Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Susan Phillips

Reporter

Susan Phillips tells stories about the consequences of political decisions on people's every day lives. She has worked as a reporter for WHYY since 2004. Susan's coverage of the 2008 Presidential election resulted in a story on the front page of the New York Times. In 2010 she travelled to Haiti to cover the earthquake. That same year she produced an award-winning series on Pennsylvania's natural gas rush called "The Shale Game." Along with her reporting partner Scott Detrow, she won the 2013 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Journalism Award for her work covering natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania. She has also won several Edward R. Murrow awards for her work with StateImpact. She recently returned from a year as at MIT as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow. A graduate of Columbia School of Journalism, she earned her Bachelor's degree in International Relations from George Washington University.

Fracking health complaints received little follow-up from the Department of Health

Jeanie Moten with her sister on their mother's porch in Rea, Pa. She holds a stack of medical records. The Motens say they received no help from DOH regarding their fracking health complaints. A case file released by the DOH through a Right-To-Know request confirmed that.

Susan Phillips / StateImpactPA

Jeanie Moten with her sister on their mother's porch in Rea, Pa. She holds a stack of medical records. The Motens say they received no help from DOH regarding their fracking health complaints. A case file released by the DOH through a Right-To-Know request confirmed that.

Newly released documents from the Pennsylvania Department of Health on fracking-related health complaints reveal a lack of follow-through and inaccurate record-keeping. The telephone logs, which span four years from 2011 to 2015, were gained through a Right-to-Know request by the environmental group Food and Water Watch.

The documents include about 87 separate complaints from residents and workers who feared exposure to fracking chemicals and were looking for advice from the Department of Health. But notes taken by agency workers show little information is collected from patients.  And at least in one case, important details were inaccurate. In some cases, doctors were looking for help.

The bulk of the complaints came from northeast and southwest Pennsylvania. They often included similar complaints of skin rashes, respiratory problems and nose bleeds.

The names of the patients, physicians and their addresses are blacked out. But Fayette county resident Linda Headley confirms that case number 59 is a complaint she made last August. Although Headley doesn’t own the mineral rights to a property she bought in 2005, she says she has five gas wells on her property, including one Marcellus Shale gas well. She says one of those wells is “problematic” and gas company workers regularly release toxic fumes from what she says is a condensate tank. She says a white misty cloud gets released, some of it gaseous and some of it liquid.

Headley says last July she went out to pick berries with her 6-year-old son. She noticed a gas worker on site.

“We were walking down the driveway and the well-tender kind of looked behind us and he just pushed the button and [waste from the condensate tank went] all over us,” she said. “You could feel the brine all over us and you could taste it. It has a salty bitter taste.”

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Senate bill would encourage use of coal mine water to frack

A rock pulled from the bottom of a creek in Tioga County is covered in orange slime, resulting from iron sulfide in mine water drainage.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A rock pulled from the bottom of a creek in Tioga County is covered in orange slime, resulting from iron sulfide in mine water drainage.

A bill that would encourage the use of coal mine water to frack natural gas wells was approved by the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee on Monday. Senate Bill 875 limits potential liabilities for producers who would use the polluted mine water, instead of cleaner fresh water, in the drilling process.

Using acid mine drainage to frack was an idea that had support from the Corbett Administration, as well as the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, as a way to reduce the amount of fresh water used by Marcellus Shale developers. But some industry lawyers have said the state’s Clean Streams Law could make producers liable for cleaning up the mine water that they didn’t pollute, in perpetuity. So although some drillers are using acid mine drainage to frack, it hasn’t been an idea that has gotten much traction.

This bill specifically addresses the use of mine water that has been treated by the coal company to standards set by the federal Clean Water Act under the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System. This water typically sits in containment ponds.*

Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law was enacted, in part, to prevent a repeat of the coal industry’s devastating impact on water quality. It empowers the Department of Environmental Protection to manage waste water discharge and enforce penalties on industries that pollute. Drillers are worried the Department of Environmental Protection could penalize them for the dirty mine drainage water if they use it to frack a well. Continue Reading

DEP plans new fracking chemical disclosure site, promises more transparency

John Quigley was confirmed as DEP secretary Wednesday.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Newly confirmed DEP Secretary John Quigley wants to make the agency more transparent, with data easily accessible.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection is developing several tools to make information on natural gas drilling more accessible to the public. This includes a new fracking chemical disclosure site, a web portal for information on each natural gas well, and opportunities for the public to comment on proposed DEP policies.

DEP Secretary John Quigley says the effort is part of the Wolf administration’s commitment to “collaboration, transparency and integrity.” He spoke Wednesday night at the annual dinner of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council in Philadelphia.

“Our department first has a commitment to collaboration, second it will be driven by science, and third we will show the work,” Quigley said.

The remarks signal a change in tone at the environmental agency, which under Corbett was criticized by some residents and environmentalists as opaque and inaccessible.

