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." Along with her reporting partner Scott Detrow, she won the 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. She recently returned from a year as at MIT as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow. A graduate of Columbia School of Journalism, she earned her Bachelor's degree in International Relations from George Washington University.

Mariner East 2 pipeline still waiting on U.S. Army Corps permits

 In this May 9, 2015 file photo, pipes for the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline are stacked at a staging area in Worthing, S.D. Sunoco Logistics received permits to construct the Mariner East 2 pipeline across the state, but still need permits from the Army Corps of Engineers.

Nati Harnik / AP Photo

In this May 9, 2015 file photo, pipes for the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline are stacked at a staging area in Worthing, S.D. Sunoco Logistics received state permits to construct the Mariner East 2 pipeline, but the company still needs permits from the Army Corps of Engineers.

As the issue over construction of the Mariner East 2 plays out in court, Sunoco is also waiting on a number of permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Army Corps requires permits under section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act whenever dredging material would be discharged into waterways or wetlands. The Army Corps also has to approve plans for horizontal directional drilling that runs beneath navigable water ways like rivers and harbors.

Wade Chandler, chief of the Pennsylvania section for the Army Corps of Engineers, says the Corps is still reviewing Sunoco’s applications for permits, and says there’s no required timeline associated with issuing them. Chandler didn’t know exactly how many permits were awaiting approval, but said it’s in the hundreds, and they’ve been working closely with the DEP on the project. He says the majority of the permits under review are classified as “general”, meaning the activity would have minimal impact.

Individual permits include impact that covers more than an acre of land. They require more scrutiny, including a public comment period, which has since closed. Continue Reading

DEP approves Mariner East 2 permits

A map of the planned Mariner East 2 pipeline across Pennsylvania. Conflicting statements have fueled confusion over when construction might start.

Sunoco Logistics

A map of the planned Mariner East 2 pipeline across Pennsylvania. DEP issued permits for the project on Monday, clearing the way for construction of the line.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has approved earth-moving and water-crossing permits for Sunoco’s controversial Mariner East 2 pipeline project, paving the way for construction on the 350-mile line that would begin in Ohio and West Virginia, and travel through 17 counties across Pennsylvania to Sunoco’s Marcus Hook plant in Delaware County. The pipeline would carry natural gas liquids from Marcellus and Utica Shale fields to Sunoco’s export terminal, where the plan is to ship the gas to Scotland to make plastics.

The company began its permit applications in May 2014, and was sent back to the drawing table several times by DEP for glaring deficiencies. Acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said in a release that permits were issued “after extensive review.”

“I am proud of the immense undertaking our staff took to hold this project accountable within the confines of state law and DEP’s role in this process over the last few years,” said McDonnell in a release. He said DEP staff spent more than 20,000 hours reviewing the application. Continue Reading

PA DEP approves water permits for PennEast pipeline

A sign opposing the PennEast pipeline project on a lawn in Durham Township, Pa. The Pennsylvania DEP issued the pipeline water permits on Friday.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A sign opposing the PennEast pipeline project on a lawn in Durham Township, Pa. The Pennsylvania DEP issued the pipeline water permits on Friday.

PennEast pipeline company says it has received a significant water quality permit from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, suggesting confidence by state regulators that the pipeline can be built while minimizing impacts to waterways during and after construction. The 401 Water Quality Certification indicates the company has met requirements under the Clean Water Act, a prerequisite for federal approvals.

“The Department’s year-long review and conclusion provides additional assurance that PennEast can protect the environment,” said PennEast spokeswoman Pat Kornick, specifically water resources.”

Kornick says the permits are a significant step in the long regulatory process that began in 2014, and that DEP informed PennEast Friday afternoon that the permits were issued.

“PennEast has reviewed hundreds of route options, and made dozens of modifications to the pipeline to minimize impact on the environment,” she said. Continue Reading

Study: Methane levels increase as well sites decline

Cabot Oil & Gas operations in Susquehanna County include some of the most productive wells in the state.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Cabot Oil & Gas operations in Susquehanna County include some of the most productive wells in the state.

