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.

State wants more oversight of gas industry hiring of women, minorities

A shale gas drilling rig in Washington, Pa.

AP Photo/Michael Rubinkam

A shale gas drilling rig in Washington, Pa.

Pennsylvania’s natural gas producers continue to have a hard time complying with a state law requiring they make attempts to hire women, minority, and veteran-owned businesses.

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

As StateImpact Pennsylvania has reported, in previous years, many gas companies ignored these requirements.

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Bill targets legal challenge to coal mining in state park

bill

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

The proposed legislation would affect a three-year-old pending case about longwall coal mining's impacts on waterways.

A new proposal by state senate Republican leaders takes aim at an ongoing legal challenge to coal mining in a western Pennsylvania state park.

The case, brought three years ago by the Center for Coalfield Justice and Pennsylvania Sierra Club, challenges the legality of Consol Energy’s 3,000-acre Bailey Mine extension. The groups say it would damage 14 streams in and around Greene County’s Ryerson Station State Park.

A hearing was held in August 2016, and a decision from the state Environmental Hearing Board is expected soon.

But SB 624, introduced last week by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) and Sen. Gene Yaw (R- Bradford), would directly affect the case.

It says 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. The bill also applies retroactively to “all permits issued under the act that were the subject of an appeal heard by the Environmental Hearing Board after June 30, 2016.”

Scarnati’s Chief Counsel, Drew Crompton, acknowledges the bill is a response to the pending Consol case. But he notes if the environmental groups prevail, it could upend coal mining around the commonwealth.

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McGinty hired by Philadelphia life sciences firm

FILE: former state environmental secretary and U.S. Senate candidate Katie McGinty is joining a Philadelphia-based life sciences company.

Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

FILE: former state environmental secretary and U.S. Senate candidate Katie McGinty is joining a Philadelphia-based life sciences company.

Former state environmental secretary and U.S. Senate candidate Katie McGinty has been hired by Militia Hill Ventures, a Philadelphia-based life sciences company.

The firm specializes in growing early-stage companies. Its portfolio includes firms working to combat cystic fibrosis and cancer.

“It’s a very hands-on approach,” says McGinty, who is joining Militia Hill as a partner. “We work directly with the scientists. We add to the science with management, leadership, and the ability to bring investment into newly-formed companies. We help take those companies through the regulatory approval process.”

While much of McGinty’s career has been working in government and the private sector on energy and environmental issues, she describes this move as going “back to the future” because she earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry.

McGinty was most recently the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate but lost to incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey in November. She previously served as Governor Tom Wolf’s chief of staff and as secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection under former Governor Ed Rendell. McGinty also made an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2014 and was a staffer to former President Bill Clinton.

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Wolf urges Congress to fund health benefits for coal miners

A group of coal miners listen to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt during his visit to Consol Pennsylvania Coal Company's Harvey Mine in Sycamore, Pa., Thursday, April 13, 2017.

AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

A group of coal miners listen to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt during his visit to Consol Pennsylvania Coal Company's Harvey Mine in Sycamore, Pa., Thursday, April 13, 2017.

Governor Tom Wolf is urging Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation to ensure thousands of coal miners can keep their healthcare benefits.

Wolf says without passage of the federal Miners Protection Act, benefits would expire at the end of the month, leaving miners and their families without coverage. The bill would use interest from the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to sustain health and pension funds administered by the United Mine Workers of America.

“Retired miners worked for these benefits, paid for them with years of service doing dangerous work so that the rest of us could have reliable and affordable power,” Governor Wolf said in a statement. “We have a responsibility to see that these benefits are preserved.”

Senator Bob Casey (D) is a co-sponsor of a bipartisan bill—Senate Bill 175—as are Representatives Boyle, Brady, Cartwright, Doyle, Fitzpatrick, Shuster and Thompson in the House of Representatives, where the bill was introduced as House Resolution 179.

