08/02/2019 - Into the bog: Scientists are trying to learn more about unique peatland ecosystems

When I meet up with a group of scientists in the parking lot of Laurel Summit State Park, in southwestern Pennsylvania, there are clues about where we’re headed.

Kara Holsopple / The Allegheny Front

Conifers ring the outside of the wetland.

“I always go with a hiking pole, which is especially good for wetlands, and testing out how deep the water is where you might sink in,” advises David Yeany, an ornithologist with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. His colleague, Mary Ann Furedi pulls equipment from the back of her vehicle, and suits up.

“Everyone else is going with knee boots. I didn’t bring mine, so I’m going to go with chest waders,” she says.

Furedi is an ecologist with the conservancy, and the monitoring and assessment manager for an effort to study 30 peatland sites in Pennsylvania. Peat is partially decomposed plant, and sometimes, animal material.

Pennsylvania is home to a number of peatlands, which are mostly in the northeast and northwestern part of the state. But it’s just a short walk along a gravel trail here to see one.

These unique ecosystems are vulnerable to development and climate change, and these conservationists are trying to learn more about them.

Listen to the story:


Ephraim Zimmerman is also gathering up gear, including a compass and water monitoring equipment. He is a plant community ecologist, and, like his colleagues, part of the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program, which looks at rare species and habitat in the state.

Kara Holsopple / The Allegheny Front

From left, David Yeany, Ephraim Zimmerman and Mary Ann Furedi.

Graminoid, bryophytes and hummocks?

“This is a red oak, mixed hardwood forest that’s up at the top of this ridge,” Zimmerman says.

This spot is about 2,700 feet above sea level, which is pretty high for the Laurel Highlands. Along the trail we see rhododendron bushes, pink mountain laurel and a lot of thigh-high ferns. Then the forest shade opens up into a sunny wetland.

“This is the more graminoid-dominated wetland, or grass-dominated,” Furedi says. She points out some chokeberry bushes growing low to the wet ground.

A small boardwalk has been built here so that visitors can get a closer look at the flora, like carnivorous pitcher plants, which are blooming now with tall, purple flowers. They look like upside down umbrellas. A few different species of dragonflies zoom around.

Spruce Flats Bog is the name of this locality, but there are no spruce here,” Zimmerman explains.

Kara Holsopple / The Alllegheny Front

The flower of the carnivorous pitcher plant.

Apparently, the frontier people and workers who logged this area a hundred years ago called any conifer tree a spruce. They removed a lot of the pine and hemlock, too.

“So, here in the wetland is one of the only places where there’s still the conifer component,” Zimmerman says.

Conifers are trees that produce cones. Taller, windswept ones line the perimeter, and spindly, little evergreens dot the interior, like islands. Some of the stumps from the old, logged trees create another feature of this landscape: hummocks.

“These hummocks themselves might only be a foot high, but in that small elevation change you have these moisture differences, and so you could have four, or five or six different species of moss growing there,” Furedi says.

Mosses are bryophytes, and it’s one type of plant they’re monitoring. Sphagnum moss is by far the most common here.

“It almost looks like a green shag rug from the 70s,” Furedi says. “I like to call it nature’s sponge, because it can just hold a tremendous amount of water.”

Kara Holsopple / The Allegheny Front

One of the many species of dragonflies at the bog.

Habitat for vulnerable birds

Spruce Flats Bog is also a home for many common animal species, like deer and bear. But a butterfly called the bog copper relies on peatland habitat, and the wild cranberry plants found in Pennsylvania’s peatlands.

“There was a Canada warbler singing over here, and Canada warbler is one of our top focal species,” David Yeany says.

These are birds they are paying special attention to because the need for conservation is so high. In Canada, they’re listed as threatened. Yeany says the male has a slate gray back with a contrasting yellow face and chest. We can’t see it in the dense shrub, but we listen for the call.

Yeany says there are 90 bird species of greatest conservation need in Pennsylvania, and within that group are species like the yellow-bellied flycatcher and the blackpoll warbler.

“Without these wetlands, they wouldn’t have a place to breed in Pennsylvania,” Yeany says. “Birds are really linked to habitat type, and that’s one reason that we’re looking at birds, because they’re a good indicator of change.”

Yeanys says these birds have a boreal affinity — boreal meaning north.

