, is that weakening the federal rule weakens these permits,” Fabish said. “If the federal rule changes, you know, I think it’s overwhelmingly likely that these (plants) are going to try and get their permits changed.” 

Lauren Fraley, a spokesperson for the DEP, said the agency was reviewing the new EPA rule.

09/03/2020 - Scientists know more about how COVID-19 spreads. So is it safe to bring your reusable bags back to the grocery store?

In the early days of the pandemic, many plastic bag bans were put on hold. As the months have passed, there’s now a push to reinstate them.

09/02/2020 - Community solar proposal getting bipartisan support in legislature

Energy issues in Pennsylvania can be fiercely partisan, but a measure in the state legislature to encourage clean energy development is gaining support on both sides of the aisle. 

The measure allows for community solar projects, which are larger than home rooftop panels but smaller than utility-scale grids. 

The behind-the-meter projects are owned by solar developers. The energy generated is shared by a group of subscribers who get a credit on their electricity bills for what they use. 

The projects can remove barriers to solar power, such as up-front cost or homeownership, according to Leslie Elder with the Coalition for Community Solar Access.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Aaron Kaufer (R-Luzerne), said over 200 potential projects in the state are just waiting for the legislature’s OK. 

“To the tune of over $2 billion of private investment waiting to happen here in Pennsylvania,” he said. “There are thousands of jobs on the line with this legislation. And I might add that there are no state tax dollars that are needed for these types of projects as well.”

Elder’s group and other advocates for clean energy say supporting the industry will help Pennsylvania recover economically from the COVID-19 crisis. 

Elder said projections show community solar could create 3,000 sustained jobs in Pennsylvania over the next five years. 

Supporters say the bill also gives an opportunity to struggling farmers, who could lease land for the solar projects. 

Lauren Brunsdale, an associate developer at Radnor-based Community Energy, said solar arrays have a low impact on the land where they’re placed. 

“Essentially solar is installed the same way you put in a fence,” she said. “You drive the piles into the ground and you can pull them back out.”

Farmers can even use the land around the panels while they’re active, Brunsdale said, growing cover crops that can ultimately improve soil quality by the end of the project. 

Lawmakers on the House Consumer Affairs Committee, which held a hearing on the bill Tuesday, said safeguards should be created so landowners don’t run into problems like those seen in the natural gas industry. Some gas royalty owners have taken companies to court over payments. The Attorney General is awaiting a decision from the state Supreme Court on whether the office can proceed with a case on what the AG claims is deceptive leasing practices.

Some lawmakers also expressed concerns about utilities losing out on money from community solar customers that would be used to maintain the electricity grid, as well as a potential loss of green space to solar panels. 

Brunsdale said community solar could contribute to a more resilient grid because it will reduce stress during periods of high demand. 

Pennsylvania currently gets .5 percent of its electricity from solar energy. Elder said community solar will work well with the state’s existing energy generation balance. 

“We are not looking to replace any other forms of energy generation,” Elder said.

09/01/2020 - Clean air laws helped the U.S. reduce air pollution. But hotter days brought by climate change could reverse those gains

Reid R. Frazier / StateImpact Pennsylvania

David Michuk, 29, of Forest Hills, Pa., was recently diagnosed with asthma.

One day this spring, after nearly 15 years without one, 29-year-old David Michuk got an unexpected visitor: an asthma attack.  

It felt like he was breathing through a straw while someone sat on his chest. “You forget how bad they are,” Michuk said. “It’s so much worse than I remembered.”

He called his doctor and got medications to keep his breathing passageways open. Even with the medicines, breathing has been difficult, particularly on hot days. 

“I walk out of my house and it’s like, you just walk into this wall of heat and humidity and it knocks the breath out of you,” said Michuk, who grew up near Johnstown, and lives in the Pittsburgh suburb of Forest Hills. “It’s a scary thing to be out, especially to be younger and be out and trying to just live a normal active life, and you can’t because the air is just killing you.

One reason why it might be hard for him and others with asthma to breathe? Hot days produce a type of air pollution called ozone, or smog. 