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Amid lawsuits, townships agree to back off injection well bans

FILE: Oil-field workers tend to American Energy-Woodford's Judge South well in November 2014 well shortly after the Oklahoma Corporation Commission ordered it temporarily shut-in.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

FILE: Oil-field workers tend to an injection well in November 2014 well shortly after the Oklahoma Corporation Commission ordered it temporarily shut-in.

Two rural townships have temporarily agreed not to enforce portions of their home rule charters designed to ban underground disposal wells for oil and gas wastewater, after being sued by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Last month the DEP approved permits for two new injection wells in Highland Township, Elk County, and Grant Township, Indiana County. The department also sued both townships the same day–challenging language in the charters that invalidated the disposal well permits and held DEP liable for issuing them.

“I’m pleased that DEP and the townships were able to come to a temporary agreement quickly, and in a way that allows DEP employees to continue to do their work,” Acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell says in a statement. “I’m hopeful that we can continue to work with these municipalities to ensure that residents’ concerns are addressed.”

Underground disposal wells are controversial because they’ve been linked to a sharp uptick man-made earthquakes. The DEP says it’s imposed special conditions on the permits which will allow them to be operated safely. The state also recently expanded its seismic monitoring network to keep a closer eye on earthquake activity.

DEP petitioned Commonwealth Court for a temporary injunction and hearings were scheduled for Wednesday, but were cancelled when all parties agreed the contested provisions of the home rule charters would not be enforced while the cases proceed.

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Environmental group fined by state ethics commission

A 2006 state report requires lobbyists to file quarterly expense reports with the state.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

A 2006 state law requires lobbyists to file quarterly expense reports with the state.

One of Pennsylvania’s leading environmental organizations is being fined by the state ethics commission for failing to file a quarterly lobbying expense report on time.

PennEnvironment has 30 days to pay the $1,960 fine over its delinquent quarterly expense report from the second quarter of 2016. The group also has to pay $250 to cover costs the ethics commission incurred investigating the matter.

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EPA cuts would leave states with more work, less money

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt has said states, "have the resources and expertise to deal with clean water and clean air issues.” But many state agencies, like Pennsylvania's DEP, are struggling to do basic things, like water inspections, amidst years of cuts.

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt says states, "have the resources and expertise to deal with clean water and clean air issues.” But amid years of budget cuts, many state agencies, like the Pennsylvania DEP, are struggling to do basic tasks, like water inspections.

The Trump administration has proposed cutting 2.6 billion dollars from the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s about a third of its budget.

It could mean state environmental agencies will have to do more work with less money. But in many places, those agencies are already strapped.

Late last year the EPA sent Pennsylvania a letter warning its water program was so under-staffed it was failing to enforce federal safe drinking water standards. State inspectors aren’t checking public water systems often enough.

Doing “triage”

John Holden is water production supervisor for the City of Lancaster. Standing on the banks of the Conestoga River, he watches water rush into one of the city’s two filtration plants. Inside the plant, he shows off the spaghetti-like membranes that block bacteria from getting into water for 120,000 people.

“This is what separates the dirty water from the clean water,” he explains.

John Holden

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Lancaster City water production supervisor John Holden has seen the Pennsylvania DEP get cut over the past decade.

According to Holden, the state does regularly check water quality at this plant, because it’s part of such a big system. But he says smaller water systems — for example, a school in a rural area, or a mobile home community—can get overlooked. Pennsylvania has about 8,600 public water systems.

This is a problem because it’s almost always state environmental agencies that do the work of enforcing federal environmental laws. Pennsylvania now plans to hike fees on public water systems, so it can hire more inspectors. The state Department of Environmental Protection hopes the fee increase will raise $7.5 million to pay for 33 new inspectors.

“They probably need to raise their fees, so they can do their job,” says Holden. “They’ve certainly been cut over the last 10 to 15 years. I’ve seen that.”

Over the past decade Pennsylvania’s DEP has lost about 40 percent of its state funding and 25 percent of its staff. Earlier this year, the agency’s Citizens Advisory Council sent a letter to legislators warning the budget cuts have reached an “unsustainable level.”

David Hess led the agency under former Republican Governor Tom Ridge. He now worries public health is at risk.