The state’s gas drilling law, Act 13, requires producers to post a list of chemicals used to frack each well on the disclosure website FracFocus. But until recently, FracFocus.org posted individual PDF documents for each well, making it difficult to organize the data in a searchable manner. The law directs DEP to find or create an alternative if the FracFocus site was not searchable by January 1, 2013. FracFocus did upgrade its site last month, creating a method for users to download the data into searchable databases.

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DEP seeks record fine of $8.9 million from Range Resources

Kimberly Paynter/Newsworks.org

Kimberly Paynter

A Marcellus Shale gas rig in Lycoming County.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced a record fine today against the Texas-based Range Resources, which the agency says has failed to fix a gas well that polluted groundwater and a stream in Lycoming County. The DEP announced Tuesday that it will assess an $8.9 million fine against Range for refusing to fix the faulty cement job on a natural gas well that the agency says caused methane to migrate into private drinking water supplies. The penalty would be the largest to date against a Marcellus Shale gas driller.

“Today, we made it clear that we take seriously our responsibility to protect residents and Pennsylvania’s natural resources,” said DEP Secretary John Quigley in a statement. “Clean water is an important part of a strong economy and Range Resources owes it to the people of Lycoming County and surrounding areas to make the repairs necessary to immediately stop the discharge of natural gas to the waters.”

The fine sought by the DEP is more than double the highest fine ever issued by the agency against a gas driller. That fine, $4.15 million and now the second highest, was also issued to Range Resources back in September. In that case the company agreed to pay the fine for violations at six wastewater impoundments in Washington County. But in this recent Lycoming County case, Range Resources has not agreed to the sanction, saying the methane migration is naturally occurring and existed before their well was drilled. Continue Reading

EPA: Fracking water problems not widespread

Kimberly Paynter/Newsworks.org

The EPA says fracking does pollute drinking water, but the incidents are not "widespread."

The Environmental Protection Agency says fracking can cause water contamination, but the problems are not widespread. The EPA released its long-awaited draft study today on the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water supplies. Speaking on a conference call with reporters, the EPA’s science advisor and deputy assistant administrator of the office of research and development Thomas A. Burke said the study “greatly advances our scientific understanding of fracking’s potential impacts.” Burke also called the study “the most comprehensive” look at the impacts of fracking on drinking water.

“Based upon available scientific information, we found that hydraulic fracturing activities in the United States are carried out in a way that has not led to widespread systemic impacts on drinking water sources,” said Burke. “In fact the number of documented impacts on drinking water resources is relatively low when compared to number of fractured wells.”

Burke emphasized that the study is not a “health risk assessment,” nor is it meant to influence specific policy.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection reports 256 incidents of private water supply impacts resulting from both conventional and unconventional (shale gas) drilling. Those incidents include water wells that have run dry as well as contamination.

The EPA’s report looked at the hydrologic cycle of water related to the entire unconventional gas drilling process, including water withdrawals, well completion, and waste water treatment, recycling, and disposal.

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EPA issues new rule to protect small waterways

Joanne Martin collects a sample of water from Brady Run, a stream in South Beaver Township in western Pennsylvania. She is a citizen scientist monitoring the water for potential pollution from nearby natural gas drilling.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Joanne Martin collects a sample of water from Brady Run, a stream in South Beaver Township in western Pennsylvania. She is a citizen scientist monitoring the water for potential pollution from nearby natural gas drilling.

Small headwater streams, tributaries and waterways will now be protected by the Clean Water Act under a new rule announced today by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers. The move has a number of opponents including farmers and the oil and gas industry, who say it’s an overreach of federal authority.

The creation of the Clean Water Rule stems from ambiguous language in the Clean Water Act, which gives federal and state regulators authority to limit pollution of the nation’s “navigable” waterways. Several Supreme Court decisions ruled out wetlands from that definition, and created confusion regarding the EPA’s jurisdiction when it came to issuing permits for pollution discharges.

“The Clean Water Act has protected our health for more than 40 years and helped our nation clean up hundreds of thousands of miles of polluted waterways to the benefit of communities and businesses,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on a press call. “But Supreme Court cases in 2001 and 2006, put protection of 60 percent of our nations’ streams and millions of acres of wetlands into question.” Continue Reading

Industry launches new TV ad opposing shale tax

The battle over Governor Wolf’s shale gas tax proposal took an acrimonious turn last week with dueling letters between the industry and the governor. Now the television ads have arrived.

The Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce and Industry began running TV spots opposing Wolf's shale gas tax.

screenshot

The Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce and Industry began running TV spots opposing Governor Wolf's shale gas tax.

The Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, which leads a coalition of groups opposing the shale gas tax, has begun running an ad against Governor Wolf’s proposal in the Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Wilkes Barre/Scranton media markets.  The TV spot, launched Monday, is part of the Chamber’s “Stop New Energy Taxes” campaign, an effort to beat back Wolf’s plan to tax Marcellus Shale production at five percent, with an additional 4.7 cents per thousand cubic feet.

