News

11/28/2018 - Climate petition calls on Pennsylvania to cut emissions through cap-and-trade system

Dozens of groups including environmental organizations, legal scholars, churches, and local governments argue Pennsylvania has the legal authority and constitutional duty to act on climate change.

11/21/2018 - State to hold public meeting on PFAS contamination

The state Department of Environmental Protection is hosting a public meeting to address concerns over a group of chemicals, known as PFOA and PFOS that have been contaminating drinking water.

The meeting will be held Friday, November 30 at 9am the Rachel Carson State Office Building in Harrisburg and will also be live-streamed online. State and federal government experts will be on hand to explain how the chemicals are being managed.

PFOA and PFOS stand for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances—a group of man-made chemicals used widely in things like non-stick cookware and firefighting foam. They can be found in the air, soil, and water.

DEP spokesman Neil Shader says 20 sites around the state are under investigation for contamination. Most of them are in southeastern Pennsylvania.

“It is still early,” he said. “We’re still in an information-gathering mode right now.”

The chemicals have been linked to illnesses, including cancer. But there is uncertainly around how exactly they effect human health and at what doses.

The U.S. EPA is in the process of developing a PFAS Management Plan, which is expected by the end of the year.

In September, Governor Tom Wolf issued an executive order, establishing a PFAS Action Team, charged with ensuring drinking water is safe, managing the contamination, and creating a clearinghouse of information for the public on the chemicals.

 

11/20/2018 - Residents urge PUC to halt Mariner East operation, hold hearing on emergency plans

Amy Sisk / StateImpact Pennsylvania

On a tour of the energy facilities in Salem Township, Forbes Road Volunteer Fire Department Chief Bob Rosatti stops at a Mariner East 2 construction site.

Seven residents of Chester and Delaware Counties are asking the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission to stop Sunoco operating its controversial Mariner East pipelines, saying the company has failed to give the public enough information about what to do in the event of a leak of volatile natural gas liquids.

The residents filed a petition for emergency relief on Monday, seeking to immediately shut down  Mariner East 1, which is already carrying NGLs, and to block the startup of a new pipeline that the company calls the Mariner East 2, and plans to begin operating by the end of this year.

The emergency petition urges the PUC to stop operations of both pipelines until it holds a hearing on the matter. An accompanying “Notice to Defend” asks the PUC to permanently prevent operation of the pipelines, saying the project violates three state laws on the safe operation of utilities, and arguing that the PUC has a legal obligation to ensure pipeline safety.

Complainants say “workaround pipeline” puts them at risk

 

The complainants argue that the new pipelines threaten public safety because of the highly explosive nature of the materials they will carry, and that Sunoco has not adequately warned the public on how to respond to any escape of NGLs.

They use the term “workaround pipeline” to refer to Sunoco’s current Mariner East 2 line, which will consist of sections of 20-inch and 16-inch pipe plus a temporarily repurposed 12-inch pipe. The 12-inch line was built in the 1930s and has a history of leaks including the escape of 33,000 gallons of gasoline into Darby Creek near Philadelphia in June this year.

Sunoco and its parent company, Energy Transfer, had to utilize other sections of pipe to complete the Mariner East 2 after safety and environmental accidents delayed completion of the line through the Philadelphia suburbs.

“ME1 is being operated, and the workaround pipeline is about to be operated, without an adequate emergency notification system or legally adequate emergency management plan,” the petition says, adding that the residents are “at imminent risk of catastrophic and irreparable loss, including loss of life, serious injury to life, and damage to their homes and property.”

The complainants, four from Delaware County and three from Chester County, say they have standing to file the petition because they live within a few hundred feet of either ME1 or the “workaround” sections of the ME2 pipeline; have children who attend schools near the pipeline; live close enough that they might have to be evacuated in the event of a leak, and regularly travel on roads near both pipelines.

