News

04/26/2019 - Legacy of Three Mile Island accident, political power of gas industry makes nuclear subsidies an uphill battle in Pennsylvania

The nuclear industry says the power market isn't built to consider a value like carbon-free emissions. But one state representative, for example, is balking at the projected cost of the subsidy.

04/25/2019 - Sinkhole opens up along ME2 route in Delaware County; no leaks or injuries

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Sunoco said a sinkhole near the state police barracks in Middletown, Delaware County was filled after it opened on Wednesday. The Public Utility Commission said its Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement has launched a safety investigation.

A sinkhole opened up on Wednesday along a Sunoco pipeline route in Middletown, Delaware County, state, county and township officials said.

The sinkhole – called a “subsidence” by the Public Utility Commission – was in the right-of-way for a 12-inch pipeline that is part of the Mariner East system to carry highly volatile natural gas liquids and petroleum products, the PUC said in a statement late Wednesday.

No leaks or injuries were reported, and Sunoco officials have been working to “stabilize and monitor” the situation, the PUC said. The regulator said its Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement has launched a safety investigation.

Earlier this week, Sunoco restarted the Mariner East 1 pipeline which had been shut down for three months because another sinkhole exposed a section of the pipe on a construction site at Lisa Drive, a suburban development in West Whiteland Township, Chester County.

Sunoco confirmed that the new sinkhole had opened up but said Thursday morning that the hole has been filled and that there was no interruption to pipeline operations.

“A subsidence feature did occur yesterday along our right of way,” said Vicki Granado, a spokeswoman for Sunoco’s parent, Energy Transfer. “The appropriate regulatory agencies were notified and an investigation determined our pipelines in the area are safe and secure. Nothing was exposed. The area was immediately contained and grouted. We placed our personnel in the area to continue to monitor the area. Our pipelines remain in service.”

The incident was the latest to hit Sunoco during the troubled Mariner East construction, which began in February 2017. The project has been bedeviled by drilling fluid spills, contaminated aquifers and sinkholes, has prompted millions of dollars in fines for environmental violations, and has been shut down several times by regulators because of safety concerns.

After rising criticism from community groups, some lawmakers, and this year from Gov. Tom Wolf, the company acknowledged in February that it had made “mistakes” that would not be repeated.

The hole measured about 12 feet deep by 12 feet wide and 12 feet long, and was in front of a barracks occupied by Pennsylvania State Police, according to a statement from Middletown Township on Wednesday.

The township said the affected area is at the end of a horizontal directional drill being used in construction of the new Mariner East pipelines – Mariner East 2 and 2X.

“Investigation into the subsidence is ongoing; an environmental engineer was on site and advised flowable fill was to be used to repair the subsidence,” the township’s statement said.

Township manager Andrew Haines said that the sinkhole was across the street from Granite Run Farms, a senior residential center, but said there was no risk to residents’ safety.

“We do not have any emergency concerns for any of our residents at this time,” Haines said in an interview.

Opponents of the Mariner East project say it represents a grave risk to public safety, especially in densely populated areas like Delaware County, because any leak of natural gas liquids could cause a deadly explosion.

Such safety concerns were raised by a PUC administrative judge who temporarily halted the operation of Mariner East 1 and construction of Mariner East 2 in May 2018 following the sinkholes at Lisa Drive.

Sunoco decided last year to use the 12-inch pipeline, first built in the 1930s, as a temporary part of its Mariner East 2 line because new construction at some places in Delaware and Chester Counties had not been completed. Critics said repurposing the old line fanned safety concerns because of its history of leaks, most recently in June 2018 when it leaked some 30,000 gallons of gasoline into Darby Creek near Philadelphia.

Timothy Boyce, director of Delaware County Emergency Services, said Thursday that the new hole had been filled and there was no risk to public safety.

“At no time was there ever reported any danger from it,” Boyce said. “It was in a grassy area so there was no property damage, and we never received reports that the pipelines in the area were exposed or undermined.”

Mariner East 2, which carries natural gas liquids to a terminal at Marcus Hook in Delaware County, began operating on Dec. 29, 2018.

Scott Blanchard/StateImpact Pennsylvania

The map shows the Mariner East 2 pipeline’s path across 17 Pennsylvania counties on its way to the Marcus Hook industrial complex in Delaware County, where the natural gas liquids it carries will be shipped overseas to make plastics. The map was built using state Department of Environmental Protection shapefiles of the route for which DEP issued permits. The line extends west into Ohio.

04/24/2019 - State: No cancer cluster in Washington County school district

The Pennsylvania department of health has determined that there is no cancer cluster in a Washington County school district. The agency conducted the study after several cases of Ewing sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, were reported there.

