06/18/2019 - Climate focus intensifies in Harrisburg, as budget negotiations and citizen-led petition advance

Gov. Tom Wolf's administration is urging Republicans to authorize the state to join a regional consortium to limit greenhouse gases. At the same time, a citizen-led climate petition is under review at the state Department of Environmental Protection.

06/18/2019 - US Steel avoids potential shutdown order by restoring pollution controls after fire

US Steel has put its pollution controls back online at its Clairton Coke Works, and avoided a potential shutdown order, the Allegheny County Health Department said Tuesday afternoon.

The department issued an emergency order for the plant to meet pollution limits or face potential shutdown Monday after a fire disabled Clairton’s pollution controls. Those controls were restored later that night.  

The county said sulfur dioxide levels didn’t exceed limits as a result of Monday’s fire, the second in six months to shut down the plant’s pollution controls.

The order gave U.S. Steel 24 hours to come up with a plan to control its emissions of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, and gave the plant 20 days to put in place. If it failed to meet the county’s timeline, the plant would have had to cease all coke-making operations.

But on Tuesday afternoon, the county said in an emailed statement that its inspectors had been inside the plant and “verified that all systems are again online” and “the concerns of the order have been met.”

The county says it will push the plant to have a backup pollution control system in place to “ensure that a failure such as this can be avoided in the future.”

The company reported the fire at 4:43 a.m. Monday and said it was “small” and was extinguished quickly.

It knocked out the same controls that were offline for more than three months following a Christmas Eve fire at the plant. Over that time period, thousands in the Pittsburgh area complained about breathing problems and odors.

The Clairton plant is the largest coke works in North America. To make coke, a key component of steelmaking, it bakes coal at high temperatures.

The plant is subject of several lawsuits and enforcement actions from Allegheny County as a result of air pollution problems. Over the past year, the county has fined US Steel $2.6 million.

06/17/2019 - US Steel’s Clairton plant pollution controls knocked out again by another fire

For the second time in six months, a fire at US Steel’s Clairton coke works has knocked out the plant’s pollution controls.

No injuries were reported. The company, which reported the fire at 4:43 a.m., said it was “small” and was extinguished quickly.

The fire knocked out the same controls that were offline for more than three months following a Christmas Eve fire at the plant. Over that time period, pollution levels in Allegheny County spiked several times, and thousands in the Pittsburgh area complained about breathing problems and odors.

The Allegheny County Health Department said that the company will use the same measures to disperse its pollution as it did after the December fire. Over that time, the company decreased production of coke, replaced coke oven gas in its production with cleaner-burning natural gas, and flared high-sulfur coke oven gases at locations in nearby Braddock and West Mifflin. As a result, U.S. Steel’s sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions “skyrocketed” to more than 70,000 pounds a day — five times the amount it’s permitted for, the county reported.

The health department said sensitive groups like the elderly, the young, and those with breathing difficulties don’t have to take added precautions right now. But they should be aware there could be high levels of SO2, which can burn the nose and throat, obstruct airway passages, and make it hard to breathe. There’s no word on when the pollution controls will be back online.

Updates on the fire can be found at the company’s website. US Steel released a statement saying crews are working to get the controls back online. The company didn’t say how long that could take.

The Clairton plant is the largest coke works in North America. To make coke, a key component of steelmaking, it bakes coal at high temperatures.

The plant is subject of several lawsuits and enforcement actions from Allegheny County as a result of air pollution problems. Over the past year, the county has fined US Steel $2.6 million.

The county has twice issued the company orders to ‘hot idle’ the plant, where the coke ovens are kept hot but no coke is produced. But US Steel says that process could be dangerous and cause permanent damage to its coke ovens, which are sensitive to heat and operational changes.

Environmental groups were quick to criticize both the company and the county health department for the plant’s pollution record.

“Yet another fire at this aging facility further underscores the dangers of allowing US Steel to continue to operate what amounts to a doomsday machine that cannot be turned off when pollution controls are knocked off-line,” said Ashleigh Deemer, the Western PA Director for PennEnvironment. “The residents of the Mon Valley deserve clean air, not more illegal pollution from U.S. Steel.”

06/16/2019 - Congress eyes ban on firefighting foams that have tainted drinking water

PFAS have been used since the 1940s and have been linked to health conditions including high cholesterol, thyroid disease, low birth weights, immunodeficiencies and some cancers.

06/15/2019 - Delaware River Basin commission confirms plan to build LNG export terminal at new South Jersey port

Dominion Resources

This 2010 file photo shows Dominion Resources Cove Point terminal in Maryland. It is has been converted from a gas import facility to an export terminal to ship Marcellus Shale gas to Japan and India.

