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.
A sign protesting a proposed deep injection well sits on the lawn of a home in Brady Township, Clearfield County.
The Government Accountability Office says new risks from underground injections of oil and gas waste could harm drinking water supplies, and the EPA needs to step up both oversight and enforcement. The GAO released a study on Monday detailing the EPA’s role in overseeing the nation’s 172,000 wells, which either dispose of oil and gas waste, use “enhanced” oil and gas production techniques, store fossil fuels for later use, or use diesel fuel to frack for gas or oil. These wells are referred to as “class II” underground injection wells and are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Oversight of these wells vary by state, with some coming under the regulatory authority of the EPA, including the 1,865 class II wells in Pennsylvania. The GAO faults the EPA for inconsistent on-site inspections and guidance that dates back to the 1980′s. Of the more than 1800 class II wells in Pennsylvania, the GAO reports only 33 percent were inspected in 2012. Some states, including California, Colorado and North Dakota, require monthly reporting on injection pressure, volume and content of the fluid.
As more oil and gas wells across the country generate more waste, the GAO highlights three new risks associated with these wells — earthquakes, high pressure in formations that may have reached their disposal limit, and fracking with diesel. Continue Reading →
Workers build the Laser pipeline in Susquehanna County, Pa.
Federal regulators announced this week that a controversial pipeline expansion project will undergo an extensive environmental review. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees interstate pipelines, will do an environmental impact statement on the $3 billion Atlantic Sunrise Expansion Project.
Oklahoma-based Williams has proposed an expansion to their Transco natural gas pipeline, which would run through parts of north and central Pennsylvania. The pipeline has garnered intense opposition in Lancaster County. As a result, the company has changed part of its original route to avoid nature preserves.
The Transco pipeline system moves natural gas through more than 10,000 miles of existing pipes. The expansion project is part of a larger effort to get Marcellus Shale gas to end users like power plants.
The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation filed suit to halt all drilling in state forests back in 2012. But when Governor Tom Corbett announced earlier this year his plans to lift a moratorium on new forest leases to fill a budget gap, the Environmental Defense Foundation sought an injunction to halt any new drilling.
The group also asked the courts to prevent the Corbett administration from channeling funds from the state’s Oil and Gas Lease Fund to the general fund, or cover the budget of DCNR.
Leasing the state’s forests to Marcellus Shale drillers began under the Rendell administration, much to the chagrin of DCNR’s leadership and staff. In 2010, just before Rendell left office, he imposed a moratorium on any new forest leases. Continue Reading →
Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court has upheld several sections of the state's oil and gas law, including a provision dealing with doctors' access to the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.
This post has been updated to include additional comments on the ruling.
Pennsylvania doctors have nothing to worry about when it comes to the so-called “gag order” on chemical exposures from oil and gas drilling. That’s the message from the Commonwealth Court today in a much-anticipated ruling on provisions of the state’s two-year-old oil and gas law. The court issued the ruling after the Supreme Court passed on the controversy, sending it back to the lower court.
The “gag rule” stems from a section of Act 13, which requires nondisclosure agreements from healthcare providers who seek information on chemical exposures, which may be deemed “confidential” by industry. The law, which was drafted without the knowledge or consultation of healthcare providers, forces doctors to sign a nondisclosure agreement, thereby agreeing not to share any ingredients in the industry’s secret sauce used to frack and drill for natural gas.
Writing for the Commonwealth Court, President Judge Dan Pellegrini says the law is not unconstitutional, and it neither prevents healthcare providers from obtaining the necessary information or sharing it with other health practitioners.
Mark Schmerling / Courtesy of Protecting Our Waters
Stephanie Hallowich with her two children. A court order forbids the children from speaking about fracking or Marcellus Shale for the rest of their lives.
Two young children are forbidden from speaking about Marcellus Shale or fracking for the rest of their lives. The court action stems from a settlement in a high-profile Marcellus Shale lawsuit in western Pennsylvania.
The two children were 7 and 10 years old at the time the Hallowich family settled a nuisance case against driller Range Resources in August 2011. The parents, Chris and Stephanie, had been outspoken critics of fracking, saying the family became sick from the gas drilling activity surrounding their Washington County home.
According to court testimony released Wednesday, the parents were desperate to move and reluctantly agreed to a gag order that not only prevents them from speaking of Marcellus Shale and fracking, but also extends to their children.