Ephraim Zimmerman says that’s what makes these places in Pennsylvania so unusual.

“We’re in an area that has had so much recent human history, as opposed to farther north, and in Maine, Wisconsin and Canada, where you have these vast expanses of these boreal ecosystems,” he says. “So we have something that’s kind of a remnant a southern extreme of this type.

Peat tells the story of centuries

To get to a study plot, where some of the plant and animal communities here are measured and recorded, we just walk off the trail, into the forest. The ground starts to become less solid within a couple minutes.

Soon it’s like walking on a waterbed, carefully placing our boots on stretches of moss. It smells a little like a wet basement. We move carefully between oak trees, as greenbriar thorns rip into our pants and shirts. When we arrive at the plot 15 minutes later, we’re ankle deep in water.

Zimmerman takes a soil core sample, to get a better picture of what’s happening in the muck beneath our feet. He slices through the roots of the living sphagnum moss, and removes the top layer. Then he grabs onto a longer tool, which looks like a pogo stick with a sharp end.

“This the soil auger, and this is what you can do to get the deeper material,” Zimmerman says. “I can’t reach my hand down that much farther.”

He pulls up progressively more decomposed material the deeper he plumbs. The peat gets progressively darker in color, too. There’s little oxygen, so the plants here decompose slowly, and the soil core samples tell a story.

“So at some of our peatlands, we’ve seen that there would be a layer of undecomposed peat, and then there would be a layer of very decomposed plant material, and then another undecomposed layer,” Zimmerman says. “So some kind of shift happened.”

He says there hundreds of years of data within these peatlands.

Kara Holsopple / The Allegheny Front

Ephraim Zimmerman pulls apart a peat sample.

Climate change could alter the ecosystem

Climate models predict more wet weather for Pennsylvania. Zimmerman says that could mean changes in this ecosystem. The entire water table could rise and push the wetland out into the surrounding trees.

Mary Ann Furedi says the trees in this wetland act like straws, sucking up water. It then evaporates into the atmosphere. Hotter temperatures from climate change could increase evaporation, creating different patterns of drying here.

“The purpose of the work that we’re doing is just beginning to document what’s here,” Furedi says. “Without that good, solid baseline data, we don’t have a comparison for future scenarios.”

David Yeany says when they come back to do a third round of monitoring here in five to seven years, they’ll see how conditions have changed.

“But, a really important thing is to be able to provide this information to land managers and conservation groups,” he says. “We can provide them this information to help direct management and conservation activities that they might do here.”

Ephraim Zimmerman says one thing that they know for sure is that change is constant. This wetland will someday become shrub swamp, and then revert back into a hemlock forest, if the hemlock wooly adelgid pest doesn’t kill them first.

“But a little bit farther away, maybe a family of beavers move in, and flood the area, and turn it back into this open wetland, again,” he explains. “So the more that you protect the large areas like this, and connected landscapes, you can protect the high quality, small areas within that larger matrix.”

That approach could give the plant and animal species in this little pocket of habitat a chance to adapt, to climate change or even more human activity, like the development of new roads or natural gas infrastructure.

This story is part of the series “Wild Pennsylvania,” which is funded by the Richard King Mellon Foundation. To check out other stories in the series, click here

07/31/2019 - After refinery fire, Philadelphia creates advisory group to discuss the site’s future

Philadelphia’s newly formed PES Refinery Advisory Group will hold three public meetings in August to seek input on the future of the soon-to-be shuttered refinery in South Philadelphia.

An explosion and fire destroyed parts of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions facility in June. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this month.

The city’s 26-member advisory group draws from labor, academia, business interests, city government as well as environment and community groups.

Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy said the city wants a variety of input from all stakeholders, including those with environmental expertise, neighbors who live near the refinery and workers.

“We don’t expect them all to agree, but we do think all their voices are important to hear,” said Abernathy. “Those voices are also really important for the public to hear.”

The PES refinery struggled financially before the explosion led to the planned shutdown and bankruptcy earlier this month, which was the second bankruptcy in less than two years.

The shutdown will result in more than 1,000 people losing their jobs by the end of August. The union that represents about 640 workers at the plant is pushing for a buyer to fix and re-open the plant. But neighbors have complained for years about air pollution from the refinery, and environmental groups say that whatever happens, it should not become another refinery.

