Energy. Environment. Economy.

Susan Phillips


Susan Phillips tells stories about the consequences of political decisions on people's every day lives. A native Philadelphian with roots in central Pennsylvania, Susan travels extensively around the state as both a reporter, and a hiker. 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 prestigious 2013 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Journalism Award for her work covering natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania. A graduate of Columbia School of Journalism, she earned her Bachelor's degree in International Relations from George Washington University.

Pa. Auditor General: Don’t rely on DEP for good information

A man helps deliver donations of clean water to residents of Butler County who say gas drilling polluted their water supply. DEP officials had told residents that nearby drilling was not the cause. So free water deliveries by the gas producer ended.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A man helps deliver donations of clean water to residents of Butler County who say gas drilling polluted their water supply. DEP officials had told residents that nearby drilling was not the cause. But gave no other explanation.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection is having a rough week. On Thursday, the Attorney General’s office showed reporters evidence of how DEP Secretary Chris Abruzzo exchanged pornographic emails with his pals on taxpayer time. And now, another state agency, the Auditor General’s office, has released a “citizens guide” to shale gas water complaints warning Pennsylvanians not to trust information on the DEP’s website.

In an audit released back in July, the Auditor General described DEP’s ineptitude when it comes to investigating and acting upon shale gas related water complaints from citizens. Sloppy record-keeping, lax oversight, and poor communication with citizens topped the list of findings. So perhaps it’s not surprising that “Shale Gas Development and Water Quality Complaints — A Citizen’s Guide” urges caution when relying on DEP for accurate information.

“Users should exercise caution in accessing any information from DEP’s website as the information may not be accurate and may not be representative of actual conditions. DEP frequently posts data it obtains directly from operators without checking to see if the data is valid and reliable. In particular, drilling dates (or spud dates) may be inaccurate on DEP’s website. As we found in our audit work, the only way to really know when critical drilling activity occurred on a site is to conduct a file review at the applicable district oil and gas office or to speak with an operator’s representative.”

Continue Reading

Study: Treated fracking wastewater could still threaten drinking water

A worker collects a water sample at a natural gas wastewater recycling plant in Susquehanna County.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A worker collects a water sample at a natural gas wastewater recycling plant in Susquehanna County. At this facility, the wastewater reused in oil and gas drilling, and the solids that contain salts are sent to a landfill.

A new study shows how treated wastewater from oil and gas operations, when discharged into rivers and streams that travel toward drinking water intakes, can produce dangerous toxins. The research confirms what scientists have been warning about for some time. The high concentrations of salty brine, which flows up from deep underground once a well is fracked, are difficult to remove from the wastewater without the aid of an expensive technique called reverse osmosis or a cheaper method known as thermal distillation. If the wastewater is treated conventionally, which does not remove the bromides, chlorides or iodides, then it can be combined with chlorine at a drinking water facility, and create carcinogens such as bromines and iodines.

The peer-reviewed research was published this week in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, and conducted by a team from both Duke University and Stanford University. Researchers from Duke University, who recently published a study on the impact of faulty well casings, had water samples from Pennsylvania and Arkansas frack sites, which they shared with the Stanford researchers. In the lab the researchers diluted the fracking wastewater with water samples from the Allegheny and Ohio rivers. What they found was that just .01 percent per volume of fracking wastewater, when combined with the disinfectant chlorine used by drinking water facilities, created trihalomethanes. The EPA limits the amount of these compounds in drinking water because of their link to kidney, liver and bladder cancer. Continue Reading

DEP Secretary Abruzzo implicated in sexually explicit email exchange

Chris Abruzzo is the secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Chris Abruzzo is the secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Chris Abruzzo is one of eight prominent state employees who “sent or received hundreds of sexually explicit photos, videos and messages from state email accounts between 2008 and 2012.” A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s office confirmed to WITF that Abruzzo sent eight of the emails, and received 46.

Prior to being appointed as Pennsylvania’s top environmental regulator, Abruzzo worked under Gov. Corbett during his term as Attorney General, running the Drug Strike Force and prosecuting Medicaid fraud. He has no environmental background.

The sexually explicit emails were requested by the Inquirer and other newspapers under a Right-to-Know law request. They are related to the current Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s investigation of the Jerry Sandusky prosecution while Corbett was at the helm.