Pollution levels in American cities have fallen in the decades since the passage of clean air laws in the 1970s. And even though cars and factories are cleaner than they’ve ever been, scientists predict that the success the U.S. has had in lowering ozone pollution is in jeopardy simply because the world is getting hotter. 

That success is because regulations have forced American industry to clean up, scientists say. 

“We have made a lot of progress,” said Edson Severnini, an associate professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. “You’ll see the graphs and you feel like, ‘Oh, my God, something good has happened.”

But that progress could be upended by climate change, he said. Severnini said ozone starts to really spike above 30 degrees Celsius — or 86 degrees Fahrenheit. He said we’ve already seen the number of hot days increase since 1980. And the number of days when cities in the U.S. reach 86 degrees is anticipated to double by 2050 because of climate change.  

So you can imagine that by midcentury, which is not far from now, you’re going to have very large levels” of ozone, he said. 

Ozone is an irritant inside the lungs and can trigger or worsen asthma attacks, said Deborah Gentile, an allergy and asthma specialist with East Suburban Pediatrics and Allergy and Asthma Wellness Centers in Pittsburgh. She is Michuk’s doctor.

When it contacts the inside of the airways, it causes inflammation and swelling, and the passageway constricts. 

So it’s very difficult to move air in and out,” Gentile said.

She’s had plenty of patients this summer with breathing problems, during what would be a normally quiet period between allergy seasons.

This coincides with a spike in bad air quality days, when pollution levels will make it hard to breathe for people in certain, vulnerable groups, like those with breathing conditions. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has had nearly the same number of air quality action days already this year as it had in all of 2019. 

The agency says that’s because it’s been a hot summer — July was 4.7 degrees hotter than normal in Pittsburgh, according to the National Weather Service.  

And heat is perfect for creating ozone, which doesn’t come right out of tailpipes or smokestacks. Instead, it’s formed in the atmosphere when sunlight hits two types of pollution — volatile organic compounds, emitted by things like paint and gasoline fumes, and nitrogen oxides, which are created by fossil fuel combustion in cars, factories and power plants. 

Heat waves, which have been on the increase in the U.S., can speed up the process, said Ted Russell, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Georgia Tech. 

One reason why is gasoline and other volatile materials will evaporate pollutants into the atmosphere faster on hot days.

Just like water evaporates faster. But gasoline (evaporates) even faster still,” he says. “And paints, on a hot day, they dry faster.”

Another reason why ozone formation increases in the heat: plants and bacteria release some of the volatile gases needed to form ozone. When it gets hot, they release more of them, Russell said. 

“You’ve also got microbes in the ground that become more active on hot days,” he said. 

To keep ozone below dangerous levels in a hotter world, scientists say, we will probably have to reduce pollution from sources like cars and factories even further.  

A recent study found that unless climate change is slowed down, there will be an average of 5.7 extra high-ozone days in the U.S. by midcentury. 

To make matters worse, cities around the world are growing, supercharging the creation of ozone through the “urban heat island,” said Chandana Mitra, associate professor of geosciences at Auburn University. During heat waves, concrete-packed cities can be 10 to 15 degrees hotter than their surrounding countrysides. 

So more heat, more human activity, more growth in urban areas equals more ozone being created,” Mitra says. 

There’s a way to limit climate change and the heat it brings, Mitra says, but it’s not going to be easy: lower our greenhouse gas emissions. 

08/28/2020 - Federal judges throw out ‘gaping loophole’ in Pa.’s coal pollution plan

A federal appeals court called Pennsylvania’s regulations for coal plant emissions too weak and ordered the state to revise them. 

The decision was a victory for environmental groups, which sued the Department of Environmental Protection for writing the rules, and the federal EPA for accepting them. 

The 2016 rules were put into place by the DEP to comply with federal mandates to curb ozone, or ground-level smog. The agency required coal-fired power plants to use pollution controls to lower their emissions of Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), which help form ozone when exposed to sunlight. But it gave plants the option of not using those controls when the plant’s emissions stream fell below 600 degrees fahrenheit, typically at times of reduced capacity. 

