Energy. Environment. Economy.


DEP seeks record fine against gas driller as AG files criminal charges

Pennsylvania regulators are seeking a record $4.5 million fine against EQT Corp. for a major leak from an impoundment pond in Tioga County, the Department of Environmental Protection said Tuesday in a news release. The announcement comes one week after the state Attorney General’s office filed criminal charges against the company for the same incident.

In May 2012, EQT estimates between 300 and 500 gallons of “flowback fluid” – the liquid that comes back out of the ground after a well has been fracked – seeped out of an impoundment pond at a well site in Duncan Township. Flowback contains high levels of salts, heavy metals and some naturally occurring radioactive materials.

DEP inspectors found the fluid had polluted soil, as well as nearby groundwater seeps and waterways – including Rock Run, a high quality, wild trout stream. Trees and shrubs along the path of the spill were also damaged.

EQT “has not been cooperative”

According to the DEP, the impoundment was supposed to contain six million gallons of fresh water. Instead, the agency says EQT used the pit to store flowback without a permission from the department and without the required safeguards to prevent leaks.

Acting Secretary Dana Aunkst said in a statement the company “has not been cooperative” during the state’s investigation. The agency has filed a complaint with the state Environmental Hearing Board, alleging EQT violated Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law.

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DEP Secretary Chris Abruzzo resigns amid lewd email scandal

DEP Secretary Chris Abruzzo (left) resigned from his office today.   Dana Aunkst (right) will now serve as Acting Secretary. Here, the two testify at the department's senate budget hearing in Harrisburg.

Marie Cusick

DEP Secretary Chris Abruzzo (center) resigned from his post today. Dana Aunkst (right) will now serve as Acting Secretary. On the left is Deputy Secretary Jeff Logan. Here, the three testify at the department's senate budget hearing in Harrisburg in February.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Chris Abruzzo has resigned his position, according to a statement issued by Governor Tom Corbett. The resignation is effective immediately. It comes amidst a scandal involving several top Corbett officials exchanging lewd emails.

Abruzzo is one of eight Corbett appointees recently named by the Attorney General’s office as having sent or received pornographic emails on state computers. Some of the emails were shown to reporters, but the information was released without details as to who sent what to whom.

In a letter to Gov. Corbett, Abruzzo says he doesn’t remember the emails but accepts “full responsibility for any lack of judgement I may have exhibited in 2009.” At that time, Abruzzo worked under Corbett in the Attorney General’s office leading the Drug Strike Force. Current Attorney General Kathleen Kane says Abruzzo and others exchanged the lewd emails between 2008 and 2012, while Corbett served as AG.

In the letter, Abruzzo says he has not reviewed the emails Attorney General Kane has shown to reporters, but decided to resign because the issue has become a distraction.

“ is my concern that these assertions have become a distraction from the great record of this administration; a record that has held the line on taxes for Pennsylvania families, invested the most state dollars for basic education in the history of the state, and put hard-working Pennsylvanians back to work.”

With the election just a month away, Corbett faces a tough fight against his challenger Democrat Tom Wolf. Continue Reading

PUC rejects judges’ decision, orders hearings on Sunoco Logistics pipeline

The Public Utility Commission has ordered more hearings on Sunoco Logistics’ request to bypass local zoning to build structures for facilities along its 300-mile natural gas liquids pipeline.

In a 4-1 vote Thursday, the PUC rejected a recommendation from its administrative law judges to dismiss the petition because the company is not a public utility. The commission argues Sunoco Logistics and its Mariner East project are the product of a merger between two pipeline companies that had public utility status since the 1930s.

At issue now is whether the buildings that would shelter the pump and valve control stations should be exempt from local zoning laws — not the facilities themselves.

“To answer this question, we must decide whether it is in the convenience or welfare of the public for Sunoco to enclose the planned facilities with walls and roofs, even if those enclosures may conflict with local zoning ordnances,” Commissioners Pamela Witmer and John Coleman wrote in their motion.

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Gas drillers still ignoring law to include women and minorities

According to a recent survey by the industry group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, 84 percent of workers are white. Men outnumber women three to one.