The department looked at statistics from the Pennsylvania Cancer Registry dating to 1985. In addition to Ewing sarcoma, the agency looked at other types of cancer rates: liver, brain, bone, lung, and breast cancers. It compared cancer rates in Washington County and Canon-McMillan School District against statewide rates.

In a report released Tuesday, the state concluded that rates of Ewing sarcoma weren’t “consistently or statistically significantly higher than expected” in either Washington County or the school district.

The study did find that between 2005 and 2017, rates of Ewing sarcoma were three times higher than expected in the school district. The rare tumor mainly affects young people and can be fatal.

The authors said the number of cases was so small — just three instances of Ewing sarcoma in the district over those years — that the higher-than-expected rates weren’t “statistically significant.”

Only about 200 cases of the tumor are reported in the U.S. each year.

Jian-Min Yuan, a professor of epidemiology at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, said the state used appropriate methods in analyzing whether the Washington County cases represented a cancer cluster or were a statistical anomaly.

He said the sample size of cases in the district was too small to determine whether there was a cancer cluster.

“It is unusual for this small area to have three Ewing cancers occur in a very short time period, but the scientific evidence does not support it yet,” Yuan said.

When the department announced it was performing the study, it said it would be looking into “possible environmental risk factors” for cancer in the area. The district includes a former radium and uranium plant in Canonsburg. It’s also in one of the busiest natural gas areas in the state, near more than a thousand shale gas wells and several compressor stations and other natural gas processing facilities.

The agency said it will continue to monitor the rate of pediatric cancers in the district as new data become available.

04/23/2019 - Methane hearing draws concern over state rules, talk of promising new technology

While Pennsylvania officials weigh how to regulate emissions from natural gas well sites, a panel of state senators on Tuesday heard how leak detection technology is advancing and creating more jobs.

Several members of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee met in Pittsburgh for a hearing on methane, the main component of natural gas and a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

Arvind Ravikumar, assistant professor of energy engineering at Harrisburg University, said crews historically have had to drive to gas sites and operate a camera to spot emissions. New technologies make that possible from drones and planes.

He said businesses are forming around those technologies in Alberta, where he’s worked with regulators and the oil and gas industry.

“Many of these start-up companies will be setting up offices in Calgary to cater to their Canadian clients,” he said. “Given the scale of natural gas activity in Pennsylvania, I see no reason why we cannot have these companies set up operations out of Pittsburgh.”

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection is proposing a regulation on gas companies, requiring them to conduct quarterly checks for volatile organic compounds, which contribute to ozone and sometimes escape from existing gas wells. While the proposal does not target methane specifically, the agency has said that repairing leaks of VOCs would also help prevent methane emissions.

Ravikumar said some of the emerging technologies target methane rather than VOCs.

“A regulatory regime that does not target methane will not be able to take advantage of the latest cost-effective approaches to leak detection,” he said.

Regardless, the proposed DEP regulation would result in more jobs for businesses tasked with finding those leaks in Pennsylvania, according to one such company that operates here.

“Immediately, I probably will have to hire up to 10 technicians to meet the needs of our clients after these regulations are put into play,” said Jared Metcalf, U.S. operations manager for Target Emission Services, which works with natural gas producers to identify leaks.

Some environmental groups told lawmakers that the proposal could be made stronger by addressing methane because the makeup of natural gas is different throughout the Marcellus Shale play. Andrew Williams, director of legislative and regulatory affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund, said natural gas in the northeastern part of the state contains few volatile organic compounds.

He added that the proposal is too lenient in exempting low-producing gas wells. As a result, EDF estimates it would cover only 21 percent of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.

“I think it’s important to point out the flip side of that,” he said. “There are 79 percent of the emissions going unchecked across the state.”

DEP’s proposed regulation recently got approval from an advisory committee and is continuing through the agency’s rulemaking process.

A DEP spokesperson said in an email that addressing climate change is a top priority for the Wolf administration, and that the proposed rule stems from a federal requirement to limit VOC emissions. The agency estimates the regulation would reduce what it considers a “significant amount” of methane by 20,080 tons per year.

“DEP takes comments from the public seriously and, depending on the public comments received, DEP may amend the draft rule or re-evaluate after implementation of final rule,” DEP spokeserson Elizabeth Rementer said.

While no natural gas companies testified at Tuesday’s hearing, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group, said in a statement that it has concerns about the potential cost of the DEP proposal and suggested the agency delay it given regulatory uncertainty at the federal level. The Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration directed states like Pennsylvania to address volatile organic compounds, but the agency last year proposed withdrawing that requirement.

“Our industry is laser focused on ensuring methane, the product we produce and sell, as well as related emissions are effectively and safely managed,” the Marcellus Shale Coalition said. “To continue to build upon our air quality-related successes, we’re enhancing best practices, utilizing new technologies and collaborating as an industry around these shared environmental and business goals, all while pushing record production levels.”