The court held this temperature threshold was a “gaping loophole” in the ozone rule and threw the plan out. The loophole remains on the books until a new rule is written, in the next two years. 

The judges said one coal plant, the Cheswick Generating Station near Pittsburgh, was using the emissions control loophole to turn off its pollution controls at certain times of day. 

“(That) allows it to not have to comply with the the emission limits, which is really unhealthy for the surrounding community and in the region,” said Tom Schuster, Clean Energy Program Director for the Sierra Club, one of the plaintiffs. 

“When you have a plant like Cheswick, which has historically been the largest NOx emitter in (Allegheny) County, having it not doing everything that it can to control its NOx pollution, puts the entire county at risk of breathing unhealthy air.”

Houston-based GenOn, the owner of the Cheswick plant, did not respond to requests for comment. 

The three-judge panel included two who were nominated by Republican presidents, one by Ronald Reagan and one by Donald Trump, and one nominated by Democrat Bill Clinton. 

“(T)he EPA is able neither to offer a reasonable justification for failing to require a stricter standard, nor to justify the standard it endorsed. That standard represents a mere acceptance of the status quo,” the judges wrote, in an opinion signed by Judge Theodore Alexander McKee. 

Schuster called the decision a rebuke of the EPA under President Donald Trump, whose administration has sought the rollback of more than 100 environmental regulations. 

“I think this is another indicator that the Environmental Protection Agency under Trump is essentially out to lunch, that they are failing to exercise their oversight authority,” he said. 

The state completed the rule, called a “State Implementation Plan,” in 2016 under Gov. Tom Wolf. In 2018, the EPA accepted it. 

But several states and environmental groups objected to Pennsylvania’s plan. For starters, they found the pollution limits for power plants — even when using their pollution control — too lax. 

Maryland regulators noted that the proposed limits were “on average, nearly 60% higher than what they have achieved in the past,” the opinion said.  

And then there were parts of the rule that allowed plants to simply not run their pollution controls by operating the plant at lower temperatures. Under the plan, the Cheswick power plant and others were allowed to “evade” the stringent limit by operating at lower temperatures, according to the opinion. 

In its briefs, the EPA and the DEP argued the temperature threshold was necessary because pollution controls don’t work as well at lower temperatures. They also argued that running pollution controls at lower temperatures could cause damage to their equipment. But the judges found their arguments lacked evidence to back up their claims.

“The agency cannot reach whatever conclusion it likes and then defend it with vague allusions to its own expertise,” the judges wrote. 

 The agencies both said they were reviewing the decision. They will have two years to come up with a new plan to curb ozone emissions. In the meantime, the plants will be allowed to bypass pollution controls when running at lower temperature.

The ruling comes as DEP is updating its air pollution requirements. Schuster says whatever form they take, the agency will have to take the judges’ ruling into consideration. 

I think this ruling from the court is a strong signal to DEP that they can’t carry that loophole forward…and that they’re going to have to go back and revise it,” he said. 

08/28/2020 - New drilling-mud spill is Sunoco’s 10th at Lebanon County’s Snitz Creek since the Mariner East pipeline project began

Another spill of drilling mud into Lebanon County’s Snitz Creek on Thursday brings to 10 the number of “inadvertent returns” at that site during construction of the Mariner East natural gas liquids pipelines, and to more than 150 statewide since the controversial project began in early 2017.

Turbid water appeared in the creek on Thursday shortly after Sunoco restarted its attempts to drill beneath the creek to create a pathway for its Mariner East 2X 16-inch pipeline, the operator, Sunoco/Energy Transfer confirmed in a note to West Cornwall Township supervisor David Lloyd.

The incident was the latest to hit the pipeline at a location where fragile limestone geology has allowed drilling mud to contaminate the creek, halting operations and in some cases prompting a notice of violation from the Department of Environmental Protection.

The problems at Snitz Creek began in August 2017 when 50 gallons of drilling fluid escaped, according to DEP data. The leak was stopped, drilling mud was cleaned up, and DEP allowed a restart about two weeks later. It issued a notice of violation the following month.