The Delaware River Basin Commission acknowledged on Tuesday that an energy company plans to ship liquefied natural gas (LNG) and other liquids through a new export terminal on the Delaware River in South Jersey, updating its earlier statement that LNG was not part of the company’s permit application.

Environmental activists have accused the DRBC and other regulators of concealing plans by the developer, Delaware River Partners, to add an LNG terminal to a new port that it plans to build on a former DuPont site in Gibbstown, Gloucester County.

The DRBC previously said the company did not seek a permit for the LNG terminal in its application but on Tuesday said it “recently” learned of the plan.

David Kovach, the agency’s head of permitting, verbally included LNG in a list of proposed uses at a DRBC meeting on June 6, the agency said in a statement on Tuesday.

“During his description of the draft docket, Mr. Kovach said that the applicant recently informed us that Dock 2 will support the transloading of a variety of bulk liquid products, including butane, isobutane, propane (collectively liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG), liquefied natural gas (LNG), and ethane,” the statement said.

LNG would be shipped to the Gibbstown port via truck from a new liquefaction plant being built in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, amid the abundant natural gas supplies of the Marcellus Shale, according to a Securities and Exchange filing by the plant’s developer, New Fortress Energy. The plant, costing an estimated $750-$850 million, would have a capacity of 3.6 million gallons a day and could serve markets in the Northeast by truck, the company said in a statement.

New link to world markets

The liquefaction operation is designed to take rich reserves of “stranded” gas — which currently has no market outlet because of a shortage of pipelines — and link it to world markets via the new port complex.

There will be no bulk storage of LNG at the Gibbstown port and no manufacture of any liquids there, the DRBC said.

The agency rejected a call by environmental groups to deny the DRP application on the grounds that it was incomplete. The application was, in fact, complete, the statement said, although the commissioners had not yet decided whether to consider it during a business meeting scheduled for Wednesday, June 12.

Before the DRBC statement was issued, environmental activists doubled down on their earlier accusations that the agency had not been candid about the LNG part of the Gibbstown plan.

Doug O’Malley of Environment New Jersey called the agency’s handling of the issue “a blatant attempt by the DRBC to subvert public comment.”

“DRBC is finally acknowledging that this is not just a dock on the Delaware River; it is a massive industrial facility,” he said.

Concerns about public safety

O’Malley and other environmentalists said during a conference call with reporters that an LNG export terminal would endanger public safety by risking an explosion; boost fracking for natural gas by opening up overseas markets, and make it harder for New Jersey to hit its targets for cutting carbon emissions.

“We’re looking at massive public safety impacts from Bradford County all the way to South Jersey,” O’Malley said.

The commission, which oversees water quality and supply in the four-state region covered by the river basin, rejected accusations that it had concealed details of the LNG plan from the public.

“DRBC disagrees with that statement,” it said. “The public hearing on June 6 was adequately noticed, and DRBC has shared with the public all information submitted by the applicant and/or its contractors.”

While acknowledging the LNG component of the plan, the DRBC said it does not regulate that liquid or shipping in general. Its regulatory authority is limited to the construction and dredging components of the port plan.

Tracy Carluccio of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network said it was “important” that the DRBC had acknowledged the LNG component of the plan but argued that verbal notification was not enough to inform the public of a plan that activists say would risk both public safety and environmental quality.

Public needs to know the details

She said the public needs to know how much LNG would be shipped through the site, how frequently, and how those shipments would be coordinated with other liquids.

“Crucial information is still hidden from the public, information people need to understand the project as well as what the potential risks and impacts are,” she said.

The verbal statement also does not meet the DRBC’s requirement that “adequate notice” of at least 10 days be given of any “consequential addition” to cargo that the applicant is planning to export, she said.

In New Jersey, the Department of Environmental Protection issued a permit to Delaware River Partners on May 20 to build a new dock and dredge a 45-acre area of the river to a depth of 45 feet below the low-water mark. The permit said nothing about the plan to build an LNG terminal. On June 5, the DEP suspended the permit because of a procedural error but said it would review its action after a 15-day public comment period.

Delaware River Partners did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the DRBC’s statement but previously said that it is talking to potential customers who are interested in transloading energy-related liquids that may include LNG.

This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

06/15/2019 - How would a wastewater spill affect shellfish in Delaware Bay? Scientest are using red dye in streams to find out

Scientists in Delaware are dumping dye into waterways to study how a wastewater spill could affect shellfish in the Delaware Bay.

During the weeklong water quality study, red dye will be applied to Murderkill River to evaluate the Delaware Bay’s oyster beds.