Several federal city and state agencies are investigating the incident, including the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Philadelphia Fire Marshal.

Abernathy said the city recognizes its limited role in determining the future of the 1,400-acre site.

“You’re not going to hear me say we can dictate what happens on that site,” he said, “but I think we can have some influence on what happens at that site, [including] through licensing and permits. I think it’s incumbent on us as the jurisdiction most impacted by the refinery, both the good and the bad, that we play a role here.”

Abernathy said the city wants to understand all the complex issues surrounding safety, public health, and jobs that the 150-year-old facility has brought to the area. The city has divided the group into four committees.

Mark Alan Hughes directs Penn’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy and is a member of the PES Refinery Advisory Group, as well as the chair of the environmental and academic committee.

Hughes said that while the city has limited influence on what a private company in bankruptcy will end up doing with the site, it does have a responsibility to residents.

“The city doesn’t necessarily have the big powerful governmental jurisdiction regarding oil refining,” Hughes said. “But it is on the frontline of what happens [at the site]. So it has a role, it’s a narrow role, but it’s an important one.”

Hughes said one thing the city does have authority over is land use.

“It is extremely important for the city to give people a chance to be heard,” he said. “That kind of democratic deliberation is an important part of the process, and it makes it much easier in the long run to make good and sustainable and stable kinds of decisions.”

Three public meetings are scheduled. The first one will be 5:30 p.m. Tuesday Aug. 6 at Preparatory Charter School in Point Breeze. Those interested in speaking should email

07/31/2019 - Delaware County chemical plant fined $750,000 for air pollution violations

A chemical plant in Chester will pay a $750,000 penalty for nearly six years’ worth of air quality violations as part of a settlement reached with the Department of Environmental Protection.

PQ Corporation makes materials and chemicals with various applications, from fuels to road construction to consumer products like toothpaste. It produces sodium silicate for use in hair dye, cleaning products, and water treatment systems. It also makes sulfuric acid for refinery operations.

The fine covers violations of the Pennsylvania Air Pollution Control Act, including emissions limits and failure to submit emissions reports on time. 

The DEP found the plant violated hourly emissions limits for either nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, or some combination of the three, for multiple days every quarter between July 2013 and December 2018. Those pollutants are known to exacerbate respiratory problems like asthma.

By another measure — 12-month rolling total emissions limits — the company has shown improvement. The facility was found to be in violation of its rolling totals continuously from July 2013 to late 2014, at which point the plant’s emissions monitoring system was certified by DEP. Since then, the plant has been in compliance with the 12-month limits.

DEP spokesperson Virginia Cain said the penalty was delayed as the agency worked with the company to make sure the permit limits were appropriate and to get the facility back into compliance.

This is not the first time PQ Corporation has paid penalties for the Chester site. In 2015, the company paid $215,258 to DEP for similar violations during an earlier time period, and in 2017 it paid an additional $7,540 for recordkeeping and reporting violations.

PQ Corporation acknowledged the new agreement in a statement and said it has continued to make progress in the past year to reduce emissions at the Chester facility in addition to improving operating and maintenance practices.

However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Enforcement and Compliance History database shows that the plant has continued to violate particulate matter limits throughout 2019. The database also shows a Clean Water Act violation found during an EPA site visit in March.

The PQ Corporation plant is just one of several sources of air pollution in the predominantly African American neighborhood near the Delaware River waterfront in Chester. Just a few blocks away is the Delaware Valley Resource Recovery Facility, one of the largest municipal waste incinerators in the country, and one of the most polluting of its kind

07/31/2019 - Brunner Island plant will pay $1 million fine for coal ash pollution

A year ago, four environmental groups threatened to sue over Clean Water Act violations, saying the plant was discharging toxic pollutants from its unlined coal ash ponds.

07/31/2019 - Residents, workers air their responses to US Steel settlement

A draft agreement between US Steel and Allegheny County officials does not go far enough, environmental advocates and some residents said at a public hearing on the agreement Tuesday night. 

But several workers at the company’s Clairton coke works say the agreement will make the air in Pittsburgh cleaner while keeping them at work. 

The hearing was held Tuesday night to discuss a $2.7 million settlement drawn up by US Steel and the Allegheny County Health Department last month. The county could try to change the agreement based on public comment. 

