12/14/2018 - At Penn State, researchers push for answers on carbon capture: Will it stay where we put it?

If power plants that burn fossil fuels could capture their carbon emissions and store them somewhere, it would go a long way toward preventing greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere.

That would dramatically lessen the effects of climate change. While many scientists and engineers in Pennsylvania work to develop this cutting-edge technology, it’s slow to roll out and so far exists only outside the commonwealth.

Some of the newest research comes from Penn State. It’s in the field of carbon capture and sequestration, better known to the public as “clean coal” technology. It generally involves filtering out carbon dioxide from the rest of the emissions from a coal or gas-fired power plant. The CO2 then shoots through a pipeline to an injection site, where it’s pumped into the ground. Sometimes it’s done just for storage in rock, and other times it takes place in old oil fields to help squeeze more crude out of the ground.

“It’s not like there is a swimming pool where these things are stored,” said Sanjay Srinivasan, professor and head of the department of energy and mineral engineering at Penn State. “These gases and supercritical fluids have to migrate through very small pore spaces.”

The hope is they’ll stay trapped inside the rock forever.

But, what if one day the carbon dioxide moves somewhere unwanted?

“It’s really important to keep track of where the CO2 is,” said Eugene Morgan, assistant professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering.

In places where this is being tested, he said carbon dioxide is often injected down old wells into oil fields.

“Those wells offer a very nice pathway for CO2 to travel,” he said.

No one wants it to move into an aquifer or back up into the air, but the professors say more research needs to take place to know whether that’s likely.

The team, along with researchers from several other institutions, received a federal grant to develop a way to track carbon dioxide with seismic data from injection sites in Texas and Mississippi.

When pushed underground at a high pressure, carbon dioxide forms small cracks in the rock. To help explain, Tieyuan Zhu, assistant professor of geophysics, queues up a Powerpoint presentation and hits play.

A series of pops erupt from his computer.

“You can hear the sound at the beginning is very strong,” he said.

Those pops indicate the energy from the carbon dioxide traveling about the fractures. Eventually, they slow.

“If it opens a very small fracture … you are going to hear the weaker sound,” Zhu said.

The goal is to create a way to follow the spread of carbon dioxide in real time. Each researcher plays a different role in making that happen, from developing a detailed geologic model of the site to processing data on the speed of the seismic waves and how the energy from the waves dissipates as they interact with the rocks.

Could projects testing this technology come to Pennsylvania?

Between Penn State, other universities and a federal lab near Pittsburgh, a lot of research on carbon capture and sequestration takes place in Pennsylvania. But on-the-ground projects testing this technology are located elsewhere.

Some people, like John Quigley, say they could be here. A decade ago when he was secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the agency released several reports on the feasibility of the technology in Pennsylvania.

“We found that Pennsylvania had several hundred years worth of storage potential,” he said.

Quigley wanted to pursue what he calls a carbon network — capturing carbon dioxide from the state’s coal plants and piping it to a site for storage.

Reid Frazier/StateImpact Pennsylvania

FirstEnergy’s Bruce Mansfield Power Plant in Shippingport, Pa.

He knows that’s a heavy lift, and he said the state’s energy landscape has changed drastically in the years since as rigs drill deep into the Marcellus Shale for natural gas. The focus has shifted to gas, which, when used to generate electricity, emits less carbon dioxide than coal.

Quigley served in the Rendell administration when DCNR did the bulk of its carbon capture and sequestration research. He said governors since then have not followed up much on the subject.

“It starts with a demonstration of leadership and intent at the state level, that this is a priority, and then gathering these stakeholders and starting the really complicated conversations about how we are going to move this thing off square one,” he said.

The topic has not totally fallen off the state’s radar. The Pennsylvania Geological Survey is in a regional partnership testing storage underground.

A spokesperson for Gov. Tom Wolf said the administration is eyeing a carbon capture project in Texas, and he urged Congress to increase a tax credit for storage projects.

That measure passed earlier this year. It could make a meaningful difference, said Jarad Daniels, director of strategic planning, analysis and engagement with the U.S. Department of Energy’s office of fossil energy.

“There are a lot of people out in private sectors and private companies in the United States that are talking about it,” he said.

A high price tag and big stakes

The buzz surrounding the tax credit has to do with a major obstacle for capturing carbon emissions: cost. Take, for example, the $1 billion project completed at a coal plant in Texas last year — the first major carbon capture system in the United States.

“If you go out and talk to some of the folks that started those first-of-a-kind units, they know that if they built a second-of-a-kind, it would come in probably 20 or 30 percent cheaper just because of the lessons they learned building and operating that first unit for a year or two,” Daniels said.

Federal and state subsidies have helped the industry pioneer the technology.

