East Liverpool, just across the Pennsylvania border northwest of Pittsburgh, has a history of welcoming polluting businesses because people need the jobs. But some residents fault city leaders and regulators for failing to protect them.
Courtesy Columbia Global Reports
Author Bethany McLean was “fascinated” by former CEO and co-founder of Chesapeake Energy, Aubrey McClendon, and his role in the rise of the fracking industry. That fascination is part of what led to her book “Saudi America: The truth about fracking and how it’s changing the world.”
McLean, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, peered into the business side of fracking and found an industry that is moving “astonishing” amounts of money but isn’t as financially strong as it might seem.
“McClendon’s Chesapeake is also the example of just how much cash these enterprises, these fracking enterprises, can burn through and how financially weak they can be despite this idea that they are changing the world,” McLean says in the podcast. “That conundrum was really interesting to me.”
In this episode of StateImpact Pennsylvania’s podcast ‘energy, explained,’ McLean talks to StateImpact’s Susan Phillips about the book, the fracking industry and topics including why McLean says there is “no such thing” as American energy independence, and how that concept could pose a long-term threat to U.S. energy leadership. Listen here:
An independent consultant's risk assessment said someone would be more likely to die from falling down stairs than in a pipeline explosion. Yet a leak would be more likely to ignite in a densely populated area because there are more ignition sources.
Attorneys for US Steel say Allegheny County regulators issued an unreasonably harsh enforcement order over air pollution violations at its Clairton Coke Works, and claim the order could cost the company up to $400 million dollars to comply.
They made the claim at a Monday hearing for an appeal the company filed over a June enforcement order from the Allegheny County Health Department. The order was for violations at the company’s Clairton Coke Works, about 20 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
In the order, the county fined the company $1 million for chronic violations. It said in the order the plant continued “to experience ever-increasing visible emissions and unexplained exceedance.” The agency also said US Steel employees tried to mask air violations.
A key aspect of the order was a stipulation the company produce a plan to comply with its air quality permits, including an inventory of all potential pollution sources and how it will address them. If the plant failed to curb emissions from its 10 coke batteries, the agency said it would order the plant to put its two worst-performing coke batteries on “hot idle” until the plant improved its performance.
Mark Dausch, an attorney for US Steel, said at the hearing that putting portions of the plant on ‘hot idle’–in which its ovens are kept heated but do not process coke–could damage the company’s equipment through “thermal stress.”
“The enforcement could cost tens to hundreds of millions of dollars and result in people losing their jobs,” he said. “In the worst case scenario,” he said, it could cost the company $400 million.
County officials pointed out that portions of the plant were put on hot idle during 2009, without apparent damage.
In questioning county health department officials, Dausch portrayed the penalty as overly severe, questioning whether the county had devised its standards for compliance on sufficient study. He also pointed out that the fine was based on an enforcement policy the county adopted in early 2018, even though many of the violations occurred before the newer, stricter policy was adopted.
Jim Kelly, deputy director for environmental health for the health department, said even though the enforcement policy was new, the air quality laws the plant was breaking were not. He also said the US Steel should be able to comply.
“Nothing in this order requires something US Steel hasn’t demonstrated they can do in the past,” he said to Dausch, who was questioning the agency’s methods for determining its penalty. “We’re in this situation because our inspectors have observed a lack of maintenance in your batteries.”
Kelly testified that as fugitive emissions violations rose at Clairton, so did pollution levels at the county’s air quality monitor at South Allegheny High School in Liberty, about a mile downwind from the coke works. After showing steep air pollution declines for years, those levels started going back up again in 2014, he said.
The Liberty monitor violates federal standards for particle pollution and sulfur dioxide, two pollutants that can cause heart and lung diseases. Clairton is the county’s largest source of particulate pollution, and coke oven emissions, a carcinogenic mix of pollutants.
Clairton is the largest coke works in North America, and employs 1,000 people. The plant processes metallurgical coal into coke, a key component of steelmaking, by baking the coal at high temperatures.
US Steel turned a $291 million profit in the third quarter this year.
Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Collaborative, an environmental group, said the enforcement order was a way to get the company to comply with the law.
“No one really is allowed to speed illegally without risking lives of other people. And the same is true with the Clean Air Act,” he said. “People who are not complying with it are risking our health and should be brought back into compliance.”
A decision on the appeal from the health department’s hearing officer Max Slater isn’t expected for several months. Once the decision is rendered, either side can appeal.
Climate-related risks to Pennsylvanians include frequent extreme weather events, injury and death from those extreme weather events, threats to human health through air pollution, diminished water quality, and heat stress.
An administrative law judge for the state Public Utility Commission heard a second day of testimony Friday on whether to continue to allow operation of the controversial Mariner East pipelines while she reviews a request that the lines be permanently shut down. Several residents say Sunoco's public awareness plan in the event of a leak is inadequate.
FirstEnergy’s Little Blue Run coal ash pond, along the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border, has been closed since 2016. But it continues to leach toxic metals into ground and surface water.
The 1,700-acre site, the largest coal ash pond in the eastern U.S., is now asking the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for a new pollution discharge permit to accommodate 16 newly discovered seeps that have opened up around it. The permit would allow the facility, which will close permanently in 2028, to divert any polluted discharge into the Ohio River, instead of into nearby streams.
StateImpact Pennsylvania’s Reid Frazier discussed what’s been happening at Little Blue Run with Kevin Gavin of 90.5 WESA’s The Confluence. Hear their conversation here:
AUDIO: Reporter Reid Frazier Discusses Little Blue Run on 90.5 FM’s ‘The Confluence’https://www.witf.io/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Reid.Confluence_Little-Blue.mp3
A new legislative report, almost two years in the making, calls on Pennsylvania lawmakers to take steps that could prevent the early closure of two nuclear plants. Critics say bailing out struggling plants is the wrong move.
