Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Marie Cusick

Reporter

Marie Cusick is StateImpact Pennsylvania's Harrisburg reporter at WITF. Her work regularly takes her throughout the state covering Marcellus Shale natural gas production. Marie first began reporting on the gas boom in 2011 at WMHT (PBS/NPR) in Albany, New York. A native Pennsylvanian, she was born and raised in Lancaster and holds a degree in political science and French from Lebanon Valley College. In 2014 Marie was honored with a national Edward R. Murrow award for her coverage of Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry.

Natural gas industry wastewater pollution may linger for years

The before, during and after of the fracking fluid recycling process

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

The before, during and after of the fracking fluid recycling process

A new study finds the treated wastewater from Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry may pollute rivers, lakes, streams and creeks for longer than previously thought.

Penn State environmental engineering professor Bill Burgos and his colleagues analyzed sediment samples from the Conemaugh River, a dam-controlled reservoir in western Pennsylvania. The reservoir is downstream from two centralized waste treatment plants, which contaminants from hydraulic fracturing operations can pass through. The study, published this month in Environmental Science & Technology, shows the highest concentrations of pollutants were deposited in the reservoir’s sediments five to 10 years ago, during the peak of Marcellus Shale activity; they include endocrine disrupting chemicals and carcinogens.

Burgos says it’s not yet clear how the pollution may affect human health or the broader environment.

“How dangerous is that material? That’s still an open question,” he says. “That’s difficult to know.”

In 2015, Pennsylvania’s unconventional gas wells produced nearly 1.7 billion gallons of wastewater. Oil and gas wells can contain various contaminants, including salts, metals, natural occurring radioactive material, and manmade organic compounds. The study shows elevated levels of contaminants as far away as 12 miles downstream from the treatment plants.

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Nuns sue federal agency over natural gas pipeline

A group of nuns in Lancaster County is suing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission over its approval of a major interstate natural gas pipeline.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A group of nuns in Lancaster County is suing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission over its approval of a major interstate natural gas pipeline.

A group of Roman Catholic nuns has filed a lawsuit against the federal agency that approved construction of a major interstate natural gas pipeline, planned to run through the nuns’ property in Lancaster County.

The suit, filed by sisters from the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, targets the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline and alleges the project violates their religious freedom, which is protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The Atlantic Sunrise is $3 billion expansion of the Transco system. It’s designed to move Marcellus Shale gas from Susquehanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania southward to markets along the East Coast and to an export terminal under construction along the Chesapeake Bay.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) gave its approval to the pipeline in February. The pipeline company, Williams Partners, plans to install the line underground on the sisters’ property in West Hempfield Township. The company unsuccessfully tried to negotiated rights to the land, and is now authorized to use eminent domain, and would have permanent rights to a 50-foot-wide area on approximately one acre.

“We believe FERC’s decision to force the Adorers to use their land to accommodate this pipeline violates their religious beliefs,” says J. Dwight Yoder, the nuns’ attorney.

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State regulators hold hearings on Atlantic Sunrise pipeline

Lynda Like of Conestoga, spoke out against the pipeline to state environmental regulators.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Lynda Like of Conestoga, spoke out against the pipeline to state environmental regulators.

More than 100 people turned out in Lancaster County Monday evening to weigh in on the Atlantic Sunrise, a large interstate natural gas line planned to run through 10 counties in Pennsylvania.

State environmental regulators are hosting four public hearings this week to accept public comment on pending permit applications. Williams, the company building the pipeline, is waiting for the state Department of Environmental Protection to approve so-called Chapter 102 and 105 permits, which authorize earth disturbance and water crossings. The firm is also waiting on approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In February, Williams secured the key authorization from the the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Once it gets these final approvals, the company expects to begin construction in the third quarter of this year.

“We have been working closely with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection since early 2014 and are committed to utilizing construction best-practices which avoid or minimize impacts to wetlands, water bodies and other sensitive environmental areas,” says Williams spokesman Chris Stockton. “We are looking forward to securing the Chapter 102 & 105 permits, which are among the last remaining clearances needed to construct this important project and meet the state’s critical need for additional energy infrastructure.”