A new study shows that background levels of methane in Northeast Pennsylvania increased significantly at a time when well drilling activity decreased, pointing to leaks of natural gas during production and transportation. Researchers from Drexel University found that atmospheric levels of the potent greenhouse gas increased by 100 parts per billion between 2012 and 2015. Typically, background levels of methane would have increased by 18 parts per billion in three years, according to the study’s director Peter DeCarlo, who runs Drexel’s Air Resource Research Laboratory.

“So there’s clear increases in emissions happening in that region over this time span,” DeCarlo said.

The study adds to a growing body of research on the overall climate impact of switching power plants from coal to natural gas. Methane is considered more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide because although it breaks down more quickly than CO2, it traps heat 28 times more effectively over the course of 100 years. This week, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection issued new proposals for regulating methane emissions. Continue Reading

DEP’s McDonnell meets with Mariner East pipeline opponents

DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell speaks about climate change at an event hosted by the Academy of Natural Sciences, January 27, 2017.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell speaks at an event in Philadelphia, January 27, 2017. (file photo) McDonnell met with a group of Mariner East 2 pipeline opponents on Monday who had hoped to convince the Acting Secretary to extend public comment on the project.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection held a hastily arranged meeting on Monday with several opponents of the proposed Mariner East 2 pipeline in an apparent attempt to calm public concerns over the project which may soon get its final environmental approvals.

Acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell plus two other DEP officials and a legislative liaison met with four pipeline activists for about 70 minutes at the DEP’s offices in Harrisburg, two of the activists said.

In addition to McDonnell, the DEP officials were Ann Roda and John Stefanko, according to Eric Friedman, a Delaware County resident and outspoken pipeline opponent who was invited to attend the meeting. The other attendees were Eve Miari, a spokeswoman for Delaware County’s Middletown Coalition for Community Safety; Alison Chabot, another member of the Middletown group, and Lynda Farrell, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Coalition.

Friedman said DEP invited him on Friday to attend the meeting on Monday but was not given a specific agenda. Continue Reading

FERC approves Williams’ Atlantic Sunrise pipeline

Protestors who oppose the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline project. The federal government gave the green light to the project late Friday afternoon.

StateImpact PA

Protestors who oppose the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline project. The federal government gave the green light to the project late Friday afternoon.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved Williams Partners’ planned Atlantic Sunrise pipeline late Friday afternoon, just minutes before the agency became hamstrung by the departure of one of its commissioners. FERC chairman Norman Bay resigned at the close of business Friday, leaving the commission with only two of its five seats filled and now lacking the quorum necessary to approve projects. The Atlantic Sunrise pipeline approval was one of FERC’s final actions before Bay left the commission, leaving other billion dollar projects like the PennEast pipeline, in limbo.

Chris Stockton, spokesperson for Williams, said that although the company still needs permits from the Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps, FERC’s 11th hour approval was welcomed as good news.

“This was the big hurdle,” said Stockton. “This is what we’ve been working on for three years. It’s been the culmination of a lot of collaboration and we’re very excited to have gotten to this point and we’re looking forward to moving forward with the project.” Continue Reading

Communities along Mariner East 2 pipeline route brace for construction

Protesters outside of Sunoco headquarters in Newtown Square. Landowners along the route and anti-pipeline activists are preparing lawsuits to challenge any permits issued by DEP.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

Protesters outside of Sunoco headquarters in Newtown Square. Landowners along the route and anti-pipeline activists are preparing lawsuits to challenge any permits issued by DEP.

Sunoco Logistics officials declined to say whether they are expecting Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection to issue on Friday the final two state permits that the company needs to begin construction of the company’s controversial Mariner East 2 pipeline. A spokesman for DEP also said “there is no timetable for a decision.”

But according to rumors recently circulating among nonprofits, community groups, anti-pipeline campaigners – all citing unnamed sources in the DEP — the department will issue the long-awaited water-crossing and earth disturbance permits on Friday.

Some opponents of the 350-mile natural gas liquids line have predicted that DEP would issue the permits by the end of January following pressure from the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf to meet Sunoco’s stated schedule of beginning construction by “late winter or early spring” of this year and starting operation in the third quarter.