In June, the county health department announced the draft agreement to resolve multiple air pollution violations at US Steel’s Clairton Plant over the past two years.

In addition to the $2.7 million fine, the agreement put in place a suite of pollution upgrades at the plant. The company said the price of those upgrades is $200 million.

At a hearing on the agreement Tuesday night in Clairton, a packed room heard testimony from residents fed up with the region’s poor air quality, public health and environmental advocates, workers at the plant, and US Steel executives. 

Company officials testified that the upgrades were part of a broader investment by the company that will result in “significant” reductions in air pollution. 

Kurt Barshick, general manager of U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works, which includes the Clairton plant, said a separate, $1 billion upgrade to the company’s local plants will cut emissions of several pollutants, including reducing sulfur dioxide emissions by 50 percent. 

“This project shows our continued commitment to improve air quality in the Mon Valley,” Barshick said. 

Members of the Carpenters’ Union came to a meeting on the Clairton Coke Works to voice their support for the plant. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

The agreement does not resolve legal issues between the county and the company over air pollution problems that resulted from a Dec. 24 fire. That fire knocked out pollution controls at the plant for more than three months.

Deborah Gentile, an allergy and asthma specialist at East Suburban Pediatrics, testified that a study she performed showed that visits to emergency departments and outpatient clinics for asthma went up in the two months following the fire. She testified she had conducted the study by querying a local health system database and found that compared to the same time period from the year before, acute asthma visits nearly doubled. 

Gloria Ford of Clairton said she had to go to a hospital earlier this month because she had trouble breathing the air. She implored the health department to hold the company accountable to clean air laws. 

“US Steel acts with impunity. God forbid that the unhealthy air we breathe would be put upon them and their families,” she said.

But many testified in favor of the agreement. 

Bob Breisinger of Jefferson Hills said he was glad to see US Steel’s billion-dollar investment in the region after seeing steel mills lay off workers for years. 

“Now people are protesting against US steel investing in this valley. Has US Steel been perfect? No. They have not been perfect. However they are trying to do the right thing,” Breisinger said.

Scott Cameron, who works at Clairton Coke Works in one of its pollution control units, also spoke in favor of the agreement.

“It’s important. The jobs are important. Clean air is important. I think the agreement will help communities around here, it could benefit them more,” Cameron said.

The agreement includes a requirement that US Steel install air curtains for Battery B, one of 10 coke oven batteries at the plant, to improve the capture of fugitive emissions. It also calls for repairs to the wall of Battery 15, to cut down on leaks, and upgrades to pollution capture structures called bag houses at several of the batteries.

The agreement also calls for a new, taller stack at Battery 15, to increase the dispersion of pollution from the stack, and the reconstruction of several flues on some of the plant’s coke batteries.

Most of the $2.7 million penalty will be disbursed to local communities impacted by the plant’s air pollution.

In addition, the company would submit to annual performance audits by a third-party pollution specialist, expand environmental compliance training at the plant, and increase its reporting to the county.

Environmental groups praised some of the provisions of the agreement, but in a letter submitted to the health department, a dozen groups said it did not go far enough in serving as a deterrent to future air pollution. 

Matthew Mehalik of the Breathe Project said it won’t address aging, leaking equipment at the plant.

“We know a lot of these batteries date to the 1950s and what’s specified in the agreement doesn’t address those core problems,” Mehalik said. “And so they may be putting some equivalent of band-aids on those, but at the end of the day you have old leaking problems and not a clear plan of replacing them.”

County officials have blamed  Clairton for making the air in the Pittsburgh region worse in the past five years. 

To make coke, a key component of steelmaking, the company bakes coal at high temperatures at Clairton. The facility is the county’s largest source of fine particles, and is a large source of pollutants like sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and carcinogens like benzene.

The county’s air quality monitor in Liberty, a mile downwind from the plant, has shown increasing levels of pollution since 2014, and is the only monitor in Allegheny County that is out of compliance for EPA air quality standards. 

In 2017, the Liberty monitor recorded the highest year-round amount of fine particles of any air monitor east of the Rockies, according to EPA data. 

07/30/2019 - At Delaware County refinery, Toomey pushes to reverse ethanol mandate

Emma Lee / WHYY

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler (left) and U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) visit Monroe refinery in Trainor, Pa., to discuss eliminating the federal regulation that requires blending ethanol with gasoline.