Wolf says it will bring in $1 billion, much of which will be funneled toward education. The industry ad doesn’t mention education, but instead says it will cost “tens of thousands of jobs,” be the “highest energy tax in the country,” and “…even worse the money will be sent to Harrisburg, instead of critical local projects.”

So how accurate is the ad? Continue Reading

Reporter’s Notebook: Tracing the tracks of the oil trains

An oil train moves through the University Village neighborhood of Chicago. The trains pass through Chicago on their way to East Coast refineries.

Trudy E. Bell

An oil train passes apartments in the University Village neighborhood of Chicago. The trains travel through Chicago on their way to East Coast refineries like those in Philadelphia and South Jersey.

Driving south on Lakeshore Drive through the Lakeview section of Chicago, it’s easy to ignore the city’s role in industrial transport. Lake Michigan looks placid and blue. People are riding their bikes along the shore, or strolling, or picnicking. It’s a pleasant, sunny Sunday evening after a long hard winter. Chicagoans bustle through new parks and grand museums. But keep going, and avoid google maps’ efforts to divert you to the highway, and it’s soon obvious how this place serves as the nation’s bottleneck for oil trains.

Chuck Quirmbach, a seasoned public radio reporter from Wisconsin, served as my chauffeur and tour guide, pointing out old and new, like the city’s Millennium Park.

“Don’t know why they built that,” he said, adding that the city had plenty of other nearby parks.

Quirmbach, with his head of thick white hair usually framed by a pair of headphones, microphone in hand, is one of those reporters who has probably covered every kind of story imaginable. And he’s still curious. We stay on route 41, which takes us through the South Side, hugging Lake Michigan. But the green spaces along the lake soon give way to industry young and old. Or new parks interspersed with old decaying industry. At one point we drive by thick masonry walls, abandoned to weed trees, another form of greening. Continue Reading

Study: Lower than expected air pollutants detected at Marcellus drilling sites

A Bradford County drilling rig

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A Bradford County drill rig.

An article in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, published today, says measurements of air pollution from Marcellus drilling and transportation sites in Bradford and Sullivan counties were lower than the researchers expected. The study, “Atmosphere Emission Characterization of Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Development Sites,” also reports levels of methane emissions were higher than those indicated in previous research.

Peter DeCarlo is assistant professor in the civil, architecture and engineering department at Drexel University and lead researcher on the report.

“We had seen a lot of data from other natural gas or oil development areas and we had seen pretty high levels of pollutants,” said DeCarlo. “So we went in expecting to see similar things in the Marcellus. The geology in the region is different in that [it produces] a lot of natural gas but we didn’t see a lot of the air quality pollutants that we expected.”

The researchers used a more sophisticated measuring technique than is typically available to researchers or regulators such as those at the Department of Environmental Protection. The researchers used tracers to track the plume of emissions in order to measure levels of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter.

“We did very fast measurements over large spacial areas and downwind of the gas sites,” said DeCarlo. Continue Reading

What’s in those tank cars near the Amtrak derailment?

Emergency personnel work at the scene of a deadly train derailment, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Philadelphia. The Amtrak train, headed to New York City, derailed and crashed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, killing at least six people and injuring dozens of others. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Patrick Semansky / AP

Emergency personnel work at the scene of a deadly train derailment, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Philadelphia with tank cars in the background. The Amtrak train, headed to New York City, derailed and crashed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, killing at least six people and injuring dozens of others. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

News footage of the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia Tuesday night shows nearby tank cars that look similar to the rail cars carrying crude oil or other hazardous material across the country each day. In aerial photos, it looks as if the Amtrak train, traveling at 100 miles an hour, nearly missed creating an even greater catastrophe, if it had struck an oil train, say, or a train carrying chlorine gas. Residents quickly took to twitter, wondering about the content of those tank cars, and whether it was hazardous.

“This could be just one more in a litany of near misses,” said David Masur, director of PennEnvironment, an activist group working to ban oil trains.

Conrail spokesman John Enright confirmed on Thursday that the nearby tanker cars did not contain flammable crude oil or ethanol. But he wouldn’t say what was in those cars, only that some cars in the yard were empty, and others weren’t.

But it wouldn’t be far-fetched for a passenger rail car to collide with an oil train, dozens of oil trains run through the state on their way to Philadelphia and South Jersey refineries each week. In fact, Norfolk Southern runs oil trains on a track that crosses above Amtrak lines, close to the derailment. Bakken crude oil from North Dakota crosses those lines daily, traveling across the Delaware river, and down to refineries in South Jersey. WHYY reporter Tom MacDonald says he saw the black tankers about 50 yards from the derailed Amtrak train. Oil trains frequently run parallel to commuter rail lines throughout the city.

But it’s still unclear what is in those tank cars sitting near the Amtrak crash site. Continue Reading

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