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02/12/2020 - Philadelphia proposes banning hydrofluoric acid, a toxic chemical released in refinery explosion

Legislation to ban a deadly chemical from refining operations will be introduced this week in Philadelphia City Council. Hydrofluoric acid, or HF,  is one of the most dangerous industrial chemicals in use.

The proposal stems from last summer’s explosion at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in South Philadelphia. The shuttered refinery is winding its way through bankruptcy and the future of the site is unclear.

The June 21 explosion released more than 5,000 pounds of the toxic chemical. Although no one was injured, Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy said the city narrowly escaped a disaster.

“We want to make it very clear that should a refinery restart at that location, HF shouldn’t be used,” Abernathy said. “No matter what happens at that site, we want it to be safer, we want it to be cleaner, and we want it to be better for public health.”

Residents in the neighborhood surrounding the refinery have long complained about odors and poor air quality they say led to illnesses. But few knew about the hidden danger of hydrofluoric acid, which was used as a catalyst to make high-octane fuel.

Exposure to HF can cause serious injury or death. The chemical penetrates the skin and reacts with calcium in the bones. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, low levels can irritate the eyes, nose and respiratory tract. High levels “can cause death from an irregular heartbeat or fluid buildup in the lungs.”

Mayor Jim Kenney said regulation of HF stemmed from the Refinery Advisory Group meetings that took place in the wake of the refinery explosion.

“With the passage of this legislation, large quantities of HF will never return to the Philadelphia refinery site again,” Kenney said in a statement. “I urge other communities, as well as the federal government, to follow Philadelphia’s lead and phase out the use of HF in the refining industry entirely – for the safety of the workers as well as nearby communities.”

Groups of residents in Southern California have tried but failed to ban HF from refineries. Five years ago, an explosion occurred at a refinery in Torrance, California, when heavy debris landed just three feet from an HF storage tank.

Jim Eninger is a physicist who worked with HF for decades in the aeronautics industry.

“It’s a very dangerous place to store massive amounts of one of the most dangerous industrial chemicals,” Eninger said.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration both regulate hydrofluoric acid.

OSHA does so under the Process Safety Management of Highly Hazardous Chemicals. The EPA’s Risk Management Plan Rule governs public disclosures surrounding the use and accidental release of toxic chemicals, as well as emergency response.

The Obama administration had boosted those rules, but Trump’s EPA recently rolled back some of the provisions, including the requirement of industry to assess the use of safer alternatives.

Refineries are required to file worst-case scenarios for the release of toxic chemicals. PES’ worst-case scenario included a release of 143,262 pounds of HF over 10 minutes, which could travel as a toxic cloud for more than seven miles and potentially impact 1,098,799 people, including those in schools, homes, hospitals, prisons, playgrounds, parks and a wildlife sanctuary.

Just two months before the PES explosion, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board wrote to the EPA, urging it to review its 1993 HF study to determine whether the required Risk Management Plans are sufficient, and if safer alternatives could be used.

The letter referenced the 2015 Torrance, California, explosion as well as an explosion and fire on April 26, 2018, at the Husky refinery in Superior, Wisconsin. In that case, debris tossed into the air did not hit the HF storage tanks, but parts of the town were evacuated for fear of an HF release.

The PES refinery entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy soon after the explosion. A hearing scheduled for Wednesday will consider a proposed sale to Hilco Redevelopment Partners of Chicago. The company said it wants to continue industrial uses of the site, but not a refining operation.

The sale is challenged by a number of creditors. A second bidder, IRG, includes former Philadelphia Energy Solutions CEO Phil Rinaldi as a partner. Rinaldi wants to reopen the site as a refinery but said it would never use HF again, and instead use one of two safer alternatives.

“There’s no reason for people to have any kind of concern about that,” Rinaldi said.

PES is the only refining operation in the city. Two other refineries in the region — Monroe Energy in Trainer, Delaware County, and the PBF refinery in Paulsboro, New Jersey — use HF, but the city’s ban would not apply to them.

The Clean Air Council criticized the legislation as not going far enough. The Council’s executive director, Joe Minott, said HF should be banned from all sites across the city.