Asked about issues and delays regarding permit approvals for the $2.5 billion line, Wolf told a group of Philadelphia area business people in mid-January that the line could be approved. “We’re working through that,” he said. A spokesman for Governor Wolf has told StateImpact that the decision over Mariner East 2 pipeline permits rests solely with the Department of Environmental Protection.

Approval of the permits would bring Sunoco to the end, or close to it, of a long permitting process in which DEP has found many deficiencies in the company’s application, forcing it to resubmit documents, re-do applications, and delaying the start of construction. Continue Reading

Data trove offers new details on complaints to DEP during shale boom

Kim McEvoy is one of more than 4,000 residents who contacted DEP after noticing changes to water quality she believed were connected to nearby gas drilling. DEP concluded drilling did not impact her water. She has since moved away to live in an area connected to a municipal water supply.

Susan Phillips/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Kim McEvoy is one of more than 4,000 residents who contacted DEP after noticing changes to water quality she believed may have been connected to nearby gas drilling. DEP concluded drilling did not impact her water. She has since moved away to live in an area connected to a municipal water supply.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection received 9,442 public complaints about environmental problems in areas where unconventional natural gas development occurred from 2004 to the end of November 2016, an investigation reported, unveiling a trove of documents from the state’s natural gas boom.

The three-year investigation conducted by the Pittsburgh-based Public Herald watch-dog website, said 4,108 of the complaints were prompted by water-quality problems while others were driven by concerns including air-quality, spills of drilling materials, property damage, and leaking gas.

The data cache was obtained by Public Herald from requests filed under the state’s Right to Know law. It may fuel the longstanding public debate over whether fracking and other gas-development activities hurt water and air quality. At the very least it provides a wealth of new data for researchers. Continue Reading

Senator Casey calls for more marches and activism

Senator Bob Casey speaks at the Academy of Natural Sciences January 26, 2017. Casey urged more activism.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

Senator Bob Casey speaks at the Academy of Natural Sciences January 26, 2017. Casey urged more activism.

Pennsylvania’s Democratic U.S. Senator Bob Casey is encouraging more people to get out in the streets and march against the policies of newly elected President Donald Trump. Casey spoke to a packed house Thursday night about climate change at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

Topping off a day of protests in Philadelphia that accompanied a visit by President Trump, Senator Casey told a gathering of more than 400 people in downtown Philadelphia to keep up the pressure.

“I haven’t seen this kind of intensity on a range of issues in a very long time, if ever,” said Casey. This is encouraging …not even a week into the administration.” Continue Reading

Trump administration issues temporary media blackout at EPA, freezes grants

Scott Pruitt, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to run the Environmental Protection Agency, testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017. The nomination of Pruitt, currently Oklahoma’s attorney general, to lead the EPA is being fiercely opposed by environmental groups that point to fundraising ties with corporations he has sued to protect.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

Scott Pruitt, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to run the Environmental Protection Agency, testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017. The nomination of Pruitt, currently Oklahoma’s attorney general, to lead the EPA is being fiercely opposed by environmental groups that point to fundraising ties with corporations he has sued to protect.

The Trump administration has implemented a temporary media “black out” at the Environmental Protection Agency, according to a report by the Associated Press that cited emails to EPA staffers. EPA press releases, blog post updates, and social media posts are banned for an indeterminate amount of time. All media requests are to be forwarded to the Agency’s office of administration. The Trump administration also imposed a freeze on new grants and contracts. A spokesperson for Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection says it’s too early to know what this could mean for the state’s environmental protection programs.

“However, suspension of EPA grants for any duration of time would significantly disrupt the work of the agency to protect public health and the environment,” said DEP spokesman Neil Shader. “EPA grants to DEP amount to approximately $36 million per fiscal year, and cover a variety of issues, ranging from clean water protection, municipal stormwater projects and watershed restoration (like the Chesapeake Bay) to hazardous site cleanup to air quality.”

A staffer for EPA Region 3, which includes Pennsylvania and Delaware, told StateImpact that their only knowledge of the media blackout and grant freeze came from media reports.

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