Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Susan Phillips

Reporter

Susan Phillips tells stories about the consequences of political decisions on people's every day lives. 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." She received a 2013 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Journalism Award for her work covering natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania. She has also won several Edward R. Murrow awards for her work with StateImpact. In 2013/14 she spent a year at MIT as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow. She has also been a Metcalf Fellow, an MBL Logan Science Journalism Fellow and reported from Marrakech on the 2016 climate talks as an International Reporting Project Fellow. A graduate of Columbia School of Journalism, she earned her Bachelor's degree in International Relations from George Washington University.

Huntingdon County judge grants Sunoco authority to have protesting landowners arrested

A tree sitter on the Gerhart's property in Huntingdon County. Sunoco has obtained a court order that allows the company to order an arrest of the Gerharts and charge them with trespass on their own property.

courtesy of Elyse Gerhart

A tree sitter on the Gerhart's property in Huntingdon County hoping to deter construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline. Sunoco has obtained a court order that allows the company to order an arrest of the Gerharts and charge them with trespass on their own property.

Huntingdon County residents protesting the construction of Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 pipeline across their land now face arrest on their own property due to a rarely imposed court order known as a “writ of possession.” Common Pleas Court judge George Zanic signed the order last week, which Sunoco had sought as an “emergency measure” in response to the landowners tree-sitting on their property. Ellen and Stephen Gerhart in Huntingdon, Pa., along with their daughter Elyse, have become outspoken critics of the pipeline and the use of eminent domain by the company to take possession of land along the 350 mile route.

Charges against Ellen Gerhart were dropped after she was arrested last year for trespass on her own property. But with this new writ, Sunoco can enlist law enforcement to arrest anyone within the easement, including the actual property owners.

Elyse Gerhart says the tree-sitting began in early February, after Sunoco secured the permits from the Department of Environmental Protection to begin construction. She would not say how many people were participating in the protest, but said she herself had been up in the trees. Although the Gerharts’ challenge to the eminent domain takings are making their way through the appeals courts, the company can begin building. Recent efforts to seek a stay in construction failed. Continue Reading

New Jersey rejects PennEast application for water permit for now, gives company new deadline

In this April 17, 2014 photo, workers construct a gas pipeline in Harmony, Pa.

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

In this April 17, 2014 photo, workers construct a gas pipeline in Harmony, Pa. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has given PennEast 30 days to correct deficiencies in its water crossing permits.

The embattled PennEast natural gas pipeline suffered another blow on Wednesday when New Jersey officials rejected the company’s current application for a freshwater wetlands permit, saying it lacked a long list of information.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection gave PennEast another 30 days to submit information ranging from tax maps and historic property information to evidence that landowners have given permission to build the line on their properties, and survey data for water crossings.

The DEP also noted that the company said it had applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a certificate of public convenience, which would grant the company eminent domain authority. But so far, too many landowners have refused access to their properties for surveys.

“The application to FERC for a certificate of public convenience does not yet have legal authority to condemn the pipeline easement,” officials said in a letter the company. Continue Reading

Study: Fracking didn’t impact West Virginia groundwater, but wastewater spills pollute streams

A truck carrying fracking waste water drives through an intersection in Clarksburg, W. Va.

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

A truck carrying fracking waste water drives through an intersection in Clarksburg, W. Va. A new study found no impact to drinking water wells from fracking in northwestern West Virginia. Spills from trucks like these and other sources remain a problem.

Fracking the Marcellus Shale did not pollute groundwater in northwestern West Virginia, but wastewater spills did contaminate surface water, according to a new study from Duke University. The report adds to an increasing body of work pointing to greater risks from fracking wastewater transport and treatment, than from the process itself.

The study was unique in that it monitored drinking water wells and surface water over three years, a longer time period than previous research on the impact of fracking on drinking water. The study also used multiple methods of determining the source of the pollution, and was able to draw on baseline water quality data.

“Based on consistent evidence from comprehensive testing, we found no indication of groundwater contamination over the three-year course of our study,” said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. ”However, we did find that spill water associated with fracked wells and their wastewater has an impact on the quality of streams in areas of intense shale gas development.”Vengosh says the study results are dissimilar from previous research in Northeast Pennsylvania where the methane found in drinking water wells was connected to fracking.