“It’s a great start, but it’s nowhere near what it should be to protect public health,” Minott said.

HF is used to etch glass and is often used as a chemical in university labs. It’s also used in other industrial processes like refrigeration, electronics manufacturing and rust removal. Minott said the city should find out where the substance is used and in what quantities before drafting legislation that could be moot if the PES site ends up as a facility that doesn’t use HF.

City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson plans to introduce the legislation, which would require a change in the city’s fire code.

02/11/2020 - Natural gas driller, cited by DEP for fracking wastewater spill in Lycoming County, now faces criminal charges

WILLIAMSPORT – The discharge of approximately 63,000 gallons of treated brine water in 2017 from a natural gas well pad in Lycoming County has been attributed to a worker falling asleep twice in two days.

The allegations are contained in criminal charges filed against Inflection Energy, headquartered in Denver, Colorado, and Double D Construction of Montoursville.

Inflection paid a $170,500 civil penalty levied by the state Department of Environmental Protection after the spill but, according to an agency spokesperson, Double D was not cited.

The criminal charges were filed in November by the state attorney general’s office but they just came to light when Inflection and Double D waived their preliminary hearings. The company faces misdemeanor charges including disturbing waterways or watersheds, and allowing a substance that could harm fish to enter a waterway; and a summary offense of drilling activity that causes a public nuisance.

Asked why criminal charges were filed against Inflection in light of the significant civil penalty, an attorney general’s spokesperson said: “Criminal charges are wholly unrelated to a civil penalty. We seek to hold the defendant companies accountable for negligence that led to pollution in a stream.”

Attempts to obtain a comment from Inflection were unsuccessful, but when the civil penalty was imposed, it attributed the spill to a then-unidentified contractor.

Double D, according to court documents, was responsible for monitoring the transfer of treated brine water from a million-gallon tank to a smaller one so it could be trucked from the well pad in Eldred Township north of Warrensville.

The same worker fell asleep in a truck for about 30 minutes early on Nov. 12, 2017, and for 45 minutes the following morning while a 21,000-gallon tank overflowed, the charges state.

Some of the fluids went into an unnamed tributary of Loyalsock Creek. At the time, a DEP spokesman told StateImpact Pennsylvania that the fluid had not reached the creek itself.

It was the job of the employee, who was working a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift with no set days off, to turn off the pump when the float was within 2 feet of the top of the tank, an affidavit in support of the charges states.

The pump now has a hard shutoff and Inflection requires monitoring when it is operating, the document states.

The implicated worker was fired that Nov. 13 after providing a written statement to Double D owner Jason DuPont and passing a drug test, the affidavit states.

Inflection is accused of not reporting the first spill that was smaller than the second one, documents state.

As part of a remediation effort, Inflection removed and disposed of more than 3,600 cubic yards of impacted soil, DEP said. It also monitored groundwater and private water sources.

Inflection and Double D are accused of violating the Fish and Boat Code, Solid Waste Management Act, Clean Streams Law and the Oil and Gas Act.

02/11/2020 - U.S. Steel, Allegheny County Health Department finalize air pollution settlement agreement and order

The Allegheny County Health Department has reached a final settlement agreement and order with U.S. Steel over air pollution violations at the Clairton Coke Works, part of the larger Mon Valley Works system. The settlement was issued in June of 2019 to address ongoing emissions problems at the plant.

The final settlement requires U.S. Steel to pay $2.7 million in fines as well as make $200 million worth of improvements to the facility.

“U.S. Steel remains committed to an investment of approximately $200 million for improvements to its Mon Valley Works coke batteries, including upgrades to emission controls and plant infrastructure,” U.S. Steel said in a statement.

Health Department interim director Ron Sugar said this settlement is a step forward for addressing runaway emissions at the Works.

“We do believe that once these repairs are made to the plant, there will be a reduction in emissions in the Mon Valley,” Sugar said. “And air quality will improve as a result.”

The entities have been engaged in a two-year legal battle due to what the County said was a decrease in compliance over time. Multiple penalties were filed by the health department against U.S. Steel, followed by the manufacturing giant appealing them.