Joe Ulrich/ WITF

According to a recent survey by the industry group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, 84 percent of gas workers are white. Men outnumber women three to one.

In an industry heavily dominated by white men, most gas drilling companies continue to ignore a state law requiring them to make efforts to include minority, women, and veteran-owned businesses in contracting opportunities.

As StateImpact Pennsylvania previously reported, last year marked the first time drillers had to fill out a legally-mandated diversity survey. Most of them didn’t respond.

Dave Spigelmyer, who heads the industry group the Marcellus Shale Coalition, says gas companies are committed to hiring locally.

“We will continue to make collaborative efforts – working with a diverse set of stakeholders – as shale development matures aimed at creating even more opportunities and partnerships with local businesses,” he wrote in an email.

Pennsylvania’s 2012 oil and gas law –known as Act 13– directs drillers to provide “maximum practicable contracting opportunities” to small diverse businesses. It doesn’t set quotas, but it does require gas companies to respond to an annual survey and use the state Department of General Services’ (DGS) database to identify certified small diverse businesses.

The response rate to this latest survey was better. Forty percent of companies replied this time, compared to 27 percent last year. Among those who responded, most said they did not employ any small diverse businesses, nor did they use the DGS database. Many companies reported that they already had their contractors selected.

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Heirs to 19th century lumber baron claim gas rights in Loyalsock State Forest

A wellpad in the Loyalsock State Forest. Gas drilling is already occurring there, but there are controversial plans to expand it in an ecologically sensitive area known as the Clarence Moore lands.

Joe Ulrich/ WITF

A wellpad in the Loyalsock State Forest. Gas drilling is already occurring there, but there are controversial plans to expand development into an ecologically sensitive area known as the Clarence Moore tract.

A group representing the descendants of a 19th century lumber baron is claiming most of the mineral rights in an area of the Loyalsock State Forest where there are controversial plans to expand natural gas drilling– it’s a direct challenge to two gas companies who say they own the rights and have already submitted development plans to the state.

Shortly after the Philadelphia Inquirer published an October 2012 story about environmental groups fighting the gas companies’ plans, a Boston-based group called the Thomas E. Proctor Heirs Trust sent a letter to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

“As you may know, the article contains inaccurate information regarding the ownership of the natural gas rights,” wrote trustee Charles Kendall. “These rights were originally reserved in a deed dated October 2, 1894 from Mr. Proctor… Proctor’s heirs have been managing and leasing the property ever since. Any attempts by others to develop the Proctor gas rights under Loyalsock  Forest… will result in appropriate legal action.”

At issue is a 25,000 acre swath of the forest known as the Clarence Moore lands– a treasured area for wildlife and recreation. Two gas companies– Anadarko Petroleum and Southwestern Energy– say they own the mineral rights and are currently working with DCNR on development plans.

DCNR has said the Clarence Moore tract presents a unique case because of the intense public interest and the fact that the state does not own the mineral rights.

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Pa. faults Chevron for lack of oversight, poor communication in fatal well fire

The family of Ian McKee, a worker who was killed in a February natural gas well explosion in Greene County, is suing Chevron Appalachia.

Katie Colaneri/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

State investigators have determined that human error may have led to a fatal explosion on a well pad in Dunkard Township, Greene County in February.

In a new report out today, the Department of Environmental Protection says Chevron was “too guarded” in its communication with state regulators and the media, and did not provide adequate information after a fatal well fire in southwest Pennsylvania.

The DEP admits it is also to blame for the poor communication and that the agency did not immediately assert its authority following the incident in February.

A second report by the department’s Bureau of Investigations faults Chevron’s site managers for inadequate supervision over several contractors working on the Lanco A well pad in Dunkard Township, Greene County.

DEP investigators found the explosion was likely caused by an inexperienced contractor – known as a “greenhat” – who was sent to assist a more experienced worker in preparing to put the three wells on the pad into production. The agency determined the unnamed greenhat did not properly tighten a bolt and locknut assembly on one of the wellheads, allowing gas to escape and eventually ignite.

“Our investigation revealed that the oversight of that operation was somewhat less than it should have been,” said DEP spokesman John Poister.

A contract worker, 27-year-old Ian McKee, was killed in the fire on Feb. 11.