Scientists who feel under attack, to march for political clout

Marion Leary will be speaking at the rally about science communication, and hopes to get more researchers out of the lab and talking to the public.

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Marion Leary with her daughter Harper making signs at Frankford Hall in Fishtown, ahead of Saturday's March for Science in Philadelphia. Leary will be speaking at the rally about science communication, and hopes to get more researchers out of the lab and talking to the public.

Thousands of marchers are expected in Center City Philadelphia on Saturday for the first ever March for Science. The event is combined with the 47th annual Earth Day observance, which is expected to draw millions of people to cities and towns across the country, with the main event in Washington, D.C. Philadelphia’s demonstration will start at City Hall, with a march that ends up at Penn’s Landing. While this celebration of science is billed as nonpartisan, organizers say it’s time that scientists become a political force in an era when evidence based decision-making seems under attack.

Philadelphia’s original Earth Day organizers turned a day into a whole week of activism, teach-ins, and concerts in Fairmount Park. At the time, protest movements and college activism focused on stopping the war in Vietnam and promoting civil rights. The idea that hundreds of people would gather to promote environmental protection was novel.

Still people like Allen Ginsburg, Ralph Nadar and Dr. Benjamin Spock came to speak. The cast from the Broadway hit Hair showed up and performed. The events of that day had enormous impact on public policy. But marches have since become routine. It begs the question on what impact scientists and their supporters will have in the age of Trump.

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Sunoco’s Mariner East 1 pipeline leaked ethane and propane in Berks County, records show

The entrance to Sunoco's refinery in Marcus Hook, Delaware County.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

The entrance to Sunoco's refinery in Marcus Hook, Delaware County.

Sunoco’s Mariner East 1 natural gas liquids pipeline leaked about 20 barrels of ethane and propane near Morgantown, Berks County, on April 1, the company said on Thursday.

The leak, at 5530 Morgantown Road, Morgantown, Pa., did not reach water sources, according to the US Coastguard’s National Response Center, which records spills of hazardous materials such as oil and chemicals. When de-pressurized by a leak, the natural gas liquids can become a gas, which is released to the atmosphere. In those cases, the danger lies in ignition, there was no ignition in this case.

Jeff Shields, a spokesman for Sunoco, confirmed that about 20 barrels of the liquids leaked from the line. After being notified of a possible leak on April 1, company officials confirmed the release, shut down the line and made the repair over the next few days, Shields said.

He said there were no public safety impacts and that the cause is being investigated in cooperation with regulators.

Asked why the company had not announced the incident sooner, Shields said that Sunoco alerted the National Response Center on the day it discovered the leak, and that its notification was public information. The company also notified local authorities and regulatory agencies, which determined that no emergency response was required, he said.

He said the company will make a full report of the incident to the federal pipeline regulator, PHMSA, within 30 days, as required. PHMSA confirmed knowledge of the leak, but a spokesman said the agency is still investigating.

“When public safety is broadly affected, we work in conjunction with the authorities to notify the affected areas while we are responding,” Shields said in a statement. “We have and will continue to be transparent about the safety of our pipelines and continue to hold the safety of our neighbors and employees as our most important responsibility.”

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which regulates pipelines, confirmed that there had been an incident, but did not specify the nature or quantity of the materials involved, whether there was an effect on the environment, or the possible cause of the leak. Continue Reading

Allentown teen sues Trump administration for inaction on climate

Protesters unfurl a cloth sun at the conclusion of the rally on Independence Plaza.

Jonathan Wilson / Newsworks

Protesters unfurl a cloth sun at the conclusion of the rally in Philadelphia during the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

Eighteen-year-old Sophie Kivlehan says she doesn’t remember when she first heard about climate change. It was a normal topic of conversation at the dinner table, one that often included her grandfather, Jim Hansen, an astro-physicist at Columbia University and perhaps one of the worlds’ most well-known climate scientists. Hansen began sounding the alarm about rising temperatures and rising sea levels back in the early 1980′s.

“Because we concluded already that if we burn all the coal, we’ve got a different planet,” Hansen said recently, speaking to StateImpact prior to an appearance at the University of Pennsylvania. “We’ll lose all the coastal cities. It doesn’t make sense burn all the fossil fuels, we need to look at energy policies now.”

