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.

Pa. Supreme Court upholds broad interpretation of Environmental Rights Amendment

A drilling rig in Tioga State Forest. The Supreme Court ruled that all proceeds from oil and gas drilling on state land needs to be spent on environmental conservation. The court based its ruling on the state's Environmental Rights Amendment.

Scott Detrow/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

A drilling rig in Tioga State Forest. The Supreme Court ruled that all proceeds from oil and gas drilling on state land has to be spent on environmental conservation. The court based its decision on a new, broad interpretation the state's Environmental Rights Amendment.

In a landmark environmental decision, a majority of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court justices established a broad interpretation of the Environmental Rights Amendment to the state constitution Tuesday, cementing in place the commonwealth’s role as trustee for public natural resources. The move is a victory for environmental advocates, and a defeat for the state and industrial polluters, who had argued that granting a wider interpretation could deter economic development.

Writing the majority opinion, Justice Christine Donohue said the prior interpretation of the amendment, which included a 3-part legal test and was in place for four decades, “strips the constitution of its meaning.” The opinion clearly defines the role of the state as trustee, which the court said is associated with fiduciary responsibilities.

“The Commonwealth (including the Governor and General Assembly) may not approach our public natural resources as a proprietor, and instead must at all times fulfill its role as a trustee,” wrote Donohue. “Because the legislative enactments at issue here do not reflect that the Commonwealth complied with its constitutional duties, the order of the Commonwealth Court with respect to the constitutionality of 1602-E and 1603-E is reversed, and the order is otherwise vacated in all respects.”

The case brought by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation challenged the use of oil and gas lease proceeds for anything other than environmental preservation. Each year the state brings in millions of dollars from leasing state forest land to drillers, which was directed back into environmental conservation programs. In 2009, the legislature and former Governor Ed Rendell allowed some of that money to flow into the general fund. Commonwealth Court in 2015, upheld diverting income from those leases to the general fund. Continue Reading

Sunoco seeks injunction against anti-pipeline family and supporters in Huntingdon County

A sign protesting the building of the Mariner East 2 pipeline in Huntingdon County.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A sign protesting the building of the Mariner East 2 pipeline in Huntingdon County.

Sunoco Pipeline has asked a Huntingdon County judge to order a family protesting the Mariner East 2 pipeline, and their supporters, to refrain from obstructing pipeline construction or face arrest. It’s the latest legal maneuver in a stand-off that has pitted the pipeline company against the Gerhart family.

The company is now a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, which built the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.

Ellen and Stephen Gerhart, along with their daughter Elise, oppose construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline, which would carry natural gas liquids across the state and through their 27-acre property in Huntingdon County.

The family continues to fight the eminent domain taking of their property in court. Currently, the state Supreme Court is weighing whether to review the case. In the meantime, pipeline construction is permitted to continue. And the Gerharts say they have no choice but to resist though nonviolent civil disobedence. Continue Reading

Citizen lobbyists make progress with Republicans on climate

Activists gather outside the White House in Washington, Thursday, June 1, 2017, to protest President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the Unites States from the Paris climate change accord.

AP Photo / Susan Walsh

Activists gather outside the White House in Washington, Thursday, June 1, 2017, to protest President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the Unites States from the Paris climate change accord. Some Republican members of congress have joined the Climate Solutions Caucus, and opposed the pull-out.

Citizen lobbyist Jay Butera believes in the power of polite persistence. Nearly every week for the past 10 years, he has taken the Amtrak train down to Washington D.C. from his home in Montgomery County to convince congress to take action on climate.

“There were times when it felt like this is not going to happen,” said Butera. “This is impossible, this is the most polarized issue in congress.”

Butera is a successful entrepreneur, having created and sold two businesses. But instead of courting investors, he now spends all his time volunteering with the Citizen’s Climate Lobby. He says he’s had hundreds of conversations with Republican aides and congressmen.

But despite the recent election that had Republicans take control of both houses of Congress and the White House, Butera is suddenly having some success. And it’s not just with Democrats. Continue Reading

Could the future bring subsidized air conditioning to Pa.?

File photo: Michael Hall, 2, pulls down the edge of the pool while others swim on Wednesday, June 20, 2012, in Philadelphia. Climate change is expected to bring hotter weather to the state, which may mean subsidized air conditioning in the future.

Brynn Anderson / AP Photo

File photo: Michael Hall, 2, pulls down the edge of the pool while others swim on Wednesday, June 20, 2012, in Philadelphia. Climate change is expected to bring hotter weather to the state, which may mean subsidized air conditioning in the future.

Climate change will bring longer, hotter heat waves to Pennsylvania, according to experts. Some are worried how those living without air conditioning will survive. 2016 was the hottest year on record. It broke the heat record set in 2015, which broke the record set in 2014.  Climate scientists say it’s expected to get worse. With President Trump pulling out of the global climate agreement, there’s a new push to get cities and states to pick up the slack. And they might also have to pick up the tab.