Delaware’s wild harvest oyster beds are located in the Delaware Bay. A wastewater spill would force authorities to temporarily ban harvesting until conditions return to normal.

“So the goal of this dye study is to look into and predict what those impacts to the Delaware Bay could be under an emergency situation such as a spill,” said Michael Bott, an environmental scientist with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s Delaware Shellfish Program.

DNREC and the Kent County Department of Public Works are conducting the study for the first time in conjunction with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Between midnight Tuesday and noon Wednesday, scientists released the dye at the Kent County wastewater treatment plant near Frederica. The dye then traveled through a tributary into the Murderkill River. Bott said the dye will give the water a red hue for a couple of days, but it is nontoxic.

The study will help the state evaluate how much water quality would suffer if a spill occurred, and understand which areas would be most affected. That information could guide them to determine where harvesting would need to come to a halt.

“Emergency spills can happen anywhere, so how do you respond when those events happen?” Bott said. “For shellfish, it would result in a temporary closure to the harvest, which normally lasts about three weeks. … The dye is simulating what that spill would look like, and you can measure that and look at the dilution so you can better predict where and how long these closures need to occur.”

06/14/2019 - PUC launches review of safety regulations on hazardous liquids pipelines 

The commission didn't name specific projects. But it has come under criticism from people who say it hasn't done enough to ensure the safety of the Mariner East project, which is transporting highly volatile natural gas liquids across the state.

06/14/2019 - Philadelphia City Council approves PGW’s $60 million liquified natural gas plant

In a 13-4 vote, Philadelphia City Council approved a plan to build a $60 million liquified natural gas facility in Southwest Philadelphia.

Passyunk Energy Center will be a public-private partnership between city-owned Philadelphia Gas Works and Conshohocken-based Liberty Energy Trust. PGW will approve design plans and run the facility, but Liberty Energy Trust will finance the construction.

The plan is projected to bring in anywhere from $1.35 million to $4 million in revenue for PGW each year.

City Councilman and Gas Commission Chair Derek Green said that extra revenue will prevent the utility from having to raise rates on customers.

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Councilman Derek Green in council Thursday.

“This gives us an opportunity to bring in revenue that’s not tied to ratepayers that allows us to do some additional creative ideas,” Green said.

The plan, first proposed last September, has drawn protests from environmentalists, who argue that it further tethers the city to fossil fuels, flying in the face of the city’s plan to reduce its emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

“Philadelphia should not be expanding its fossil fuel infrastructure,” said Audra Wolfe, a member of POWER, an interfaith social justice organization. “It’s not right for the future, it’s not right for the people of Philadelphia, and it’s not right for the climate.”

Councilwoman Helen Gym, one of the four “no” votes, echoed that sentiment, saying the project was the wrong direction for the city.

“I think it’s clear the city needs to move away from fossil fuels,” Gym said, adding that council should be devoting its time to developing clean energy solutions. “We need to move, and we need to move quickly.”

LNG is produced by cooling methane gas to -260 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point it becomes a liquid, which is easier to store and transport than gas. The plant would be capable of producing 120,000 gallons of LNG a day, the bulk of which would be sold as a backup to diesel fuel, which is more polluting than LNG.

PGW currently liquifies natural gas at its Port Richmond plant and transports it to Passyunk for storage. The new plant will allow for everything to be done at the Passyunk plant, eliminating the need for transporting LNG from one plant to another.

A study by PGW has shown that the project, while relying on a fossil fuel, will reduce carbon emissions and could also reduce particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and sulphur oxides. Green called the project a bridge that will help the city diversify its energy portfolio.

“We’ve got to balance how we move forward regarding climate change, at the same point bringing in revenue for the city of Philadelphia, and PGW,” Green said.

To that end, he said Mayor Jim Kenney will ask the Wolf administration for funding to add solar panels to the Passyunk Energy Center to minimize its carbon footprint.

“This will be the largest municipal solar project in the city of Philadelphia if it gets approved,” Green said, “and I think it would be a benefit for the city, as well as a benefit for this project to make sure we have net zero emissions at the Passyunk LNG facility.”

Labor groups have applauded the project, calling it a “win-win” for the city.

“We’re able to export a much-needed product and in return raise revenue for infrastructure repair and for the maintenance of PGW, our asset,” said Danny Bauder, campaign manager of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO.

But South Philadelphia resident Mark Quincy said his neighborhood, which is also home to a major oil refinery, neither needs nor wants another fuel plant.

“South Philly has been forced to shoulder the burden of fossil fuel infrastructure in this city, and we’re getting the short end of the stick,” Quincy said. “We shouldn’t have to take on the impacts of another facility.”