“I think the department, over the last 10 or 12 years, has had to do so much triage– decide what lives and dies,” says Hess. “In my opinion, it is very close to not being able to accomplish its mission.”

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Struggling nuclear industry turns to Harrisburg for help

Exelon's Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Dauphin County.

Joanne Cassaro/ WITF

Exelon's Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Dauphin County.

Amid slowing demand for electricity and a glut of cheap natural gas, the nuclear power industry is having a hard time competing.

Last year Exelon’s Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg didn’t clear an auction for the future sale of its electricity, fueling speculation it could shut down prematurely.

In response, Pennsylvania lawmakers have formed a new Nuclear Energy Caucus. They’re widely expected to introduce legislation later this year, aimed at helping the state’s five nuclear power plants stay online. The bipartisan group held its first meeting last month; it currently has 73 members from both chambers.

“I’m not interested in a subsidy or a bailout approach,” says caucus co-chair Sen. Ryan Aument (R- Lancaster). “I don’t think that’s particularly viable. We need to have a broader conversation about the energy industry in Pennsylvania.”

The group is just getting started this spring. Aument doesn’t expect any legislation to move until the fall.

Sen. John Yudichack (D- Luzerne) says there is no consensus now about how to move forward, only the beginning of a discussion on an industry that provides about 34 percent of the state’s power.

“How do we continue to have the diversity of energy production?” says Yudichak. “How do we keep prices at a reasonable rate? And how do we continue to keep good-paying energy jobs in Pennsylvania?”

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State sues townships that tried to ban injection wells

FILE: Residents packed a 2014 Highland Township supervisors' meeting on injection wells.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvvania

(FILE PHOTO): Residents packed a 2014 Highland Township supervisors' meeting on injection wells.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is suing two rural townships that attempted to block underground disposal wells for oil and gas wastewater.

On Monday DEP approved two new injection well permits in Highland Township, Elk County, and Grant Township, Indiana County. In its public announcement, the agency didn’t mention it was filing a lawsuit against the townships the same day.

DEP spokesman Neil Shader says the department isn’t trying to retaliate against the townships, rather it wants the court to rule on what takes precedence– state law, or the townships’ home rule charters, which explicitly ban injection wells.

“We filed the petitions to get clarity,” says Shader. “We’re just really targeting these specific parts of their home rule charters that deal with the underground injection wells.”

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In Pennsylvania, Trump’s climate order met with anger and relief

President Donald Trump, accompanied by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt, third from left, and Vice President Mike Pence, right, is applauded as he hold up the signed Energy Independence Executive Order, Tuesday, March 28, 2017, at EPA headquarters in Washington.

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

President Donald Trump, accompanied by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt, third from left, and Vice President Mike Pence, right, is applauded as he hold up the signed Energy Independence Executive Order, Tuesday, March 28, 2017, at EPA headquarters in Washington.

Governor Tom Wolf’s administration says it is still committed to combating climate change in Pennsylvania, despite an executive order signed Tuesday by President Donald Trump aimed at undoing the Clean Power Plan– the signature climate initiative of the Obama administration.

Department of Environmental Protection Acting Secretary Patrick McDonnell called Trump’s action “disappointing,” saying the state is already experiencing the effects of climate change.

“The changing climate is the most significant environmental threat facing the world, and emissions from the United States are a significant cause,” McDonnell says in a statement. “Pennsylvania has already experienced a long-term warming of nearly two degrees over the past century, and this trend is expected to accelerate. Ignoring the problem will only make conditions worse for our communities and economy and environment in the future.”

The Clean Power Plan sought to reduce U.S. emissions by 30 percent by 2030. States were told to craft plans to hit their own specific targets. As the nation’s third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide and fifth-largest coal producer, Pennsylvania would have had to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by about 32 percent.

Trump’s executive order does not address the 2015 Paris climate accord– a landmark agreement by the world’s governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the president is seeking to unwind other Obama-era climate initiatives including a recent federal moratorium on coal leasing, and a measure requiring federal agencies to consider climate change within their rule-making processes. Trump also wants to examine the “social cost of carbon”– which places a dollar amount on carbon emissions.

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