After the June settlement, former Allegheny County Health Director Karen Hacker said the department did not get everything it wanted.

“But, we believe this settlement will result in significant improvements to air quality and the lowering of emissions,” Hacker said at the time.

According to the Health Department, two key parts to the order have been completed. The first establishes a Community Benefit Trust for neighboring Clairton, Glassport, Liberty, Lincoln and Port Vue. More than $3 million has been deposited into that fund by U.S. Steel.

For future emissions violations at the Clairton Coke Works, 90 percent of the fines’ total will go to the Trust for “approximately five years,” according to the county. The fund administrator is the Smithfield Trust Company.

Zach Barber, a clean air advocate at PennEnvironment, said this settlement is a step in the right direction, as long as the Trust money goes to remediation.

“We think an important part of how this money gets spent needs to be making sure it’s paying to clean up the problems this pollution has caused,” Barber said.

A Community Advisory Panel will also be formed, comprised of elected officials and residents of neighboring communities eligible for the Trust. The panel and U.S. Steel representatives will meet on a quarterly basis to hash out concerns related to the Clairton Coke Works.

02/11/2020 - ‘You guys know me, I’m not a traitor’: Former PES refinery worker criticized by some for his film about the plant, the fire and his opinion on the site’s future

Most of Bilal Motley's former co-workers have either rallied to keep the refinery open or kept their thoughts private. Motley, however, wants to tell his story.

02/10/2020 - Pa. not meeting Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals; Maryland may sue

The three-decade long effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay appears to be entering a critical stage.

In 2010, the federal Environmental Protection Agency established what it called the total maximum daily load or TMDL, which set limits for the amount of nutrients that drain into the Chesapeake. Six states and the District of Columbia were part of the agreement. Even though Pennsylvania does not border the Chesapeake Bay, the Susquehanna River is the biggest source of freshwater running into the Bay.

Progress has been made in the past 30 years and even since the 2010 agreement. Maryland and Virginia, in particular, are on track to meet their goals. However, Pennsylvania appears to be lagging — especially when it comes to nitrogen runoff into waters that enter the Bay. Pennsylvania is reportedly about nine million pounds short of meeting its nitrogen reduction goal by 2025.

It’s gotten to the point where Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has threatened to sue Pennsylvania to force it to meet its goals.

Dan Aunkst, director of EPA’s Chesapeake Bay program has said the TMDL goals were an aspiration and not enforceable.

As a result, Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation may sue EPA over Pennsylvania’s not meeting its goals.

Monday’s Smart Talk focuses on the Bay cleanup and Pennsylvania’s plans.

Appearing on the program are Patrick McDonnell, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Will Baker, President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Patrick McDonnell, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, appeared on Smart Talk on February 10, 2020.

Mike Busada

William C. Baker, President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, appeared on Smart Talk via phone call on February 10, 2020. Photo taken by Mike Busada.

02/07/2020 - Some lawmakers think they can override Wolf’s veto on manufacturing tax break bill

Overrides are rare, and can only happen when two-thirds of the legislature are willing to support a bill against the governor’s explicit wishes. The last one happened a decade ago.

02/06/2020 - Feds lower coal mine cleanup funding for Pa.

Pennsylvania is getting less money from the federal government this year to clean up its old abandoned mines.

The state is getting $32 million from the federal government’s Abandoned Mine Land (AML) reclamation grant this year, down from the $55 million it got last year. The drop is mostly because a one-time funding stream ended last year. That money came from funds originally withheld from states and American Indian tribes when the abandoned mine fund program was re-authorized in 2006.

Another factor is a decline in revenues the program receives from a per-ton fee on active coal mining. The money brought in by the fee — which is set to expire next year — has been dwindling as the country moves away from coal. The Energy Information Administration estimated that coal production declined another 9 percent last year, and expects another 14 percent decline this year.

Lanny Erdos, acting director of the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, said the fund collected $155 million from a fee on coal production in 2019, versus $184 million in 2018.

“So the number obviously has been coming down,” Erdos said.