06/14/2019 - In West Virginia, fracking companies lost on trespassing, but a court just gave them a different win

Raymond Thompson Jr. for ProPublica

Mary Milkowski, who lives in Harrison County, West Virginia, said the dust from passing trucks was so bad her family stopped using their porch.

This article was produced in partnership with the Charleston Gazette-Mail, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

A week after the West Virginia Supreme Court unanimously upheld the property rights of landowners battling one natural gas giant, the same court tossed out a challenge filed by another group of landowners against a different natural gas company.

In the latest case, decided Monday, the court upheld a lower court ruling that threw out a collection of lawsuits alleging dust, traffic and noise from gas operations were creating a nuisance for nearby landowners.

Charlie Burd, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, said the latest ruling lets “Wall Street know capital investment in oil and natural gas is welcome in West Virginia” and increases the possibility of more such investments in drilling and in so-called “downstream” chemical and manufacturing plants related to the gas industry.

In the property rights case last week, the justices set a clear legal standard that natural gas companies can’t trespass on a person’s land, without permission, to tap into gas reserves from neighboring tracts. In Monday’s case, the justices didn’t articulate a new legal precedent.

The mixed messages of the two cases show that “this is new litigation and the theories are evolving,” said Anthony Majestro, a lawyer who represented residents who lost their nuisance action before the Supreme Court.

“As the Marcellus shale drilling has expanded, there have been conflicts between surface owners and the companies that are drilling,” Majestro said. “Absent some legal requirement to require the industry to be good neighbors, I’m afraid we’ll continue to have these situations.”

Majestro’s clients were a group of residents in the Cherry Camp area of Harrison County, in north-central West Virginia. They wanted Antero Resources, the state’s largest gas company, to compensate them for unbearable traffic, “constant dust” that hangs in the air and settles on homes and vehicles, disruptive heavy equipment noise and bright lights that shine into their homes day and night.

The case focused on two dozen wells and a compressor station on six pads. The plaintiffs argued that their lives were being interfered with by Antero’s production of gas from beneath their property, even though the wells were on neighboring land, not on their own properties.

Across West Virginia’s gas-producing region, many residents own the surface of the land where they live, but don’t hold the minerals located beneath. Often, rights to the natural gas were signed over decades ago, long before drilling and gas production of the size and scope now conducted was even dreamed of.

The two court cases were featured last year as part of a series of stories by the Gazette-Mail and ProPublica that explored the impacts of the growth of natural gas on West Virginia communities.

In some ways, the Antero case was more complex than the earlier matter, in which the state court ruled clearly for Doddridge County residents Beth Crowder and David Wentz in their dispute with EQT Corp., West Virginia’s second-largest gas producer.

EQT had built a well pad and pipelines on Crowder and Wentz’s property to reach natural gas not located beneath their farm, but under neighboring tracts, including some that were thousands of feet away. Modern natural gas drilling uses horizontal drilling to use smaller numbers of larger wells to reach much greater amounts of gas.

Justice John Hutchison wrote the court’s 5-0 decision against EQT, including a new point of law that sets a precedent that calls what the company did trespassing and forbids it from being done in the future.

The ruling in the Antero case was a split, 3-2 decision, and the opinion by Justice Evan Jenkins included no new points of law setting precedent for future cases.

Instead, his opinion was based on the view that Antero had gas leases that created a right for it to do whatever was “reasonably necessary” to get at its mineral holdings.

Antero spokeswoman Stephanie Iaquinta said, “We appreciate the court’s thorough review of this important matter and its decision.”

Chief Justice Beth Walker wrote a concurring opinion, pointing out that the majority decision wasn’t necessarily getting to the heart of the matter: whether the kinds of gas industry impacts complained about by the Harrison County residents constitute a legal nuisance.

And Justice Margaret Workman wrote a strongly worded dissent, saying that the court had not only ducked the central legal issue in the case, but that it had usurped the authority of a jury to decide if the facts of how Antero operates should be deemed to be “reasonably necessary” to produce natural gas.

“For a century, the tenor of our mineral easement case law, in each temporal and technological ideation, has been that there must be a balance of the rights of surface owners and mineral owners,” Workman wrote. “Rather than making any attempt to establish legal guidance for that goal in this new context, the majority endorses a gross inequity that effectively gives this new industrialization carte blanche to operate without any regard for the rights of those who live on the land.”

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06/13/2019 - Interactive: Where do 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls stand on climate change?

The Washington Post put together a way for people to compare candidates' positions on several climate change-related issues.