Critics of the Mariner East project have long argued that it represents a greater danger to public safety than other pipelines such as those carrying natural gas or oil because the NGLs are highly explosive, can be ignited by common devices such as cell phones or doorbells, and cannot be detected by smell or sight.

Jon Hurdle

A sign at a June 9 demonstration in West Chester reveals one reason why some people oppose the Mariner East 2 pipeline project. (Jon Hurdle/StateImpact PA)

In case of a leak, flee on foot

 

The new complaint derides Sunoco’s “one size fits all” instructions, in a color brochure mailed to some residents, to leave the area immediately on foot, abandon equipment being used near a leak, and avoid open flame or other sources of ignition.

The documents say the instructions contain nothing about how the public would be informed of a leak and the need to self-evacuate, how elderly people would be able to leave an area on foot, and how people could call the emergency services if they are warned not to use their phones.

“In the event of a highly volatile liquids leak without ignition, the safety of those in the probable impact zone relies heavily on anyone near the vapor cloud knowing exactly what to do to avoid ignition,” the complaint says.

Lisa Dillinger, a spokeswoman for Sunoco, said the company shared its materials on public awareness of the Mariner East project with the PUC, which allowed Sunoco to resume construction in West Whiteland Township, Chester County after a shutdown because of PUC safety concerns.

“Energy Transfer has a comprehensive, robust Public Awareness Program (PAP) that engages the community through a variety of communications methods, including targeted brochure delivery, face-to-face liaison meetings and specialized trainings,” Dillinger wrote in an email.

She said the company follows guidelines on written public communication from the American Petroleum Institute, and uses the same wording as PHMSA, the federal pipeline regulator, on mailers that inform the public on how to identify and react to a pipeline emergency.

Regarding the 12-inch line, she said it went through a $30 million upgrade in 2016, and that the PUC and PHMSA have verified the integrity of the Mariner East lines in recent months.

Pipelines the safest way to transport gas

 

The Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance, which advocates for pipeline construction, noted that Sunoco operates the Mariner Emergency Responder Outreach Program, which has trained 2,350 individuals since 2013.

Kurt Knaus, a spokesman for the alliance, said pipeline opponents ignore the state and federal safety regulations that companies like Sunoco are required to observe, and that “study after study” shows that pipelines are the safest way to transport energy resources.

In August, an independent risk assessment on the pipelines concluded that anyone living directly above all three pipelines has less chance of dying from an explosion of NGLs than from heart disease, but is more likely to die from such an event than from being hit by lightning.

The study, by the consulting company Quest, said the risk of anyone more than half a mile away from an explosion of Mariner East 2 is “essentially zero,” while that figure is a quarter of a mile for Mariner East 1. The $46,000 cost of the report was paid for by pipeline safety campaigners, including at least one township, who previously failed to persuade the PUC to do its own risk assessment.

In their complaint, the residents accused state authorities of failing to respond adequately to requests for emergency planning information from state lawmakers, school district superintendents and municipalities. “They have received incomplete responses or none at all,” the documents say.

They also accuse Sunoco of withholding emergency-planning information from the public by refusing to release an internal hazards analysis and an integrity management plan on the pipeline.

And they criticize plans by the Chester and Delaware County emergency services agencies to use “reverse 911” to call hundreds of thousands of phones in an affected area. That procedure would be at odds with warnings from Sunoco and from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration not to use cell phones or conventional phones because they can ignite airborne gases, the documents say.

Emergency planners says tools incomplete

 

Tim Boyce, director of Delaware County Emergency Management Services, said phones likely wouldn’t be an ignition source for a leak of NGLs but he predicted that if there is a leak, it’s likely to find some other ignition source such as a car engine.

“If these products are released in our community, they are going to find an ignition source,” Boyce said. “There’s no reasonable person who says that if released in large quantity, it’s not going to ignite.”

Boyce declined to say whether he was satisfied that the people of Delaware County know how to protect themselves if there’s a pipeline leak, but acknowledged that his agency doesn’t have all the tools it would like to be able to notify everyone of such an incident.