Some of it is being developed by DOE itself. The National Energy Technology Laboratory south of Pittsburgh, for example, is working on membranes that could be used to filter emissions.

“They have come up with a way of taking different materials and mixing them together in a very thin sheet,” said John Litynski, who manages DOE’s carbon capture program. “Essentially they selectively move carbon dioxide through that thin sheet. You have a pure form of CO2 on one side and remaining nitrogen on the other side.”

While that may not take care of all carbon emissions from a power plant, using membranes could significantly reduce the amount that goes into the atmosphere and be more cost-effective than other technologies that seek to capture more emissions, Daniels said.

Some experts, like Ed Rubin at Carnegie Mellon University, point to the history of environmental controls at power plants. For example, acid rain was a huge problem facing some communities until coal plants installed scrubbers to remove sulfur dioxide from their emissions, said Rubin, a professor in the departments of mechanical engineering, as well as engineering and public policy. Over a few decades, Rubin said costs for that technology have come way down.

“The more you do it, the better you get at it,” he said.

He expects the same will happen with carbon dioxide controls, but he said tougher regulations are needed to make that technology more widespread.

“Policies come in two flavors: carrots and sticks,” he said. “Turns out most people like carrots more than sticks.”

That tax credit Congress passed last year? He considers that a carrot. But, he said, we need sticks too — major policies like the Obama-era plan requiring states to dramatically cut emissions, or a market-based approach such as a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax.

“If the motivating issue is climate change, we need deep reductions in emissions, not shallow reductions, and we need them fairly quickly,” he said.

At the Penn State campus, the researchers also feel the clock ticking as they work to better track the movement of carbon dioxide underground.

“That sort of tool needs to be developed, proved and field-ready,” Morgan said.

Then, even bigger carbon storage operations can start up. Srinivasan said that’s an important part of the strategy to combat climate change because the transition to renewable energy is slow. Flip on a light switch and more often than not, that electricity still comes from fossil fuels.

“Carbon sequestration, especially geologic sequestration, is almost a must,” he said. “We have to do it.”

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Governors Letter on Carbon Capture Incentives 2018 (PDF)

Governors Letter on Carbon Capture Incentives 2018 (Text)

12/14/2018 - Four workers injured at gas plant blast near Pittsburgh

Four workers were injured after an explosion at a natural gas processing plant in Washington County late Thursday.

The blast happened shortly after 6 p.m. at MarkWest’s Houston Processing and Fractionation Facility at 800 Western Avenue in Chartiers Township. 

Neighbors said they heard a loud boom from the plant, which processes natural gas from around the region.

Brenda McDonald lives down the road. She was at a store nearby when she got a call from her husband that there had been an explosion and a fire that lit up the neighborhood.

“He said he opened up the door and the boom bounced him basically off the couch,” McDonald said. “The dog jumped in his arms and when they opened up the front door it was like daylight (outside).” 

She said she’s been evacuated four times since the plant opened in 2011, but wasn’t evacuated this time. After she got home, she watched footage from a security camera on her property showing the blaze.

“It started as a small ball of flame and then it went into a light like two large pops,” she said. “It lit the whole entire valley all the way to my house. (It) was like daylight.”

The plant is owned by Colorado-based MarkWest. Its parent company, Marathon Petroleum, released a statement saying the incident occurred near a pair of temporary storage tanks that were on-site for routine maintenance.

The four workers were taken to local hospitals. A spokesperson for the the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said the workers were employed by Energy Transportation LLC of Bridgeport, W.Va. The company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The UPMC hospital system would not release information on the workers’ conditions.

The plant was shut down. OSHA and Pennsylvania State Police fire marshals are investigating.

In November, the EPA announced a consent decree fining MPLX, the Marathon subsidiary that owns the plant, $925,000 for air violations at various facilities, including the Houston plant.

12/14/2018 - PennEast pipeline can take New Jersey lands using eminent domain, judge rules

A federal judge rejected arguments that approval for the pipeline isn't final. The ruling affects the properties of about 150 landowners.

12/13/2018 - DEP unveils proposal to reduce emissions from existing oil, gas wells

Pennsylvania environmental officials have come out with a plan to reduce leaks from thousands of the state’s oil and gas wells.

The proposal is part of Gov. Tom Wolf’s strategy announced in 2016 to reduce methane emissions. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, sometimes leaks from wells and other natural gas components.

The draft plan released by the Department of Environmental Protection would beef up leak detection and require, in some cases, better controls to prevent emissions from escaping at wells and other gas facilities.

Rather than single out methane, however, it mainly targets a different type of emission known as volatile organic compounds, which can harm human health and contribute to ozone. State officials say requiring stricter controls to prevent VOCs from leaking will prevent methane from escaping as well.