But more than 35 years after Hansen published his first paper on how carbon dioxide emissions could change the planets climate, he says the U.S. government has failed to act and it’s time for the courts to force the issue. He and his granddaughter Sophie Kivlehan are suing the federal government, along with 20 other young people from across the country.

The suit, originally filed during the Obama Administration by the organization Our Children’s Trust, now faces a battle with President Trump. The lawsuit claims that the federal government has taken actions to promote the use of fossil fuels.

“When [the] legislative and executive branch, when they don’t do their jobs,” said Kivlehan, “it’s the court’s jobs to act as a check.” Continue Reading

DEP fines Delco refinery for air pollution violations

A refinery, homes and tank cars is seen Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, in Philadelphia.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

A refinery, homes and tank cars is seen Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, in Philadelphia. DEP fined Monroe Energy in Trainer Delaware County, $400,000 for air pollution violations.

Monroe Energy, an oil refiner in Delaware County, has agreed to pay $403,528 for releasing air pollutants that exceeded its permitted limits. Over the course of three years, between July 2013 and June 2016, Monroe’s violations included excessive releases of hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection reached an agreement with the company last week. The DEP says Monroe also “failed to satisfy the data availability requirements.”

Monroe Energy, a subsidiary of Delta Airlines, took over the shuttered Trainer refinery from ConocoPhillips in 2012 to produce jet fuel for the airline. The refinery is located along the Delaware River, in a densely populated area about 10 miles southwest of Philadelphia. Continue Reading

EPA union fights back on Trump’s planned budget cuts

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.

New reports out of the White House shine more light on the proposed 31 percent cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency. President Trump’s current plan would eliminate 25 percent of  EPA jobs. And it would slash water protection programs, including clean-up of the Chesapeake Bay. For the Chesapeake program alone, the new documents show about 40 full-time employees will lose their jobs. And unionized EPA employees are fighting back in a way they haven’t for decades.

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Judge cancels jury award to Dimock families; orders new trial

Dimock resident Scott Ely at a protest in 2012. A judge overturned a jury award for him and other Dimock plaintiffs.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

Dimock resident Scott Ely at a protest in 2012. A judge overturned a jury award for him and other Dimock plaintiffs.

A federal judge on Friday struck down a jury’s award of more than $4 million to two Pennsylvania families who claimed their well water was contaminated by gas drilling, saying the award bore little or no relationship to the evidence presented at the 2016 trial.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin Carlson of the Middle District of Pennsylvania ordered a new trial of the case brought by the families in Dimock, led by Scott Ely, who said at the original trial that their water had been contaminated since 2008.

The verdict in March of 2016 was hailed as a major victory by critics of the gas industry, who argued that the rural community of Dimock was a poster child for the hazards of shale gas development.

But the judge, in a 58-page opinion released late Friday, reversed the award of $4.24 million against Cabot Oil & Gas which the jury determined had been negligent in its extraction of natural gas in the community. Continue Reading

Federal court dismisses suit charging FERC with bias

Twenty-four protesters were arrested for blocking a public passageway outside the Washington D.C. headquarters of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in July, 2014.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Pipeline opponents stage a protest outside the Washington D.C. headquarters of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in July, 2014.

This story has been updated with a comment from the PennEast Pipeline company.

A federal court has thrown out a case brought by environmentalists that charged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission with bias in pipeline cases. The Delaware Riverkeeper Network filed a federal lawsuit last year, alleging FERC favored industry in disputed pipeline cases. On Wednesday, District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan ruled that while DRN had standing to bring the suit, she dismissed the claim that FERC is structurally biased based on its source of funding.

The lawsuit, brought by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and its director, Maya van Rossum, asserted that FERC is incapable of making objective decisions regarding pipeline projects because its funding, set by Congress, is recovered by fees imposed on the industries it regulates, including pipeline companies. DRN argued that “the Commission is insulated from Congressional budgetary oversight,” and therefore, deprives individuals opposed to new pipelines of their 5th amendment right to due process.

But Judge Chutkan rejected that argument, saying that FERC itself and its commissioners do not benefit from individual pipeline projects. Continue Reading

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