Another spill of about 50 gallons happened at the creek in March 2018, followed by four more incidents – one as small as one cup – that year, and two this year, including Thursday’s spill.

Lloyd said the data are based on self-reporting by Sunoco, and while he doesn’t doubt the company’s truthfulness, he faulted the DEP for failing to independently monitor the drilling.

“The common citizen would think that Pennsylvania DEP is there and is monitoring the situation, which we know isn’t true,” he said. “The DEP comes in after the fact.”

The township has become familiar with the succession of inadvertent returns, followed by notices of violation and then a brief halt to construction until Sunoco presents a restart plan that’s acceptable to DEP, Lloyd said. “That’s the confounding component to the regular citizen, thinking, ‘Where the heck is DEP in all this?’” he said.

The department issued a notice of violation on Friday for the latest spill at Snitz Creek but did not respond to a request for comment. DEP has previously said it is committed to “continued oversight and enforcement of the permit conditions and regulations.”

The repeated spills at Snitz Creek are the result of multiple attempts by Sunoco to drill under the creek through the fragile limestone, said Doug Lorenzen, a geologist and a member of Concerned Citizens for Lebanon County, an anti-pipeline group.

“This limestone obviously has lots of interconnected voids and channels,” he said. “When they start drilling it, they introduce a new hole and it could cause the collapse of the ground above.”

Sinkholes have occurred along the pipeline route, including Lisa Drive, a suburban development in Chester County’s West Whiteland Township.

Sunoco has filed dozens of “re-evaluation reports,” as ordered by the Environmental Hearing Board in 2017, to explain how it will avoid inadvertent returns in geologically challenging locations like Snitz Creek, but the incidents persist despite fines handed out by regulators.

On Aug. 10, an inadvertent return near Marsh Creek State Park in northern Chester County spilled 8,100 gallons of drilling fluid into a 535-acre lake there, resulting in 33 acres of the lake being ruled off-limits to the public while the spill is cleaned up, and prompting protests by residents and some lawmakers.

State Sen. Katie Muth (D-Chester/Montgomery/Bucks) urged the DEP to shut down a portion of the pipeline’s construction until there’s an independent investigation on the causes of the spill.

She called on the DEP to hold a public meeting to discuss the environmental damage, mitigation efforts, and the conditions that Sunoco would have to meet to be allowed to restart the horizontal directional drill (HDD) that caused the spill.

“My constituents are understandably extremely concerned and very distressed regarding the long-term environmental impacts caused by this event,” she wrote in a letter to DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell.

The multi-billion dollar pipeline project carries ethane, propane and butane some 350 miles from southwest Pennsylvania and Ohio through 17 counties en route to an export terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia.

Last week, the DEP issued its latest fine, $355,000, to Sunoco for drilling mud spills on 10 streams — including Snitz Creek — in eight counties in 2018 and 2019. The fine, less than two weeks after the Marsh Creek spill, prompted critics to say the DEP’s penalties have little or no effect on Sunoco’s behavior.

On Monday, the Environmental Hearing Board, a quasi-judicial panel that hears complaints against DEP policy, temporarily granted a request from Sunoco to overturn a DEP-ordered shutdown of a drilling site in Chester County’s West Whiteland Township, another area of fragile limestone geology, or “karst,” because of a “turbid groundwater discharge” in early August.

Sunoco did not respond to a request for comment on the latest spill in Lebanon County.

 

 

08/24/2020 - Sunoco asks Environmental Hearing Board to block new DEP shutdown of troubled Chester County drilling site

Update, Aug. 26: Judge Bernard A. Labuskes Jr. temporarily granted Sunoco’s request that work be allowed to continue at the Shoen Road site, pending a hearing scheduled for Sept. 1. Labuskes said he may reconsider his order if “at any point Sunoco’s drilling results in new or increased environmental harm or presents issues of health and safety.”

Reported originally: 

Sunoco filed a legal challenge against Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection on Monday, calling on the Environmental Hearing Board to overturn the DEP’s recent shutdown of a construction site for the controversial Mariner East pipeline project.