“We want to make sure that all oil and gas sources are well-controlled in a reasonable manner to make sure we can keep emissions reduced as low as possible,” said George Hartenstein, deputy secretary for waste, air, radiation and remediation.

He said the Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 directed Pennsylvania to address VOCs. Under President Donald Trump, the EPA earlier this year proposed withdrawing that requirement. Hartenstein said the EPA has not made a final decision.

“Pennsylvania still has a legal requirement to address that right now,” he said. “Because the rulemaking process is so long, we have to move forward and do what is legally required of us right now.”

DEP’s proposal has to go through a formal process, including public comment, and several layers of approvals before it would take effect.

“It’s really just a work in progress right now,” Hartenstein said.

David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said in a statement that the natural gas industry trade group is still reviewing the proposal but has concerns about potential costs and about DEP’s timing.

“Rather than creating more regulatory uncertainty, it would be prudent for DEP to delay any regulatory proposals until federal rules are finalized,” he said.

Hartenstein said DEP is working to determine how it will cost for the industry to comply with the proposal.

The plan to address emissions from existing wells comes on the heels of changes earlier this year that require greater protections for methane leaks from newly built wells.

Some environmental groups welcomed the latest proposal, but they say it could go further.

“There’s a lot good about it,” said Andrew Williams, director of regulatory and legislative affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund.

He said one important element of the plan requires natural gas operators to perform quarterly checks to see if their equipment is leaking at well sites and compressor stations. While detection requirements already exist for newer wells, some drilled before 2013 are exempt.

“[It] really for the first time in a lot of instances puts controls, like a requirement to show up on site and perform a survey for leaking components, into place for wells across Pennsylvania that had not existed previously,” he said.

He said the proposal could go further to target methane in addition to VOCs. He said he also would like to see an exemption for low-producing wells removed.

12/12/2018 - Teenager’s asthma, in shadow of Clairton Coke Works, frames town’s struggle with dirty air

From her front porch, Collette Williams can see the lights of US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, the largest coke plant in North America, between the houses across the street.

She can also pick out the different colors of smoke and steam emanating from it.

“That’s like a white smoke,” she said, standing on her porch on an overcast afternoon. “And then over there, like a dark smoke.”

The fumes that day weren’t too bad, owing to rain that had just come through.

But on some days, the rotten egg odor of sulfur is inescapable, a rich, earthy smell that sticks to the back of the throat. The smell may be bad, but what’s in the air may be worse, especially for her son, SaVaughn. He’s 13. And the sixth grader has persistent asthma.

He takes four medications daily — a regimen of inhalers and nebulizers and pills to calm the inflammation that can make it hard for him to catch his breath.



Collette won’t let him play football because if he catches a cold by playing in cold weather, he could have bad breathing for weeks. Instead of walking to school in the winter, he gets a bus, to avoid risking getting sick.

But there’s one trigger that’s hard to avoid: some of the dirtiest air in the country.

“The pollution in here in Clairton is horrible,” she said. “When the smoke comes up, smoke rises so it comes immediately up here.”

He can’t play sports at a local ball field across the street from the plant because of the fumes. Even if they ride by the plant in her car, the smell can trigger SaVaughn, she says.

Williams says the coke works deserves at least some of the blame for her son’s breathing problems.

“He can’t be a normal kid,” she said. “He can’t run around and go play and stay over other kids’ houses because I don’t know how his asthma is going to react, or how he’s going to handle the situation when he’s not around me.”

Reid R. Frazier/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Dr. Deb Gentile seeing SaVaughn Williams, 13, at an asthma clinic inside Clairton Education Center.

The latest effort to clean up the coke works

The question of what to do about Clairton’s emissions has been a matter of concern for decades in Pittsburgh.

The plant was built in 1901, and spans three miles of the Monongahela River. It employs more than 1,000 people. Its 708 coke ovens produce a yearly output of 4.3 million tons of coke, a key component of steelmaking. Coke from the plant is used to make steel at the nearby Edgar Thomson Works, part of US Steel’s Mon Valley Works.

And though it’s cleaner than when it employed 4,000 people in the 1970s, the plant is still one of the biggest sources of air pollution in the Mon Valley and in all of Western Pennsylvania.

“The biggest source (in the Mon Valley), the sort of 800-pound gorilla is the Clairton Coke Works,” says Albert Presto, an associate research professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University who studies Pittsburgh’s air quality.

The Allegheny County Health Department, which regulates air pollution, has tried to bring the plant into compliance with air laws for years, but has yet to succeed.

In the last 12 quarters, the plant has been in violation of the Clean Air Act 12 times. It’s received 33 fines from the Allegheny County Health Department in the last five years, for a total of $4.3 million.

