Pennsylvania is stepping up its monitoring of air contamination by fine particulates at sites near natural gas compressor stations. The move comes on the heels of a federal government study of one site in Susquehanna County, which found levels of the particulate matter known as PM2.5 that researchers say could be harmful for people who are exposed in the long-term.
On April 27, the Department of Environmental Protection announced plans to expand air-quality monitoring in 10 northern and western counties, in addition to 27 existing locations around the state. The new locations will be operational by the fall of 2017, the DEP said.
The expansion, estimated to cost $1.56 million over five years, includes continuous monitors in Holbrook Township in Greene County and Towanda Township in Bradford County that became operational in March, the department said.
“Focusing on the regions with significant numbers of natural gas compressor stations, we’re installing continuous PM2.5 samplers in under-monitored areas of the state,” said DEP Secretary John Quigley, in a statement.
“We simply don’t have data on air quality in these areas,” Quigley said. “We need that data and monitoring capability to help us understand whether or not there are risks or impacts to public health from current air quality in these areas.”
Particulates including nitrates, sulfates, organic chemicals, metals, oil and dust are generated by a range of industrial processes including natural gas production and transmission; logging and agriculture, and by vehicles, the DEP said. Health effects include decreased lung function and asthma, emphysema and bronchitis, especially among young children and the elderly.
PM2.5 particles are believed to pose the greatest risk to human health because their small size may lead to becoming lodged deep in the lungs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The DEP’s announcement came five days after the release of a report by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Control, which studied air quality near a natural gas compressor station in Brooklyn Township, Susquehanna County, and found PM2.5 at levels that it said could damage the health of people with long-term exposure.
Neil Shader, a spokesman for the DEP, said the expansion plan had been in the works for “several months” before the ATSDR study was released, and that its timing was “coincidental.”
The federal agency said it tested the air in one home near the Williams Central natural gas compressor station over 18 days last August and September, and found an annual average of 15-16 micrograms per cubic metre (μg/m3), a level that could damage health. A microgram is a millionth of a gram.
“The estimated annual average PM2.5 concentration of 15 to 16 μg/m3 may be harmful to the general population and sensitive subpopulations, including the elderly, children, and those with respiratory or heart disease,” the agency said.
It said there is evidence that long-term exposure to PM2.5 at around the level found on the test site can cause an increase in mortality, respiratory problems, more hospitalizations, pre-term births, and low birth weight. In the short term, exposure could be harmful to especially vulnerable people but should pose no risks for most of the population, the report said.
It also listed its own limitations including that its sampling over 18 days made it difficult to determine the effects of exposures over more than a year, and that only one location was monitored.
The data and its conclusions “should not be generalized to all gas compressor stations or to other locations in Brooklyn Township,” the report said.
Joe Horvath, a spokesman for Oklahoma-based Williams, said the compressor station operates within permit limits, including those for particulates, set by federal, state and local governments.
Horvath accused the ATSDR report of being speculative.
“We are disappointed – and frankly, concerned – that an organization would release such highly speculative finds that – by the report’s own admission – have numerous limitations and, further, lack any form of recognized quality-assurance practices in the data-gathering and reporting process,” he said in a statement.
Horvath also argued that the report fails to pay enough attention to “countless” contributors of particulate matter in virtually every environment, especially the one that was studied.
The study was done in response to local residents who collected their own air-quality data and presented a series of health symptoms to the agency in June 2015, and asked for assistance from the state and federal governments, the ATSDR said.
The community monitoring work was facilitated by Citizen Sense, a U.K-based project that investigates the use of environmental sensing technologies for addressing environmental issues.
The group approached residents in four northeastern Pennsylvania counties starting in 2013, and distributed air-quality monitoring kits to about 30 people, who used the kits for about seven months starting in October 2014, said Jennifer Gabrys, a researcher at the University of London, who leads Citizen Sense.
“We chose Pennsylvania as there were already a number of citizens doing their own environmental monitoring in response to fracking,” Gabrys told StateImpact in an email.
After residents collected individual air-quality samples, the team developed an open-source data analysis tool kit and compiled data showing evidence of issues with air quality at some cites near natural gas infrastructure, she said.
Gabrys said her group did not supply its data to the DEP during testing but did so after the findings were published. The results were also sent to the ATSDR, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
ATSDR called on the DEP to work with the source of the particulate to reduce its level, and urged another study that would look for other potential sources of air contamination.
“Given the potential that there are additional air emissions of potential public health concern at these locations, ATSDR recommends more robust assessment of air quality, including seasonal monitoring, including winter, near this natural gas compressor station,” the agency said.
It said it will share the study with residents near the compressor station, and recommended that people who are especially sensitive to air contamination should avoid exertion on days when air quality is poor, as indicated by National Ambient Air Quality Standards testing at Scranton.