Kane released the names of eight emailers, which include the state’s top cop, and showed reporters some of the pornographic messages.

More from the Inquirer:

The emails include explicit photos and videos of women and men engaged in oral sex, anal sex and intercourse.

Kane’s office showed only what it called a sampling of the emails and their contents; it could not say specifically if the messages were opened, provide the dates they were sent, or if the pornography had been viewed by the intended recipients.

The office also could not say how many people received the e-mails, how often the emails circulated, or how many such e-mails the eight named recipients sent or received.

Kane’s office did not show reporters the images of actual emails – just the attached image or the video, which it then attributed to a specific person.

Continue Reading

DEP fines pipeline company $250,000 for violations in Lycoming County

Crews weld a pipeline the Loyalsock State Forest.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

Crews weld a pipeline the Loyalsock State Forest.

The Department of Environmental Protection fined NFG Midstream Trout Run for violating the state Clean Streams Law 13 times over a seven-month stretch beginning in October, 2011. The infractions occurred during the construction of a 16-mile length of pipeline running from a Seneca Resources well pad in McIntyre Township to the Transco transmission pipeline in Loyalsock Township. DEP says the company discharged sediment into local streams.

“NFG’s failure to implement and maintain erosion and sediment control best management practices resulted in several sediment discharges into unnamed tributaries to Mill Creek and Lycoming Creek, Lycoming Creek, and an exceptional value wetland,” wrote DEP district director John Ryder in a release.

Although DEP says the waterways were impacted, the department says it didn’t document any effects on aquatic life. The fine seems small compared to DEP’s recent $4 million dollar assessment against Range Resources. But it still tops the highest fine incurred by the oil and gas industry in 2013, which was $198,500 paid by Seneca Resources.


Climate controversy pushing scientists to become better communicators

Explaining science is something reporters, especially science reporters, must do. But most of us are not scientists. Instead, we rely on the type of scientist who is good at telling stories, good at translating what happens in the lab to people who may not have been around an Erlenmeyer flask since high school.

So what makes a scientist a good communicator? It turns out the scientific community has become more interested in figuring that out.

Continue Reading

New study shows gas workers could be exposed to dangerous levels of benzene

Workers keep an eye on well heads during a hydraulic fracturing operation at an Encana Corp. oil well, near Mead, Colo.


Workers keep an eye on well heads during a hydraulic fracturing operation at an Encana Corp. oil well, near Mead, Colo.

A new study out this month reveals unconventional oil and natural gas workers could be exposed to dangerous levels of benzene, putting them at a higher risk for blood cancers like leukemia. Benzene is a known carcinogen that is present in fracking flowback water. It’s also found in gasoline, cigarette smoke and in chemical manufacturing. As a known carcinogen, benzene exposures in the workplace are limited by federal regulations under OSHA. But some oil and gas production activities are exempt from those standards.

The National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) worked with industry to measure chemical exposures of workers who monitor flowback fluid at well sites in Colorado and Wyoming. A summary of the peer-reviewed article was published online this month on a CDC website. In several cases benzene exposures were found to be above safe levels.

The study is unusual in that it did not simply rely on air samples. The researchers also took urine samples from workers, linking the exposure to absorption of the toxin in their bodies. One of the limits of the study includes the small sample size, only six sites in two states. Continue Reading

Maryland takes a public health approach on fracking that Pa. hasn’t tried

Trucks drive down Towanda's main drag. Click on the image to view StateImpact Pennsylvania's new multimedia project, called "Boomtown."

Becky Lettenberger / NPR

Trucks drive down Towanda's main drag. Truck traffic is one driver of increased air pollution from unconventional natural gas drilling.

Air pollution is among one of the greatest public health concerns related to Marcellus Shale drilling, according to a new health impact assessment released this week by the University of Maryland School of Public Health. Commissioned by the Maryland Department of Public Health through an executive order by Gov. Martin O’Malley, the study assesses potential environmental health impacts should Maryland open up its western edge to Marcellus Shale drillers. The report comes at a time when healthcare workers and environmental groups are calling for an investigation into the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s handling of Marcellus Shale-related complaints. And it stands in contrast to how Pennsylvania has addressed health concerns related to Marcellus Shale.