In June, the county fined US Steel $1 million for chronic violations at the plant, for what it said were “ever-increasing visible emissions and unexplained exceedance[s].” But instead of just a fine, the county added something new: It threatened to order US Steel to cease coke production in parts of the plant if it didn’t improve its environmental performance.

The company is appealing the order, and in a hearing for the appeal, an attorney for US Steel called the penalty “unreasonable,” and said that a forced “hot idle” on parts of the plant could damage its coke batteries, and could cost the company up to $400 million.

In an emailed statement, a company spokeswoman called the penalty “unprecedented.”

“We recognize that the Mon Valley Works must operate in compliance with the most rigorous and stringent environmental regulatory standards in the entire country,” spokeswoman Meghan Cox said.  “We remain committed to improving our process through investments in personnel, procedure and capital.”

But county officials say the order is needed to get the region’s air quality to comply with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards. The county’s air quality monitor in Liberty, a mile downwind from the plant, has shown increasing levels of pollution since 2014.

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. It’s the only monitor in Allegheny County that is out of compliance with EPA air quality standards.

County officials blame the coke plant for the bad air.

“This lack of compliance at the Clairton facility has had a direct impact on the nearby Liberty Monitor, which has begun to measure increasing levels of fine particulate matter, thus reversing a long-term trend of improvement,” said Health Department director Karen Hacker, when the order was issued in June.

Asthma plagues Clairton’s kids

Coke is made by baking coal at temperatures up to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. The process produces large amounts of pollution, and over the years, the coke works has implemented pollution controls, often with a nudge from regulators.

But the Clairton plant remains the county’s largest source of fine particles, and is a large source of sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and carcinogens like benzene.

“It’s not like if we close this plant, all these kids’ asthma is going to totally go away. But it’s probably going to improve.”

All of these pollutants have health impacts. Fine particles, or PM 2.5, are small enough to go deep into the human lung, Stavros Garantziotis, medical director of the clinical research unit at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said in an email.

“In general, the further down pollution particles can penetrate in our lungs, the more dangerous they are,” he said.

Garantziotis says pollution causes inflammation in the lung, which can set off a cascade of responses from the immune system that ultimately leads to a constricting of the passageways, and shortness of breath.

“One of the triggers for asthma is air pollution,” said Deborah Gentile, an allergy and asthma specialist at Duquesne University. “If you could eventually clear up air pollution, you would see less asthma attacks.”

Gentile is part of a team from Duquesne that conducts a twice-monthly asthma clinic inside the nurse’s office at the Clairton elementary and high school. (Gentile’s work in Clairton is funded by The Heinz Endowments, which also funds The Allegheny Front and StateImpact Pennsylvania.)

The team screens students, teaches them about taking inhalers, and helps parents keep medication on hand for their kids.

Clairton is one of several sites the team is studying to determine what impacts pollution has on kids with asthma. They found rates of asthma at the Clairton school double the countywide rate. Gentile thinks the pollution from the coke plant is part of the cause.

“There’s multiple triggers, but bad air is one that is affecting everyone,” she said. “It’s not like if we close this plant, all these kids’ asthma is going to totally go away. But it’s probably going to improve.”

SaVaughn Williams was one of the first kids the team saw when it started its clinic. When they first treated him, he was using his “rescue” medications several times a day, going to an emergency room every few weeks. The team has worked with his mother, Collette, to keep his asthma under control.

There are lots of factors that put SaVaughn at greater risk for asthma. African-American boys, for instance, have higher rates of asthma than other kids. But Gentile says the kids she’s studied have a higher chance of having asthma the closer they live to a big pollution source.

Collette Williams says her son has always had asthma, since he was a baby.

All of Collette’s four children were born prematurely, but SaVaughn was the “premi-est,” she says, at 26 weeks. A respiratory infection when he was first born kept him in the hospital for three weeks.  Doctors weren’t sure he’d survive.

SaVaughn’s breathing seemed to get better as he got older, but about three years ago, it got worse. He developed severe infections from getting colds. There were more doctors visits. More medications.

“I started to see a change in his breathing,” she said. “How often he got sick. What triggers his asthma. I would say the last three years have been horrible for him.”

She grew up in Clairton and moved to her current house about six years ago. She understands the coke works is a big employer, but her first priority has to be to her son.

“I would be OK if they closed the mill,” she said.

Not everyone in Clairton shares her opinion.

‘A ghost town’ without the plant

Richard Lattanzi is a steelworker who works at US Steel’s Irvin Works, in nearby West Mifflin. He’s also Clairton’s mayor.