Stephanie Hallowich told Washington County Common Pleas Court Judge Paul Pozonsky that she agreed to the gag order in order to get enough funds to move out of the house. But she said she didn’t fully understand the lifelong gag order on her children. Continue Reading →
A just-released Washington County Court transcript of an August 2011 settlement hearing in a high-profile Marcellus Shale damage case shows the case records should have included a missing confidential settlement agreement, and reveals details of an unusual lifetime “gag order” that covers two minor children involved in the case.
Victoria Switzer in her Carter Road home. As part of her settlement with Cabot Oil and Gas, she can no longer discuss issues of water contamination in Dimock.
One of Dimock’s most outspoken critics of gas drilling in Northeast Pennsylvania says she has shifted gears and changed tactics by networking with industry. Victoria Switzer says she wants to persuade drillers to use the best available technologies that reduce air emissions beyond current regulatory requirements.
Switzer may be best known for her witticisms shaming and ridiculing both local lawmakers and industry representatives who she saw doing little to protect the environment, or the health of local residents. As one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Cabot Oil and Gas, Switzer could be heard speaking out in newspapers, on national TV news programs like CBS’s 60 Minutes, and Josh Fox’s Gasland Part 2. But since settling her lawsuit with Cabot Oil and Gas, Switzer has had to muzzle her thoughts on Dimock’s water issues. So, she says she’s turned to air quality.
“We knew we had hit a wall with the water issues,” said Switzer. “You couldn’t persuade people in a town like this where the hospitals are funded by the gas industry. We more or less gave up on that.”
But Switzer says she’s not giving up on remaining in her home on Carter Road, where she wants to breathe clean air. She’s working with a new organization called Breathe Easy Susquehanna County to limit the air pollutants that could come from dozens of new compressor stations planned for the area. Continue Reading →
A Cabot Oil and Gas drill rig in Susquehanna County.
Regional officials with the Environmental Protection Agency based in Philadelphia did not agree with EPA’s national office to close the investigation on water contamination in Dimock, according to a piece published in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times. An internal Power Point presentation leaked to the Times shows at least one staffer at Philadelphia’s region 3 office linked contaminants such as methane, arsenic and manganese to nearby gas drilling.
“Yet as the regulator moved to close its investigation, the staff at the mid-Atlantic EPA office in Philadelphia, which had been sampling the Dimock water, argued for continuing the assessment.”
The Times article doesn’t say who at region 3 wanted to continue the investigation, nor did it describe their role in the process. One question seems to hinge on whether or not the methane detected in the water wells came from shallow formations, or bears the imprint of the deeper Marcellus Shale gas. But Region 3′s assessment seems to agree with the investigation carried out by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection back in 2009, finding Cabot Oil and Gas responsible for methane migration in ten Dimock water wells.
“The presentation, based on data collected over 4 1/2 years at 11 wells around Dimock, concluded that “methane and other gases released during drilling (including air from the drilling) apparently cause significant damage to the water quality.” The presentation also concluded that “methane is at significantly higher concentrations in the aquifers after gas drilling and perhaps as a result of fracking [hydraulic fracturing] and other gas well work.”
A truck delivers drilling waste water to a frack water recycling plant in Susquehanna County
U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, a Democrat from Lackawanna County, has introduced a bill to end an oil and gas exemption to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which was passed back in 1976 establishes standards for proper disposal of hazardous waste. RCRA tracks industrial wastes from “cradle to grave.” But when it comes to the oil and gas industry, as long as the waste water is on the drill site, or in transit, it is not considered hazardous. This also applies to drilling mud.
“Under current federal law, oil and gas companies do not even have to test their waste to see if it is toxic,” said Cartwright in a press release, “leaving us with no way of knowing what is being disposed of and how it is being treated. It is time oil and gas companies comply with existing minimum standards and oversight.”
With no federal oversight of the waste, regulation is left to the states. Cartwright says that has yielded mixed results, and thinks there needs to be one federal standard. The “Closing Loopholes and Ending Arbitrary and Needless Evasion of Regulations” Act, or CLEANER, would eliminate the oil and gas exemption. But the bill may have a tough time getting through the Republican controlled House.
Because a small section of the pipeline will cross into Delaware, the company can exercise eminent domain. Sunoco Logistics filed its first claim in Westmoreland County. The pipeline would bring “wet gas” or propane and ethane east, to their refinery in Delaware County.
Sunoco Logistics Partners LP has notified landowners in several communities that it will try to take land for a pipeline running from Washington County to an export terminal near Philadelphia.
Its partners, primarily Range Resources Corp., plan to export half of the natural gas to Europe.