“The tools we have really are incomplete for warning about a disaster,” he said.

The complaint says that by failing to provide adequate emergency-planning information to the public, Sunoco has violated state laws on creating a public awareness program, operating a utility safely, and building pipelines at least 36 inches below the ground and at least 50 feet from any private house.

In their petition for interim emergency relief, the residents argue that they meet all four conditions required: that they have a clear and immediate need; that their injury would be irreparable if not granted, and that the requested relief would not injure the public interest if granted.

PUC regulations state that petitions for interim emergency relief must be held within 10 days of the petition being filed. The same mechanism was used by State Senator Andy Dinniman (D. Chester), whose petition to halt to construction in Chester County’s West Whiteland Township was granted by a PUC administrative judge in May, and later partially overturned by the full PUC.

The multibillion dollar cross-state project has experienced many delays and several construction shutdowns ordered by regulators or courts because of safety concerns and dozens of spills of drilling fluid since construction began in February 2017. When operational, the pipelines will carry ethane, propane and butane from western Pennsylvania and Ohio to a terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia, where most of the material will be exported to Scotland for making plastic.

11/20/2018 - New website aims to be clearinghouse for shale research

A new online tool aims to provide a library of up-to-date research on the shale oil and gas drilling boom.

11/16/2018 - Wolf joins governors calling for unified, national power grid

A bipartisan group of governors is calling on federal regulators to look at unifying the nation’s power grids.

11/15/2018 - New plan calls for 10 percent solar power in Pa. by 2030

Pennsylvania could lower its greenhouse gas emissions, create jobs, and improve public health if it got more power from the sun. That’s according to a new report from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Under the state’s current Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (AEPS) Pennsylvania is on track to produce half-a-percent of its electricity from solar sources by 2021.

The new plan, called Finding Pennsylvania’s Solar Future, sets a much more ambitious goal — 10 percent by 2030. It was developed through a two-year, $550,000 award from the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Program.

Electricity generation accounts for about a third of Pennsylvania’s greenhouse gas emissions. The state is the third-biggest carbon emitter in the U.S., after Texas and California.

DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell says Pennsylvania’s AEPS law was nation-leading back when it passed in 2004, but since then, many other states have set higher targets.

“We’ve seen a lot of states leapfrog past us, so we want to make sure we’re taking advantage of the environmental and economic benefits of the resource,” McDonnell said. “In addition to the environmental benefits, one of the things this [report] identifies is 60,000 to 100,000 additional jobs. So this is really a win-win for the Commonwealth.”

If the 10 percent goal were met, the report says the combination of fuel savings — taking advantage of free sunlight– and avoiding public health and environmental damages could result in a net economic benefit of $1.6 billion annually from 2018 through 2030.

The report’s 15 recommendations include expanding the renewable targets in the AEPS, implementing a carbon pricing program, financing local clean energy projects, and promoting alternative ratemaking mechanisms so as not to disincentive solar projects.

Some strategies are already in the works, while others would require legislative action. For example, earlier this year lawmakers approved an alternative ratemaking law — which will help create more revenue options for utilities.

Gov. Tom Wolf also recently signed a law to enable a Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) program, which is among the recommendations in the new solar report. It’s aimed at helping commercial property owners finance the costs of clean energy upgrades, like adding rooftop solar. Other states have residential PACE programs, which McDonnell said may also be an option for Pennsylvania.

11/15/2018 - ME2 12-inch pipe passed safety inspections, PUC tells school superintendents

The line, built in the 1930s and upgraded in 2016, is among three that Sunoco plans to use as a substitute for Mariner East 2 while construction on that project is finished. Three school superintendents had asked PUC to help assess the line's safety.

11/13/2018 - Homeowners down the shore stand to lose millions from sea level rise

Randall Chase / AP Photo

Tidal flooding like this in Dewey Beach, Del. will become more common with sea-level rise, scientists warn.