Clairton once had 25,000 residents. Now, there are just 6,000. Lattanzi says he’s trying to keep the town from sinking any further.

“Do you realize what would happen to the city of Clairton and to the school district if we closed that mill down? We would not be here today. We’d be like a ghost town,” he said.

He points to the city of Duquesne, just north of Clairton, as a cautionary tale. Duquesne’s steel mill closed in the 1980s. The city’s population went into steep decline, and the school district no longer has its own high school. If the coke works closes, Lattanzi fears, Clairton’s fate will be the same as Duquesne’s.

“We can’t shut them down. You’re shutting down the city of Clairton.”

Lattanzi, 54, says the air quality in Clairton has improved over the course of his lifetime. He remembers when pollution from the coke works left the hillside across the Monongahela River barren rock. On a drive along the river, he points to the same hillside, now overgrown with trees.

“Years ago, nothing was able to grow — nothing,” he said. “Even this right here – it’s crazy to have trees here. It was all, like stones and…nothing.”

Lattanzi’s father worked at the coke works, and he remembers the smell his father’s clothes would have when he came home from work. He says his house, which is just a few blocks from the plant, doesn’t smell like that anymore.

“If US Steel has some problems down there, let’s work together to go ahead and improve them or fix them,” he said. “We can’t shut them down. You’re shutting down the city of Clairton.”

Reid R. Frazier/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Clairton Mayor Rich Lattanzi.

‘Cautiously optimistic’

Though emissions from the coke plant have improved over the years, these improvements have been in fits and starts, and frustrating to clean air activists.

“This is the scenario that we see over and over again,” says Rachel Filippini, executive director for the Group Against Smog and Pollution. “The plant breaks air pollution laws, the Allegheny County Health Department issues a fine. There is some sort of consent agreement that’s drawn up…and they’re given sometimes years to undertake corrective actions. And then couple of years later, another fine is issued, another consent agreement is issued, and it just goes on and on again for decades.”

Regulators reached major settlements with US Steel in 1979, 1993, 2007, 2008, 2014, and 2016.

After the 2016 judgement, emissions from the plant actually got worse, the county says. Overall compliance with local air laws declined from 94 percent in 2014 to just 75 percent this year. Among the biggest problems are emissions from the doors of coke ovens, which are opened every time coal is put inside to bake, and every time the finished coke is pushed out. A bad seal on a door can leak out raw coke oven gas, which is classified by the US EPA as a hazardous air pollutant.

In January, the health department enacted a strict new enforcement policy. And in June, it issued its enforcement order with a threat that it would force the plant to put its two worst-performing coke batteries on hot idle if conditions didn’t improve.

So has the county taken a new stance on Clairton? And will it succeed in finally getting the region’s air within federal air quality standards?

“We’ve been doing this for five decades and so we’ve been disappointed in the past,” Filippini said. “We are, I guess, cautiously optimistic.”

12/12/2018 - Trump administration rolls back Obama-era water protections

A new Trump administration rule aims to roll back clean water protections the Obama administration put in place, removing federal oversight of many small streams and wetlands.

Signed by President Barack Obama in 2015, the Waters of the U.S. rule — sometimes referred to as WOTUS or the Clean Water Rule — clarified and expanded government oversight of waterways covered by the Clean Water Act. It regulated runoff from pesticides and fertilizers into “intermittent streams”— which run only during or after a rainfall — as well as contamination of many other waterways and wetlands that had not previously been regulated under the law.

But under the new rule, Clean Water Act regulations will apply only to major, navigable waterways, the tributaries that feed into them, and adjacent wetlands, along with certain lakes, reservoirs and ponds.

At a news conference Tuesday, acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the new rule “puts an end to the previous administration’s power grab.”

But condemnation by local environmental leaders was swift.

“The Trump administration’s proposal to roll back federal rules on clean water abandons our moral obligation to protect the environment for our children and grandchildren,” said New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe in a statement. “It creates a ‘race to the bottom,’ encouraging states to loosen their own regulations and penalizing those that truly protect their residents and public health.”

Other environmental groups called it a step in the wrong direction, especially in Pennsylvania, where industry has threatened streams.

“These are the very bodies that overdevelopment and the oil and gas industry — especially looking at pipeline construction — has heavily impacted,” said Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania Director for Clean Water Action

“These are significant water bodies,” he said. “Even though they don’t look like the significant ones. But it’s kind of like capillaries in your body. They’re very tiny, but there are so many of them that that adds up to being a significant amount of water.”

About 40 percent of Pennsylvania’s streams are either intermittent or ephemeral, two categories the new rule would not cover.

But farmers and property developers had decried WOTUS as federal overreach. Farmers, in particular, complained that the Obama-era rule was too broad and created confusion over when they needed permits from the EPA. WOTUS did provide some exceptions for farmers.