A health impact assessment starts with what is called “scoping,” reaching out into the community to find out what concerns and questions already exist. Then it gathers baseline public health information on the community. This takes a snapshot of residents’ current health status, which then provides a method for future comparisons should drilling occur in the area. The report does not predict future health impacts from natural gas development. Rather it looks at all the available epidemiological studies that form the basis of potential health concerns. In this case, the researchers then rated these concerns, with air pollution topping the list. Pennsylvania never did a similar health impact assessment for Marcellus Shale drilling. It would be impossible to do one now because the drilling boom began almost 10 years ago.

It’s important to note that the report was limited by the available research. The researchers did not rank water pollution as a high public health concern simply because they say there’s not enough data available to draw strong conclusions. Continue Reading

Pennsylvania ranks 3rd in statewide CO2 emissions for 2011

The Homer City Generating Station, Homer City, Pa.

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

The Homer City Generating Station, Homer City, Pa.

Overall, carbon dioxide emissions are decreasing nationally, down 12 percent in 2012 from a pre-recession peak of 6023 million metric tons in 2007. Pennsylvania is following that trend, not leading it, not lagging behind, but landing somewhere in the middle at 10.9 percent CO2 reductions between 2000 and 2011. Still the state ranks third in energy related CO2 emissions for 2011, behind California and Texas, according to a report out this week by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The term “energy-related” refers to the energy produced in the state. Some states, including Pennsylvania, produce more than they consume, exporting electricity to other states. But when it comes to per capita energy-related CO2 emissions, the rankings can look very different. Instead of Texas at the top of the list, Wyoming produced the highest per capita CO2 emissions, while Pennsylvania ranks 21st. Coal remains the state’s largest source of carbon dioxide pollution. Under newly proposed rules by the EPA, Pennsylvania needs to develop a plan to cut its carbon dioxide emissions 32 percent by 2030.

Pennsylvania Environmental Regulators Reject Teen’s Climate Change Petition

Mount Pleasant resident Ashley Funk sued the state to compel the DEP to reduce carbon emissions.

courtesy of Ashley Funk

Mount Pleasant resident Ashley Funk sued the state to compel the DEP to reduce carbon emissions.

Pennsylvania’s Environmental Quality Board has rejected a petition from a Westmoreland County woman to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. Ashley Funk was 18 years old at the time she sued the state to force the Department of Environmental Protection to take action on climate change. Funk, now 20 and a student at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, says she filed the petition as a way to take action on climate change.

“We all agree that Pennsylvania needs to address climate change, the question is how,” says Funk. “I think the (Department of Environmental Protection) is talking about climate change but they haven’t shown to us that the steps they are taking are going to do anything. That we will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by the percentage that is needed in our state.”

Funk filed the petition as part of a national campaign organized by the environmental group, Our Children’s Trust. It seeks a reduction in carbon emissions by six percent each year until 2050. The targets are based on the work of climate scientist Jim Hansen. The lawsuits appeal to the duty of governments to protect the “public trust,” a concept that dates back to Roman times, according to the organization’s website. Funk, who is represented by attorneys from Widener University’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic, also drew on a section of the Pennsylvania Constitution known as the environmental rights amendment.  Continue Reading

Public Utility Commission appeals Commonwealth Court decision on Act 13

A Lycoming County rig

Tim Lambert / WITF-FM

A drill rig in Lycoming County.

Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission has appealed a recent Commonwealth Court decision, which stripped the agency of its authority to review local zoning ordinances regarding Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling. The state’s drilling law, enacted in 2012, gave the PUC authority to decide whether or not a municipality’s zoning ordinances complied with the state constitution and the new rules regarding natural gas drilling.

Act 13, the comprehensive legislation that amended the state’s oil and gas law, had implemented statewide zoning rules that the municipalities had to follow. It also allowed those who disagreed with the ordinances to bypass local zoning hearing boards, and appeal directly to the PUC or the Commonwealth Court. Several municipalities sued the state over this controversial law, and the case eventually made its way up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The high court ruled in December that these restrictions on local zoning for natural gas development were unconstitutional.

But the Supreme Court sent some decisions in the case back down to the Commonwealth Court to decide. Among these included whether or not the Public Utility Commission’s authority superseded local zoning boards when it came to challenging a municipality’s zoning decision.

Continue Reading

About StateImpact

StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
Learn More »