The funds are used by states and tribes to clean up damage from coal mining that occurred prior to 1977, when Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

In Pennsylvania, that damage includes 5,000 miles of streams polluted by acid mine drainage and heavy metals, and piles of coal waste, or refuse, that dot the state’s coal patch. That waste can leach contaminants into rivers and streams, and coal piles can be a hazard for nearby communities. The state estimates there are nearly 300,000 acres of abandoned mine land in need of reclamation, with a cleanup cost of $5 billion.

Erdos says the AML funds will go toward fixing some of those areas.

“There will be coal refuse disposal areas that will be remediated, reclaimed and re-vegetated and … brought back to post-mining land use that is productive,” Erdos said. “There’ll be streams that will be remediated as well, where we may have acid mind drainage discharging into those.”  

Overall, the federal AML fund takes in around $150 million a year — about half what it was taking in 10 years ago. The authority for the surface mining reclamation and enforcement office to collect that fee is set to expire next year. For the past few years, the state’s mine cleanup program has received around $25 million through the AML Pilot program, a cleanup program authorized by Congress in 2015 that is funded by U.S. taxpayers, not coal fees.

The lower funding levels will mean Pennsylvania’s coal cleanup will take longer, said Eric Cavazza, director of the Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees coal mine cleanup in the state.

Cavazza said the AML money goes to pay for abandoned mine emergencies, cleanup of acid mine drainage, and projects that address health and safety hazards on Pennsylvania’s old mines.

“What this will ultimately result in as we go forward is us doing less in reclamation projects or us not doing very big projects,” Cavazza said. “We won’t have funding to do them all in one contract or one shot.”

02/04/2020 - Gov. Wolf’s budget proposes boosting staff at Pa.’s departments of environmental protection, and conservation and natural resources

Gov. Tom Wolf proposed money for additional staffing at the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and he renewed his support for a package of pipeline reforms, in his annual budget released Tuesday.

The DEP would get $171.6 million from the general fund in Wolf’s proposed budget. Other sources of funding for the agency would result in a total budget of $553.8 million.

After decades of cuts to DEP under both Democratic and Republican administrations, it’s the first time proposed spending from the general fund for environmental protection has risen above $165.6 million, the level it reached in 1994-1995, according to former DEP Secretary David Hess.

“Those cuts had to be backfilled by permit fee increases,” Hess said. “Those kinds of fee increases were unsustainable.”

Hess said when he ran DEP from 2001-2003, funding for the agency did not depend so much on permit fees. About half of DEP’s current budget relies on those fees, while just 20 percent comes from the general fund, he said. Federal funds make up the rest. In the early 2000s, permit fees, general fund dollars and federal funds each contributed about one-third.

One result of those cuts has been a 25 percent drop in DEP staff between 2003 and 2018.

“The time has come for the people in the General Assembly to really have some serious conversations about this,” Hess said. “I see a lot of seeds in this budget that can grow into something that more completely meets our environmental funding obligations.”

The budget calls for an additional $1 million for hiring new DEP staff to support the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. Both the state of Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation recently said they plan to sue the EPA and Pennsylvania for not doing enough to reduce agricultural run-off that contributes to bay pollution.

About $47 million is restored from last year’s cuts to community-based restoration projects that work on improving waterways that feed into the Chesapeake Bay.

Hazardous site cleanup, severance tax and more park rangers

DEP’s Bureau of Air Quality would also get a boost under Wolf’s proposed plan, which asks for an additional $1.5 million for new staff. And DCNR would get an additional $2.5 million for new state park and forest rangers. A recent report revealed DCNR has a backlog of maintenance projects underfunded by $1 billion. In total, the new budget would provide 25 new staff members at DEP and 25 at DCNR.

Wolf is also calling on lawmakers to enact a $1 per ton increase in tipping fees for municipal waste landfill deposits as a way to support the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund. The fund is expected to become insolvent by the end of this year, the Wolf administration said, and the governor says increased tipping fees would generate an additional $22.6 million. That could help with any cleanup associated with emerging PFAS contamination.