Randy Noel, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders, applauded the new rule in a statement, saying the new rule “will protect our nation’s waterways without adding needless regulatory burdens that will hurt housing and other industries that depend on a predictable permitting process.”

WOTUS has long been a target of President Trump, who has steadily rolled back environmental regulations in his two years in office. He spoke about WOTUS on the campaign trail and in office and made repealing it a priority.

Both the previous incarnation of WOTUS and the proposed one aimed to clarify a longstanding question in water regulation: Which bodies of water can be regulated under the Clean Water Act?

The Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, made it illegal to dump pollutants into waterways without a permit from the EPA. But legal circles have argued for decades over which waterways were covered by the law. An opinion by late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in 2006 called for a stricter interpretation, applying the law only to permanent waterways. That is the tack the Trump administration has taken, leaving regulation of the smaller water bodies to states.

But Arnowitt said that puts undue pressure on states, which are already scrapped for resources.

“By removing federal jurisdiction, Pennsylvania is in the position of either forgoing protection, or you’re putting the entire burden of protecting our waters on state taxpayers,” he said.

The public has 60 days to comment on the new rule, which is expected to face legal challenges.

12/11/2018 - Judge denies emergency petition for Mariner East shutdown

A judge on Tuesday rejected a petition by seven residents of Delaware and Chester Counties for an emergency shutdown of the Mariner East pipelines.

Elizabeth Barnes, a Public Utility Commission administrative law judge, said the residents failed to show that there was a clear and present danger to the public from the construction and operation of the pipelines; that they were entitled to immediate relief; that injury to them would be irreparable if not granted; and that the shutdown they sought would not harm the public.

“Petitioners/Complainants have failed to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that they have met all four requirements and are entitled to emergency interim relief,” Barnes wrote in a 16-page opinion.

The petition was the latest attempt by opponents of the multibillion-dollar Mariner East 2 to halt it before it goes into service, as scheduled, by the end of 2018. The Mariner East project is made up of three parallel natural gas liquids lines — the Mariner East 1, the Mariner East 2, and the Mariner East 2X. Mariner East 1 is already carrying natural gas liquids.

The plaintiffs had asked for the emergency shutdown while Barnes reviews their request to permanently shut down the lines. The residents’ formal complaint at the PUC alleges public safety is endangered by the pipeline.

Barnes wrote that the plaintiffs “presented no evidence regarding the likelihood, i.e. risk, of a fatality occurring due to an accidental leak on any of the Mariner East Projects.”

She also dismissed their arguments that the public was endangered by valve sites where horizontal pipes entered or left the ground, or where the Mariner East pipelines are co-located.

Although one valve site is about 100 feet from a restaurant, that doesn’t represent an imminent threat to public safety, she wrote.

“This alone is insufficient to establish a clear and present danger, or an imminent safety risk at that valve site, or any other location along the ME1 or ME2 pipelines warranting the requested injunctive relief.”

In rejecting the petitioners’ arguments that they would be irreparably injured if relief is not granted, Barnes said they had conceded that the risk of fatalities is small, and so they failed to show that they would be harmed irreparably by fatalities, personal injuries or loss of property ahead of a full hearing on the complaint.

And she sided with Sunoco on the issue of whether the public would be harmed if she granted the emergency petition. The company, supported by Range Resources, offered “credible evidence” that it would be financially hurt if the petition was granted, whereas the petitioners failed to provide enough evidence of the likelihood of a catastrophic event to meet the standard on public injury, the judge wrote.

Activist groups, especially in Philadelphia’s densely populated western suburbs, say the pipelines will be a bigger risk to public safety than those carrying natural gas or oil because of the highly explosive nature of the natural gas liquids – ethane, butane and propane – that will be carried by the new lines.

The complaint accused Sunoco, a unit of Energy Transfer, of failing to tell residents how to protect themselves if there’s a leak, and it mocked the company’s instructions not to use possible ignition sources such as cars and cell phones in the event of an escape of NGLs.

The document asked how emergency officials would be able to inform thousands of people of a pipeline incident if they should not be using their phones. And it said the company’s instructions to walk upwind of a leak would not help immobile residents like the elderly or infirm.

Residents’ fears were fueled when Sunoco said last summer it would repurpose a 1930s-era 12-inch pipeline with a history of leaks as a temporary section of Mariner East 2 in Delaware and Chester counties while the new pipeline is completed.

Sunoco continues to say that it meets all state and federal safety requirements, and that the 12-inch line had a $30 million upgrade in 2016.