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey visited Monroe Energy refinery workers in Trainer, Delaware County, Monday to promote renewed bipartisan legislation that would eliminate the ethanol mandate, part of the Renewable Fuel Standard program.

The rule calls for renewable fuel, such as ethanol derived from corn, to be mixed into transportation fuel. The original intent was to reduce dependence on foreign oil and use more renewable fuel.

But opponents point to the country’s improved energy security. The United States is now a top producer of petroleum and natural-gas hydrocarbons, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

Refiners are required to use over 19 billion gallons of renewable fuel this year — corn-based ethanol will make up almost 80% of that. By 2022, the requirement will increase to 36 billion gallons.

A ‘costly’ rule for merchant refiners

Refinery leaders at Monroe Energy said the costs of meeting the mandate, or paying for “credits” when they don’t, can strain operations.

“There have been certain years in the last five years in which the cost of Monroe to comply with the RFS program actually was our No. 1 expense other than what [it] costs us to buy crude oil every year,” said Chris Ruggiero, vice president and general counsel at the company.

Another supporter of dumping the rule is United Steelworkers Local 10-1 president Ryan O’Callaghan. His union represents workers at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in South Philadelphia.

O’Callaghan was at Monroe to speak to Toomey about saving PES, which announced plans to close and filed for bankruptcy after a fire and explosions in late June caused major damage to a unit at the refinery complex.

He called the rule outdated. “And it created a situation that is costly to merchant refiners and it may stop someone from investing in PES, that being an anchor around their necks.”

Environmental concerns

Toomey argued that the country doesn’t need the rule because of the quantities of energy the U.S. is now producing. Instead, he said, the mandate is putting refinery jobs at risk.

“We don’t need to burn corn because we don’t have oil and gas,” the Pennsylvania Republican said. “And, of course, it’s also been clearly proven that ethanol is not helpful to the environment. In fact, it does more bad than good.”

Environmental concerns are why U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, co-sponsored the bill. She said the rule “increases the cost of food and animal feed and contributes to climate change, and it should be phased out.”

But Pennsylvania corn growers see it differently.

The state runs on a corn deficit and needs to import it from other states, according to Eric Rosenbaum, executive director of the Pennsylvania Corn Growers Association.

Though corn-based ethanol production is not a priority in the state, Rosenbaum said producers still need markets for corn.

“Ethanol is a great opportunity for corn producers to help in fuel production and help in greenhouse-gas emission and support the larger economy,” he said.

Other deregulatory measures in the works

Environmental Protection Agency head Andrew Wheeler joined Toomey at the refinery for a tour. He said the EPA doesn’t have a position on Toomey’s legislation.

Instead, Wheeler touted deregulatory measures the EPA has taken under the Trump administration.

He bragged about changes to the Obama-era Petroleum Refinery Sector Rule, which aimed to control toxic air emissions from refineries. The changes gave refineries 18 more months to come into compliance.

Wheeler said the tweaks saved the energy sector more than $12 million in compliance costs and $80 million in capital investment.

“Rather than impose top-down mandates from Washington, we want to work with you to improve environmental protections in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the historic economic growth we’re seeing,” Wheeler said.

07/30/2019 - Delaware County pipeline foe thought he’d get PUC information on Mariner East risk. But now he’ll have to fight for it in court

The state's open records office ruled some documents related to a 'blast radius' or 'buffer zone' should be public. But the Public Utility Commission is asking Commonwealth Court to agree that the data should stay private.

07/29/2019 - Navy site in Mechanicsburg to host PFAS open house

As part of a Navy-wide effort, the installation, which serves as a warehousing and logistics site, has reached out to nearby residents who have private water wells to do testing.

07/26/2019 - Three Mile Island Unit 2, site of nation’s worst nuclear accident, to be sold, dismantled

EnergySolutions would buy the site from the reactor's owner, First Energy. The deal does not include the still-operational Unit 1 reactor.

07/26/2019 - Three Mile Island Unit 2, site of nation’s worst nuclear accident, to be sold, dismantled

EnergySolutions would buy the site from the reactor's owner, First Energy. The deal does not include the still-operational Unit 1 reactor.