Despite greater attention to the risks of sea level rise, housing construction in the most vulnerable areas of the country is growing more quickly than in safer, drier locations, according to a new report by the research organization Climate Central and the real estate website Zillow. 

New Jersey and Delaware beach towns top the list where the expensive houses are going up in areas where scientists know flooding will be common, rather than rare. Homeowners in those communities stand to lose millions of dollars from future sea level rise.    Researchers looked at areas of the country with the risk of regular flooding, defined as at least one flood a year, by 2050. Communities along the New Jersey and Delaware coastline have the most to lose, according to the report. Five of the top 10 towns nationwide with the largest growth rate in housing built since 2009 at risk of regular floods are at the Jersey Shore. And the top 10 counties include three along the Jersey coast – Ocean, Cape May and Atlantic counties. Delaware’s Sussex County is also in the top 10.

Ben Strauss, chief scientist at Climate Central, said he wasn’t surprised by the assessment, but he is disappointed that so many people are building in areas that climate change scientists say will be under water or at regular risk of flooding.   “This is where rubber hits the road, where development is happening,” said Strauss. “And right now we’re really digging a deeper hole.”   Much of the building occurred after Hurricane Sandy destroyed properties along the Jersey coast in 2012.   Ocean City, New Jersey, tops the list of towns nationwide with the largest number of homes built since 2009 in flood-risk areas. Ocean at the Door: New Homes and the Rising Sea reports Ocean City now has 309 newly constructed homes worth $401 million in flood-risk areas. Beach Haven West and North Beach Haven follow, with Avalon and Dover Beaches North also in the top 10. New Jersey leads in states nationwide with 2,682 new houses worth a total of $2.62 billion built since 2009 in high-risk areas.   Philadelphia, a city sitting along the tidal Delaware River, has paid a lot of attention to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the impacts of climate change. Still, 5,736 newly constructed properties, together worth more than $100 million, are at risk of regular flooding by 2050.   “We’re still in very early stages of any kind of real response,” said Strauss. “Most places aren’t seriously acting yet. I doubt this has caught up with zoning rules or zoning boards in many places, if any at all.”   Climate scientists predict that increased rainfalls and stronger storms will cause greater storm surges along the coasts. Strauss said he hopes the information will spur more action at the state and local level.   The report looks at new coastal construction and projected flooding in 2050 if global emissions are cut in line with the targets of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. It found, nationwide, that in coastal areas, about 10,000 homes built after 2009 will be at risk of flooding an average of once a year. The risk triples by 2100, and is even greater if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced.   Researchers used elevation data from NOAA, the updated sea level rise projections reported by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the height of current annual floods, as well as housing data from Zillow.

11/13/2018 - EQT fined for hitting abandoned mine, causing leak during pipeline construction

State environmental officials have fined natural gas operator EQT for drilling into an old mine in 2017 and releasing 4 million gallons of abandoned mine drainage into the Monongahela River and surrounding wetlands in Allegheny County.

The company was drilling under State Route 136 to create a route for a pipeline meant to carry water from the river to a natural gas well site. In the process, it inadvertently hit an abandoned coal mine, which caused the leak, according to an agreement between the company and the Department of Environmental Protection that the state released Tuesday.

DEP has levied a $294,000 penalty against the company.

The leak occurred in Forward Township south of Pittsburgh in January 2017. DEP said when the company applied for a permit for the project, EQT had relied upon maps of the area that classified the status of nearby abandoned mines as either “not flooded” or “unknown.”

EQT has since established new procedures to do a field investigation if the risk of a leak is unclear, according to the agreement.

Company spokesperson Linda Robertson said in an email that EQT took immediate action to stop the flow of mine drainage.

“Safety is a core value for everyone at EQT and we strive to respect and protect the land, as well as the members of the communities in which we operate,” she said.

The company has also agreed to put an additional $100,000 toward a mine drainage project at the site.

11/13/2018 - Listen: Climate change and loss of biodiversity

WITF's Smart Talk features experts discussing climate change and loss of biodiversity