Lawmakers at the hearing also heard from several southwestern Pennsylvania residents who live near gas wells.

Jane Worthington of Washington County tearfully recounted the health problems her daughter has experienced, which she attributes to natural gas development in the area, including near her child’s school.

She spoke of her daughter’s headaches, bleeding noses, bruises, and her own frustrations trying to obtain test results showing what was happening.

“We need methane regulations now, and I can’t say it strong enough,” she said.

04/22/2019 - Pennsylvania utility regulator speaks out against state Senate’s nuclear bailout bill

Public Utility Commissioner Andrew Place sent a memo last week outlining why he thinks the Senate version of the nuclear subsidy bill is a bad idea.

04/20/2019 - Sunoco to restart Mariner East 1 after agreeing to new safety measures

Eric Friedman. / Submitted

A new sinkhole that opened up in January outside a suburban home at Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township, Chester County prompted the shut down of Mariner East 1. The line is due to be restarted on Monday.

Sunoco plans to restart the controversial Mariner East 1 pipeline on Monday afternoon after agreeing to new safety measures demanded by Public Utility Commission investigators.

The PUC said Sunoco gave 72 hours’ notice on Friday afternoon of its intention to restart the natural-gas liquids line, which was shut off Jan. 20 after a section was exposed by a sinkhole at Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township, Chester County.

After discussions with the PUC’s Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement, Sunoco has agreed to inspect Mariner East 1 daily until it completes grouting along the Lisa Drive section of the line, as well as report its findings to the bureau and perform geophysical tests of the land there every six months for two years.

The company also agreed to use a strain gauge, an instrument that measures force and pressure, to monitor any underground movement of the pipeline, which runs through an unstable limestone formation and a few yards from a line of suburban houses.

Sunoco has used the instrument at Lisa Drive since 2018, the PUC said, and has not detected any movement of Mariner East 1 before, during or after the latest sinkhole appeared on Jan. 20.

Engineers from the bureau’s Pipeline Safety Division will be on site on Monday to monitor the restart, the PUC said in a statement.

Opponents of the multibillion-dollar Mariner East project say the 8-inch-diameter Mariner East 1 line is a particular cause for concern because it was first built in the 1930s, has a history of leaks, and has been recently repurposed from carrying gasoline to carrying highly volatile natural-gas liquids.

In April 2017, the line leaked about 20 barrels of ethane and propane at Morgantown, Berks County, in an incident that PUC inspectors later attributed to corrosion. Sunoco agreed in early April this year to pay a $200,000 fine for the Morgantown leak, and to monitor the line more rigorously.

In May 2018, a PUC administrative judge shut down operation of Mariner East 1 and construction of the adjacent Mariner East 2, a 20-inch-diameter line, at Lisa Drive after the appearance of an earlier series of sinkholes. Judge Elizabeth Barnes said public safety was at risk because the operational line was running through unstable ground on the same right-of-way where the new line was being built. Her ruling was later reversed by the full PUC.

Concerns about the safety of the aging line were underlined by Gov. Tom Wolf, who in February ordered the PUC to conduct an “end of life” study on it, using independent experts.

Sunoco, a unit of Energy Transfer, has said throughout the troubled two-year construction of the new Mariner East pipelines that they meet or exceed all state and federal safety regulations. But the parent company has recently acknowledged its mistakes during the project, and promised to stop further errors such as drilling mud spills and the disturbance of private water wells.

The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the agreement to restart Mariner East 1.

Critics of the Mariner East project say the pipelines represent a grave risk to public safety because any leak of natural-gas liquids in densely populated areas like West Whiteland could result in an explosion and heavy loss of life.

Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety, a coalition of community groups in Delaware and Chester counties, said Sunoco’s new assurances to the PUC inspectors don’t make the line any safer.

“Applicable rules require the PUC to obtain credible guidance for the public to use in the event of continued leaks from Sunoco’s Mariner East pipelines,” the group said in a statement on Saturday. “Yet PUC has not done so. PUC clearly is offering no assurances against further leaks. So its policy, evidently, is to hope for the best.”

Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, a PUC spokesman, responded to the Del-Chesco statement, saying that the Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement has been in “extensive discussions” with Sunoco over the project at Lisa Drive, and that the company has taken “numerous additional steps” in response to concerns raised by inspectors.

He said the new agreement has no impact on “more than half a dozen” other complaints related to the Mariner East project that are being litigated before the PUC.

The Mariner East pipelines carry ethane, propane and butane some 350 miles from southwest Pennsylvania and Ohio to a terminal at Marcus Hook, Delaware County, where most of the material is exported for plastics manufacture overseas. The newest section of the project, Mariner East 2, began operating on Dec. 29, 2018.

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.