PennEnvironment executive director David Masur says it’s a good sign the proposal includes increased funds.

“It’s hard to protect our environment if we don’t have the environmental cops on the beat to enforce the laws and implement programs,” Masur said. “But it would be valuable if we had a long-term plan in order to make DEP and DCNR whole.”

The budget includes a natural gas severance tax to fund Restore PA, a set of infrastructure projects. It’s the sixth time Wolf has introduced a severance tax, which has been blocked by the Republican legislature.

The oil and gas industry opposes the effort, saying it has generated almost $2 billion in impact fee money since 2012.

“Responsible natural gas development has been good for the state economy, good for local economies and good for Pennsylvanians,” said API-PA director Stephanie Catarino Wissman. “This initiative doesn’t restore Pennsylvania; it jeopardizes Pennsylvania’s economy and the hundreds of thousands of jobs supported by natural gas production.”

Opposition to Restore PA comes from the political right as well as some on the left, who see it as a way to continue fossil fuel development.

“Restore PA is structured around a severance tax that lasts for another 20 years,” said Karen Feridun of the Better Path Coalition. “It’s bad enough that we would be committed to 20 more years of fracking, (and) it includes incentives for the petrochemical business.”

Republican lawmakers criticized spending in the overall budget. GOP Chairman Val DiGiorgio said in a statement that the proposal doesn’t “align with reality.”

“Whether it’s calling for an irresponsible borrow and tax plan that holds Pennsylvania’s energy industry hostage to putting more government mandates on small businesses while our economy is booming, Pennsylvanians should be wary of a total buy-in to the Governor’s plan,” DiGiorgio said.

“Thankfully, pro-growth, pro-jobs Republicans still hold the majority in both chambers of the General Assembly and they will — as they did over the last four years — continue to stand up for the interests of taxpayers, job-creators, and students in Pennsylvania.”

Pipeline safety legislation

Wolf used the budget to renew his call to close what he calls gaps in pipeline regulation that “tie the hands of the executive and independent agencies.”

“This proposed rulemaking should enhance pipeline safety in Pennsylvania and move forward expeditiously,” Wolf said in a statement. “Significant improvements to hazardous liquid public utility safety standards can be accomplished regulatorily by building upon the federal pipeline safety laws.”

The pipeline proposals include granting the Public Utility Commission authority to regulate locations of intrastate lines. No state agency has that authority. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) oversees interstate pipeline siting, but the lack of authority within the state has fueled opposition to lines like Energy Transfer’s cross-state Mariner East project. Mariner East 1, 2 and 2x carry or will carry natural gas liquids from western Pa. to an export terminal near Philadelphia.

A bi-partisan package of pipeline safety bills introduced last year by Sen. Tom Killion (R-Chester and Delaware), along with Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-Chester), failed to gain traction.

“I was heartened to hear the governor address the need for stronger laws to ensure pipeline public and environmental safety,” Dinniman said in a statement. “Many of the points he made echoed what I and others have been calling for over the past six years here in Chester County and Harrisburg.”

Wolf urged lawmakers to enact measures that require emergency response plans for schools and childcare centers that are within 1,000 feet of a pipeline; five-day advanced notice to residents and municipalities of any pipeline construction; and PUC-generated setbacks for residential neighborhoods, education facilities and hospitals.

For natural gas pipelines, Wolf stressed the need for legislation addressing emergency response, including operators sharing emergency response and evacuation plans with local emergency managers; sharing emergency response plans with the PUC; and requiring emergency shut-off valves in “high consequence,” or highly populated, areas. He also wants DEP to have the ability to establish setbacks from wetlands and waterways.

In his address, Wolf talked about using funds from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a carbon cap-and-trade program among Northeast states aimed at addressing climate change, to help fund environmental protection.

“And by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, we can raise hundreds of millions of dollars in auction proceeds to make our air cleaner and our transit systems stronger so that Pennsylvanians can get to the jobs businesses are creating,” he said.

Wolf signed an executive order in October directing DEP to draft regulations on joining RGGI. The program puts a price on power plant carbon emissions, which are then traded at auction. Some lawmakers have opposed the effort.