In May, Barnes halted construction of the two new Mariner East pipelines, plus the operation of the existing Mariner 1, at West Whiteland Township in Chester County. In her response to an emergency petition by State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-Chester), the judge said the pipelines posed an “imminent risk” to the public, and they should be shut down until the PUC confirmed their safety.

Three weeks later, the full PUC partially overturned her ruling, allowing Mariner East 1 to resume operations, but upholding the ban on ME2 construction. That ban was lifted in August.

Caroline Hughes, a plaintiff from West Chester, said after the ruling that she had expected the emergency petition to be a heavier lift than the formal complaint, which she said will give the petitioners more chance of success.

“That is where we will be able to present our case in its entirety, and without the additional pressure of making the case for emergent relief,” Hughes said. “I believe that the formal complaint will be more successful.”

She said the plaintiffs’ formal complaint will be helped by a recently published Delaware County Council study on the safety risk of ME2, which was not part of the emergency petition. The study said that a worst-case explosion of natural gas liquids from the pipe would kill anyone within a mile of a rupture but that the chances of dying in a pipeline incident are less than from a car crash.

But Michael Bomstein, an attorney for the petitioners, said there will now be discussion about how or whether to move ahead with the formal complaint, based on what the ruling suggests about the outcome of the full case.

On an initial reading, Bomstein said the judge’s reasoning seems to be based on the idea that petitioners can’t show an emergency unless they also show the risk of an event occurring, an approach that the petitioners deliberately avoided.

“We were very clear at the outset of our case that we were not here to talk about whether something is likely,” he said. “We were talking about if something occurs, it could be catastrophic, and we believe we put on competent evidence of that.”

Bomstein said the judge may have been influenced by the full PUC’s decision in June to partly overturn her ruling a few weeks before that halted pipeline construction and briefly shut down operation of Mariner East 1 in West Whiteland Township, Chester County.

“She looked at the reasoning of the commission at the time they overruled her, and I think she had to consider that in deciding what the applicable standards are,” Bomstein said. “It was her respect for precedent that caused her to do this.”

The Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, which advocates for Mariner East and other pipelines, said the ruling is the latest evidence that the project is safe.

“The administrative law judge’s ruling is the latest in a string of court decisions at every level over the years to find that Mariner East is legally permitted and that the builder is in compliance with safety requirements,” said Kurt Knaus, a spokesman for the group, in a statement. “The facts are clear, this is settled law, and the case is closed. It’s time to end the ideological challenges and put this project to work for Pennsylvania.”

Sunoco spokeswoman Lisa Dillinger welcomed the ruling and said the pipeline — which has been frequently delayed by legal, technical and environmental problems – is still on schedule to meet its latest startup target of the year’s end.

“We are in the final stages of completing the construction required to put the line in service, which we anticipate will be by the end of the year,” Dillinger said.

Sen. Dinniman, a persistent critic of Sunoco, said the ruling shows that it’s hard for citizens to challenge the energy industry at the PUC, “even when it comes to issues of public safety.”





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12/10/2018 - Judge grants first eminent domain case to PennEast in Pennsylvania

A federal judge granted PennEast Pipeline Co. the right of eminent domain to build its pipeline on a property in Carbon County, in the first ruling of its kind over the controversial project in a Pennsylvania court.

U.S. Judge Malachy Mannion of the Middle District of Pennsylvania last week rejected an argument by Susana Bullrich, a landowner in Towamencin Township, that PennEast could not build the pipeline on her property because it has yet to receive approval from some authorities, including the State of New Jersey, to go ahead with the project.

Bullrich argued that the missing permits mean that a certificate of approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, issued in January this year, was only conditional, and so PennEast had no legal right to file eminent domain suits while some of FERC’s conditions remain unmet.

But Mannion, in a 13-page opinion, said there’s no requirement in either the FERC certificate or the federal Natural Gas Act that a holder of the certificate must meet all of its conditions before taking possession of a property.

“If the FERC certificate was to be interpreted as requested by Bullrich, no entry on a private property could take place before all pre-conditions were met, and yet many of the pre-conditions cannot be met without access to the property,” the judge wrote. “This contorted reasoning would make the FERC certificate nothing more than a meaningless piece of paper.”

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A yard sign opposing the planned PennEast pipeline. New Jersey officials said they need much more information before making a decision on permits. More than 100 New Jersey landowners are fighting PennEast’s attempt to get access to their land, and the company has sued 50 Pennsylvania landowners for eminent domain.

The judge ruled that PennEast has met all the conditions that allow a party to exercise eminent domain under federal law, and said it has the “substantive right” to condemn the stated portions of Bullrich’s eight-acre property.

The ruling gives PennEast permanent access to 0.6 acres of the land, and temporary access to another 0.6 acre.