The Trump administration decided to roll back President Obama’s clean power plan in August. That plan was announced in 2015 and was called the “single most-important step” the United States had taken in fighting climate change.
In the aftermath of the Trump administration’s change, Pennsylvania lawmakers met Wednesday to find legislative climate change solutions at the state level.
“We cannot ignore scientific fact, and allow baseless fear to compromise how we address the very serious threat of climate change,” said state Senator Lisa Boscola. “With our federal government sitting it out for the time being, it’s even more important that state and local government step up and take on these challenges.”
Boscola said she wants Pennsylvania to reduce dependency on non-renewable energy to zero by 2050.
Boscola (D-Lehigh), Wayne Fontana (D-Brookline), Jay Costa (D-Forest Hills) and senator-elect Lindsey Williams heard from state regulators and environmental groups, who explained the health and environmental impact of climate change and talked about useful legislative policy the senators can take to mitigate the effects of climate change that have already impacted the state.
“Like every state in the country, Pennsylvania has already begun to experience adverse impacts from climate change, such as flooding, heat waves, and drought,” said George Hartenstein of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. “These impacts could alter the many fundamental assumptions about climate that are intrinsic to the Commonwealth’s infrastructure, governments and businesses. For example, bridges are designed for certain flooding return intervals, energy systems are designed for certain temperature ranges, farmers plant crops suited to historical climate conditions, and communities are planned around historical floodplains.”
Lawmakers also heard from the coal industry, who said renewable energy sources are not reliable.
“Coal has created good, it has transformed society, and we should have a forward looking, long-range perspective that understands that fossil fuels, including coal, are the key to prosperity,” said Rachel Gleason, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance.
Gleason said that the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance believed the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan was “a dramatic overstepping of the [Environmental Protection Agency]’s legal authority under the Clean Air Act.”
Gleason said renewable energy like wind and solar power is not reliable and secure as coal.
Senator Fontana asked Gleason if coal could ever be a clean source of energy.
“The elephant in the room to me is the trade off,” said Fontana. “I mean, we’re here talking about clean air, clean water, those kinds of things…where is it that the coal industry is going to make that happen?”
“I mean, I’m not a climate scientist,” Gleason responded. “But I think ‘clean’ is a debatable word as far as safe. If you look at our sulfur-dioxide emissions, they have decreased exponentially since 1980, they’re at safer levels than they were in 1980 … I think there’s a need to focus on what is safe, and how we can focus on technologies that support electric generation that helps our society move forward.”
Gleason said she does not believe the end goal should be a zero-emission power grid or that such a plan could be accomplished.
The largest coal ash pond east of the Mississippi is asking the state for a new pollution discharge permit. Little Blue Run, on the Pennsylvania – West Virginia border, has been closed for the past two years, but needs the permit because it’s still discharging toxic metals into nearby streams.
Little Blue Run was built in the 1970s and, unlike modern impoundments, it is unlined. That means it can leak contamination into the ground beneath it, which can seep out into nearby streams.
Because of these leaks, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) ordered Little Blue Run’s owner, First Energy, to shut it down in 2012.
Since then, the company found 16 new seeps coming out of the site, said DEP spokeswoman Lauren Fraley. The proposed pollution discharge permit, which received a public hearing Wednesday night in Hookstown, will account for all of the potentially contaminated water coming out of these newly discovered sites.
Fraley said “about 150” of 400 sites tested near Little Blue Run were contaminated “from past waste disposal”. Coal ash contains naturally occurring but potentially toxic materials like mercury, cadmium and arsenic, according to the EPA.
Under the proposed permit, the company needs to monitor groundwater and seeps for arsenic, boron, selenium, and mercury. The main outfall at Little Blue Run is the Outfall 22, which discharges 3.5 million gallons a day into Mill Creek, a trout-stocked stream. Under the proposed permit, discharge from Outfall 22 would be re-routed into the main stem of the Ohio River.
Under the terms of the proposed permit, the company would not have to treat any of the discharge; environmental groups want the DEP to require the company to treat the water to remove contaminants.
Lisa Graves-Marcucci of the Environmental Integrity Project says the contamination coming off of Little Blue Run needs to be kept out of the area’s waterways.
“Coal ash is known to have a host of toxic metals and in particular arsenic and selenium and thallium. They’re all dangerous to people and the environment and water sources,” she said.
But Ryan Decker, an environmental engineer with the DEP’s Clean Water program said the Ohio River is big enough to dilute any pollution from the site to within federal clean water limits.
“If you’re discharging into a small stream, then there’s very little dilution available from the stream to mix with the discharge. If you discharge to a larger river, there’s a lot more dilution that would allow you to meet water quality standards,” Decker said.
Little Blue Run holds 118 million cubic yards of coal ash from the Bruce Mansfield power plant in nearby Shippingport.
In 2012 the DEP and FirstEnergy signed a Consent Decree ordering the company to stop sending coal ash to the impoundment by the end of 2016 and fining FirstEnergy $800,000.
In a separate complaint, the DEP said that because Little Blue is unlined, “contaminants from the solid waste within the impoundment” could “move into groundwater and surface waters near the site”. It also found calcium, sulfates, chlorides, and other contaminants from the impoundment were seeping into groundwater, and that arsenic found in groundwater may have originated from the coal ash.
Jennifer Young, a spokeswoman for FirstEnergy, said the company was currently capping the site with a liner and ‘several feet of soil’. She said that project is about a quarter done. She said once the impoundment is filled in, “we wouldn’t expect to see any outfall from the site any longer.” Final closure of Little Blue Run is expected in 2028.