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Independent judges: Sunoco Logistics pipeline can’t bypass local zoning laws

Sunoco Logistics can’t bypass local zoning laws to develop its natural gas liquids pipeline project known as Mariner East. That’s the word from a pair of independent administrative law judges for the state’s Public Utility Commission, or PUC.

Sunoco Logistics wants to build 31 pump and valve stations to keep natural gas liquids flowing along the pipeline’s 300-mile route from western Pennsylvania to Marcus Hook.

For months, the company has attempted to make the case – to local residents and to the PUC – that it is a public utility corporation, and that the pipeline itself offers a public utility service.

The judges dismissed that claim, resulting in a win for residents who have teamed up with environmental groups to fight the project.

“We’re happy that it proves what we’ve been saying all along,” said Tom Casey, the head of a citizens’ advocacy group in Chester County.

However, Casey, a resident of West Goshen Township, could not officially declare victory.

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Pa. health department reaches out to doctors amid controversy over drilling complaints

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is asking doctors to let them know if their patients could be experiencing health impacts from natural gas operations. The outreach follows allegations by two former health department employees who say staff were told not to respond to people who called with drilling-related health complaints.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is asking doctors to let them know if their patients could be experiencing health impacts from natural gas operations. The outreach follows allegations by two former health department employees who say staff were told not to return calls from people drilling-related complaints.

Are doctors in Pennsylvania seeing patients with possible health effects from natural gas development?

The state Department of Health wants to know.

The agency reached out to physicians through the Pennsylvania Medical Society this week, following a recent investigation by StateImpact Pennsylvania into how the agency handled drilling-related health complaints.

In a message on the society’s website, the department asks health professionals to contact the state’s Bureau of Epidemiology if they have encountered patients with symptoms they suspect could be related to natural gas operations.

Two retired state employees told StateImpact Pennsylvania that in 2012, community health staffers were instructed not to return phone calls from people who complained about gas development, but to forward the caller’s name and number to a supervisor.

In the wake of these allegations, state health secretary Michael Wolf wrote an editorial published on on July 22.

In it, Wolf made several claims about how the agency has addressed the potential impacts of shale gas development, including:

  • That the department “has conducted outreach on the issue” through the Pennsylvania Medical Society,
  • That the department has been “working with schools of public health in Pennsylvania to further understand and study the potential health impacts of drilling,”
  • That the department “will continue to carry out related monitoring activities under Act 13 of 2012,” the state’s two-year-old oil and gas law.

Neither Wolf, nor a department spokeswoman mentioned these initiatives in prior interviews with StateImpact Pennsylvania.

We checked in on where these initiatives stand. Here’s what we found out.

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Drilling plans for Loyalsock State Forest quietly move forward

A drill rig in the Tiadaghton State Forest. Although gas drilling is already occurring in many state forests, including the Loyalsock, environmental groups are opposing a proposed expansion in an area of the Loyalsock known as the Clarence Moore lands.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

A drill rig in the Tiadaghton State Forest. Although gas drilling is already occurring in many state forests--including the Loyalsock--environmental groups are fighting a proposed expansion in an ecologically sensitive area of the Loyalsock known as the Clarence Moore lands.

Controversial plans to expand natural gas drilling in the Loyalsock State Forest are quietly moving forward. Last month the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which manages drilling on public lands, met with two gas companies who own mineral rights there.

More than a year has passed since DCNR held a contentious public meeting on the issue in Williamsport. Since then, the agency has released very little information publicly.

Nearly 500 people attended that meeting, and everyone who spoke over a three-hour period expressed either opposition or concern. In a response to an open records request from the Pennsylvania Forest Coalition, DCNR said it did not keep a record of the comments.

A DCNR spokeswoman did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story.

The plans unveiled last summer involve 26 well pads and four compressor stations on a 25,000 acre swath of the Loyalsock forest known as the Clarence Moore lands– a popular area for wildlife enthusiasts and hikers.

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Proposed Pipeline Project to Get Federal Scrutiny

Workers build the Laser pipeline in Susquehanna County, Pa.

Kim Paynter / Newsworks/WHYY

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.

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