At the Farm and Home Center in Lancaster supporters and opponents spoke passionately about the pipeline’s impacts on the economy, the environment, and private property– with many receiving applause from the side of the room that shared their viewpoint.

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Exelon to prematurely close Three Mile Island nuclear power plant

Exelon says it will close Three Mile Island's Unit One reactor in September 2019.

Joe Ulrich/ WITF

Exelon says it will close Three Mile Island's Unit One reactor in September 2019.

Exelon has announced it will prematurely close the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in September 2019—15 years before its license expires.

The plant’s been unable to compete. Like coal companies, the nuclear power industry faces slowing demand for electricity, along with a glut of cheaper natural gas and renewables. Around the country, five nuclear plants have retired in the past five years, and another five are scheduled to close within a decade.

TMI is located outside Harrisburg. It has 675 workers and one functional reactor. Its Unit 2 reactor was mothballed after the 1979 accident when it partially melted down.

Touting itself as a form of clean energy, the industry has recently been lobbying state legislatures with a controversial pitch for help.

David Fein, Exelon’s vice president for state government affairs, is hoping Pennsylvania follows the example of other states– like New York and Illinois– which have enacted new legislation to shore up their nuclear fleets.

“If we’re fortunate enough that policy changes take hold in Pennsylvania, then maybe there will be an opportunity to reverse this decision,” says Fein.

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Friends and foes of gas industry converge on state Capitol

David Spigelmyer (left) heads the gas trade group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition. He testified Wednesday, along with Thad Hill, President and CEO of Calpine, a natural gas power company.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

David Spigelmyer (left) heads the gas trade group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition. He testified Wednesday before a joint Senate commitee, along with Thad Hill, President and CEO of Calpine, a major natural gas power company.

Two starkly different versions of reality were on display Wednesday morning at the state Capitol in Harrisburg.

Inside the building, a joint hearing by Republicans from the Senate Majority Policy Committee and Environmental Resources and Energy Committee examined the economic benefits natural gas production has brought Pennsylvania– with skyrocketing production, tens of thousands of new jobs, and more than a billion dollars in impact fee revenue. Outside, environmental groups and concerned citizens railed against the industry’s harmful air emissions, which exacerbate global climate change and can contribute to localized health effects.

At the Senate hearing, David Spigelmyer, president of the gas trade group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, described the game-changing role the gas industry has played in Pennsylvania– noting the state has surged to become the number two producer of gas in the nation, after Texas, and attracted $10 billion in investment toward new or converted natural gas power plants.

“We are at a povitol moment in Pennsylvania,” says Spigelmyer, “We have an unprecedented opportunity to leverage our indigenous resources to create a manufacturing resurgence and that could drive our economy, provide job opportunities, and establish a stable tax base for generations.”

Thad Hill of Calpine Corporation– the nation’s largest generator of electricity from natural gas and geothermal resources– told lawmakers that competitive electric market policies are working, noting the shift away from the dominance by coal, toward more natural gas.

“My key message today is that the market-driven competitive electric sector here in Pennsylvania is on a path to transition,” says Hill. “From one supported by older, less efficient and more costly power plants to one supported by newer, more efficient, less expensive and cleaner natural gas plants.”

Protesters hold large black balloons symbolizing the methane pollution from Pennsylvania's oil and gas industry.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Protesters hold large black balloons symbolizing the methane pollution from Pennsylvania's oil and gas industry.

After the hearing, about 40 people gathered on the Capitol steps, holding up large black balloons to symbolize the methane pollution created by the oil and gas industry. Nadia Steinzor, of the environmental group Earthworks, said she was disappointed the Senate hearing only focused on the benefits of the gas boom.

“I think it’s a real shame they only hear from one side, and not from the folks who are actually living the in gas fields,” she says.

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State senate confirms McDonnell as environmental secretary

The state senate has confirmed Patrick McDonnell as secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

The state senate has confirmed Patrick McDonnell as secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection.

The state senate unanimously approved Governor Tom Wolf’s pick to head the state Department of Environmental Protection on Monday.

DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell has been at the helm of the agency for nearly a year. He was appointed last May after the abrupt departure of his predecessor, John Quigley, who was ensnared in controversy over an angry email he sent to some environmental groups.

The cabinet position is undoubtedly one of the toughest jobs in Harrisburg, requiring the political skills needed to handle the often conflicting agendas of environmental groups, citizens, and the business community. The job has recently been marked with high turnover. McDonnell is the fifth person to lead the department in as many years.

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Senate advances controversial coal mining bill

 A state senate committee has approved a bill that targets an ongoing legal challenge over coal mining in a western Pa. state park.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

A state senate committee has approved a bill that targets an ongoing legal challenge over coal mining in a western Pa. state park.

The state senate has advanced a bill that could upend an ongoing legal challenge by two environmental groups seeking to restrict coal mining beneath a western Pennsylvania state park.

With the backing of senate GOP leadership, SB 624 was approved by a committee Monday in an 8-4 party line vote. The measure takes aim at a pending court case, which was first brought three years ago by the Center for Coalfield Justice and Pennsylvania Sierra Club. The two environmental groups are challenging Consol Energy’s 3,000-acre Bailey Mine extension. They argue it would damage 14 streams in and around Greene County’s Ryerson Station State Park.

Senate President Pro Tempore, Joe Scarnati (R- Jefferson) is the prime sponsor.

“I understand the environmental groups and their opposition to mining, their opposition to gas and oil extraction,” he says. “But Pennsylvania’s jobs and economy are built on this.”

SB 624 says that if the state Department of Environmental Protection approves an underground mining plan, it shall not be considered “presumptive evidence” the mine could cause pollution. In other words, any plan approved by state regulators would automatically be presumed to not cause permanent damage to streams.

Scarnati says the bill reaffirms what DEP has been doing for many years.

“To follow current law is not blazing a new trail here,” he says.

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Lawmaker wants pipeline protesters to pay for police, cleanup costs

Feb. 22, 2017: Refuse remained in the Dakota Access pipeline opponents' main protest camp as a fire burns in the background in southern North Dakota near Cannon Ball, N.D.

AP Photo/Blake Nicholson

Feb. 22, 2017: Refuse remained in the Dakota Access pipeline opponents' main protest camp as a fire burns in the background in southern North Dakota near Cannon Ball, N.D.

New pipelines designed to carry Pennsylvania’s shale gas have taken center stage in a controversy over climate change, private property rights, and the nation’s energy future.

Protests have emerged all over the country, including an encampment in Lancaster County, where activists hope to disrupt construction of the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline–an interstate gas transmission line approved by federal regulators earlier this year.

After the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s protest against the Dakota Access oil pipeline last year led to millions of dollars in cleanup and law enforcement costs, Sen. Scott Martin (R- Lancaster) plans to introduce legislation soon that would shied the public from the costs associated with protests, and make the activists pick up the tab.

However, the move raises First Amendment issues and is part of a broader national trend among state legislators to curb or limit protesting.

Friday on WITF’s Smart Talk, we discuss this issue, and a new bill that would preemptively ban local governments in Pennsylvania from imposing bans or fees on plastic bags.

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Senate panel approves Wolf’s pick for environmental secretary

A state senate panel has given its approval to Patrick McDonnell, Governor Tom Wolf's pick to run the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A state Senate panel has given its approval to Patrick McDonnell, Governor Tom Wolf's pick to run the state Department of Environmental Protection.

A state Senate panel has unanimously approved Governor Tom Wolf’s choice to lead the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Patrick McDonnell has already been on the job for nearly a year, as DEP’s Acting Secretary. He was appointed after the abrupt departure of his predecessor, John Quigley, who was ensnared in controversy over an angry email he sent to some environmental groups. The cabinet position has been marked with high turnover. McDonnell is the fifth person to lead the department in as many years.

McDonnell has spent his entire career in state government. Most of his time has been at DEP– in the Office of Pollution Prevention and most recently as Policy Director. Before that, he worked for the state Public Utility Commission. His first job was an internship in the Governor’s Office of Administration. Continue Reading

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