The company argued that the DEP was “improper” and “arbitrary” in issuing an Aug. 20 order that shut down operations of a drilling site in Chester County’s West Whiteland Township, an area where fragile limestone geology has caused repeated technical problems for the pipeline.

Sunoco said it would be irreparably harmed if it is forced to continue the shutdown, which DEP said was prompted by a “turbid groundwater discharge” at a horizontal directional drilling site at Shoen Road and Route 100 that officials have shut down twice before over the last three years because of the project’s impact on residential water wells.

DEP issued a notice of violation after the discharge at the site, known as HDD 360, on Aug. 8. The department said the discharge was related to construction activities, and was designated as an “inadvertent return” so drilling could not restart without DEP’s permission.

Even for a pipeline project that has been plagued with delays since it started in February 2017, construction in West Whiteland has been exceptionally problematic. In July 2017, about a dozen families experienced cloudy water or loss of supply from their private wells after Sunoco’s drilling near Shoen Road punctured an aquifer. In 2018, a series of sinkholes opened up on a pipeline construction site at nearby Lisa Drive, a suburban development, forcing state officials to order a shutdown at that location.

In the latest incident, Sunoco argued that a prolonged shutdown would harm the public interest because groundwater flowback will occur, the borehole will be lost, and future drilling will have to retrace ground already covered.

The company also accused DEP of contradicting its own letters of June 29 and July 2, which approved a restart of HDD 360 after an earlier shutdown.

“It is of utmost importance to complete construction promptly at the HDD 360 work location, important not only for SPLP’s interests, but also for the interests of the public at large to complete construction at a location which has been in-progress now for over three years,” the company said in a seven-page petition.

It urged the Board, a quasi-judicial body that hears complaints against the DEP, to issue an order of “supersedeas” that would block the latest order.

The DEP said it does not comment on matters in litigation. Last Thursday, the department fined Sunoco $355,000 for spills of drilling mud in eight counties in 2018 and 2019. Those incidents were among more than 100 for which the DEP has issued notices of violation since the project began in early 2017.

The Sunoco complaint prompted a petition by three environmental groups – Clean Air Council, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and Mountain Watershed Association – to seek to intervene in the case.

It urged the Board to allow its intervention, and criticized Sunoco for continuing to pursue HDD 360 despite the repeated problems.

“Rather than finding a more appropriate location for its Mariner East 2 pipes, Sunoco has persisted for more than three years now in drilling at the Shoen Road location where it has not been able to drill without damaging the surrounding residential neighborhood,” the petition said.

Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety, which represents residents along the pipeline route in Chester and Delaware counties, said Sunoco should not be fighting DEP over regulations that the company has repeatedly violated over more three years.

The group said it is “outraged” that DEP is being forced to defend itself in court for trying to enforce regulations that it said Sunoco has defied.

Sunoco’s action came on the same day that more than two dozen environmental groups called on the DEP to “immediately and permanently” shut down all construction of the Mariner East pipelines, saying the company has destroyed water wells, ignored orders from the DEP, and caused more than 200 spills of drilling fluid.

In a letter to DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell, the groups said the fines levied by DEP since the project began have failed to persuade Sunoco to operate more safely, and are “merely the cost of doing business.”

Gov. Tom Wolf has repeatedly rejected calls to shut down the project. 

Following criticism from the groups about Sunoco’s recent spill of some 8,000 gallons of drilling fluid into Marsh Creek Lake in Chester County,  Wolf’s spokeswoman, Lyndsay Kensinger, said drilling there has been shut down, and that DEP expects to take “further action.”

“We are committed to holding permittees accountable and will continue to provide active and stringent oversight over the construction of Energy Transfer projects,” she said. “DEP has consistently held the company accountable for violations to the full extent of the law and will do so in this instance as well.”

The pipelines carry natural gas liquids – propane, ethane and butane – some 350 miles from southwest Pennsylvania and Ohio to an export terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia. The project has stirred strong protests from communities along the route, especially in the western suburbs of Philadelphia where some residents fear mass casualties if there’s an explosion of the liquids in densely populated areas.