The ruling was a rare boost for the embattled pipeline project, which has been strongly opposed by some communities along its approximately 120-mile route in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and which faces legal challenges by the State of New Jersey.

If built, the pipeline would carry natural gas from Luzerne County, Pa. to Mercer County, N.J. The company says it would bring low-cost gas from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale to more New Jersey consumers. Critics including the New Jersey Rate Counsel, an advocate for public utility ratepayers, say the line is not needed and that many of PennEast’s future customers are in fact partners in the project, which does not show that there would be genuine demand for the gas.

Bullrich, who has lived on the land for 32 years, is one of 50 Pennsylvania landowners who were sued by PennEast for eminent domain in February this year after refusing the company’s offers of compensation.

Anne Marie Garti, an attorney for Bullrich, said all the Pennsylvania landowners except her client later agreed to give PennEast access to their land for survey purposes. With Mannion’s order, Bullrich too must allow the company on to her property.

By contrast, about 130 New Jersey landowners continue to fight PennEast’s efforts to get access to their lands. Their cases are due to be decided by U.S. District Judge Brian Martinotti who last week wrote to New Jersey officials asking for their comments on the Pennsylvania ruling.

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, responding in a letter to Martinotti on Monday, argued that PennEast had not followed the proper procedure in seeking access to the New Jersey properties, and therefore he should deny its request for an injunction that would allow it to condemn land in New Jersey.

Grewal said his argument was supported by a recent appeals court ruling that another pipeline company, Transcontinental, had established its right to condemn properties along its own route because it had first filed a motion for partial summary judgement – which PennEast had not done.

PennEast spokeswoman Pat Kornick said that all landowners on the Pennsylvania portion of the route – about two-thirds of it — have now agreed to surveys being conducted on their land.

Landowners are not compensated for survey access, but they are compensated for granting permanent easements, and for temporary easements such as access roads, Kornick said. Across the entire route, about 70 percent of affected landowners have now signed easement agreements, she said.

“The court ruling enables PennEast to complete routine, though important, land and environmental surveys,” in Pennsylvania, Kornick said.

Construction of the $1 billion pipeline, previously scheduled to begin this year, is now due to begin in 2019, and will take about seven months to complete, she said.

New Jersey Conservation Foundation, a vocal critic of PennEast, said landowners who have now agreed – or are required – to provide access to their lands risk doing so unnecessarily if the pipeline eventually fails to get all its needed permits, and so is not built.

The environmental group cited the example of the proposed Constitution Pipeline, which famously cut down several acres of maple trees on a northeast Pennsylvania farm and was then denied a water-crossing permit by New York state, in a decision that was later upheld by FERC and an appeals court.

In that case, the landowners, the Holleran family, lost an eminent domain fight with Constitution’s builder, the Williams Companies, after a ruling by  Mannion.

“It is outrageous that the court permitted the condemnation of a homeowner’s land for construction of a pipeline that might never be built,” said Tom Gilbert, campaign director for the NJCF, which is challenging PennEast’s attempt to seize preserved land owned by the foundation.

The project still needs permits from the New Jersey DEP, which previously rejected its application on the grounds of incomplete information, and from the Delaware River Basin Commission, which has yet to begin its review of the project.

12/10/2018 - Two hurt in construction accident along Mariner East 2 near Pittsburgh

Two pipeline workers were injured in a construction accident on Sunoco Logistics’ Mariner East 2 pipeline about 35 miles east of Pittsburgh late Sunday.

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.

The workers, one male and one female, were pulling a piece of equipment through a section of the pipeline under a road when the equipment struck and injured them, said Lenore Uddyback-Fortson, a spokesperson for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, in an email. OSHA is investigating.

The equipment, called a pig, is used to clean out the insides of pipelines.

The female worker was treated and released and the male has a broken arm and remains hospitalized but in stable condition, Uddyback-Fortson said.

The accident occurred at 11:16 p.m. Sunday night, near the intersection of Main Street and Gombach Road, according to Westmoreland County 911.

The workers were employed by Precision Pipeline, an Eau Claire, Wisc.-based pipeline contractor. Company officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Penn Township manager Alex Graziani said the accident occurred along the route of the Mariner East 2, which is being built through the middle of the township.  

The 20-inch pipeline will carry natural gas liquids from Western Pennsylvania to a port facility near Philadelphia.

Representatives from Energy Transfer, Sunoco’s parent company, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection suspended construction on the Mariner East for 30 days last year because of repeated permit violations, including dozens of drilling mud spills, and fined its developer $12.6 million.

The company says the pipeline is expected to begin carrying gas by the end of the year.

12/07/2018 - Gov. Wolf on climate change: ‘We are having real problems’

Governor Tom Wolf said climate change is, "one of the big issues we have to deal with."