Speaking after an event in Philadelphia on Friday, hosted by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, Public Utility Commissioner David Sweet said the state should look at how to bring subsidized cooling to low-income residents.

“I think that’s an area we have to look at to see if we can encourage additional government assistance in some way for the summer months as well as the winter months,” he said. Continue Reading

Fire fighting foam contamination sites clustered along Delaware River

In this June 15, 2016 file photo, a girl holds a sign during a news conference at the state Capitol in Albany, N.Y., calling for hearings on the state's handling of PFOA contamination in drinking water in Hoosick Falls. New York environmental regulators are looking statewide for potential sites of groundwater contamination from a cancer-causing chemical previously used to make Teflon and other products. The Department of Environmental Conservation sent formal surveys last week to more than 150 facilities that may have used PFOA. Surveys were also sent to scores of fire departments, airports and other facilities that may have used the related chemical PFOS in firefighting foam.

Mike Groll / AP Photo

In this June 15, 2016 file photo, a girl holds a sign during a news conference at the state Capitol in Albany, N.Y., calling for hearings on the state's handling of PFOA contamination in drinking water in Hoosick Falls. The village was one of the first to detect the contaminant. EPA data shows about 15 million people could be exposed to the chemical through their tap water.

A national mapping project detailing tap water contaminated with toxic chemicals used in fire fighting foams and nonstick frying pans shows a large number of those public water systems along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. Researchers at Northeastern University and the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) based their map on federal drinking water data and documented cases of pollution by a group of chemicals known as perfluorinated compounds.

The chemicals, commonly referred to as PFC’s, (and include PFOA and PFOS), are used by manufacturers in making non-stick pans, waterproof clothing, take out food packaging, and fire-fighting foams.The compound is no longer manufactured in the U.S., but increasing numbers of drinking water sources have been found to contain levels that exceed EPA’s maximum contaminant levels.

The EPA says that long-term exposure to PFOA and PFOS at above its health-advisory limit may result in kidney and testicular cancer, damage to the liver and the immune system, developmental problems such as low birth-weight in infants, and thyroid problems. Continue Reading

Suburban Philadelphia Republicans break with Trump over Paris Accords

Protesters gather outside the White House in Washington, Thursday, June 1, 2017, to protest President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the Unites States from the Paris climate change accord.

Susan Walsh / AP Photo

Protesters gather outside the White House in Washington, Thursday, June 1, 2017, to protest President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the Unites States from the Paris climate change accord. Three suburban Philadelphia congressmen had urged Trump to remain in the agreement.

President Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the landmark global climate agreement is for the most part supported by Republican lawmakers. But a look at the Philadelphia suburbs, where Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton beat President Trump in the four surrounding counties, shows GOP congressmen not in lock step with the President over climate.

The three Republicans who represent the 6th, 7th and 8th congressional districts – Ryan Costello, Pat Meehan and Brian Fitzpatrick – are all members of the Climate Solutions Caucus, a group trying to create bipartisan support for climate legislation. Twenty-one members of the caucus, led by Florida congressmen Carlos Curbelo (R-26) and Ted Deutch (D-22), signed a letter urging President Trump to stay with the Paris Agreement.

“Remaining in the UNFCCC will strengthen American leadership on environmental stewardship and help transform today’s low-carbon investments into trillions of dollars of clean energy prosperity,” wrote the Congressmen. “Withdrawing would mean squandering a unique opportunity to promote American research, ingenuity, and innovation.”

Continue Reading

Battle over Delaware River water supplies worries conservationists

Dan Plummer fishes for trout in the Delaware River, Delaware County New York. The Delaware watershed hosts world class trout fisheries. But a dispute over water allocation between New York City and New Jersey could put those fisheries in jeopardy.

courtesy of Trout Unlimited

Dan Plummer fishes for trout in the Delaware River, Delaware County New York. The Delaware watershed hosts world class trout fisheries. But a dispute over water allocation between New York City and New Jersey could put those fisheries in jeopardy.

Update: On Thursday June 1, New York City Department of Environmental Protection agreed to voluntarily release water based on last year’s “Flexible Flow Management Plan,” which will continue to provide trout streams with sufficient cold water and provide flood mitigation.

The upper part of the Delaware River hosts some of the world’s best trout fishing spots. The river also supports humans – about 16 million people living in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware share the river’s water. Now a lingering battle over how to divvy up the water between New Jersey and New York City has anglers and environmentalists worried.

The bureaucratic wrangling is over agreements made under a 1954 Supreme Court decree on drinking water withdrawals allocated between the city of New York and the four states that draw from the Delaware. And there’s a looming deadline. If the parties don’t agree by Wednesday evening, water releases from the New York reservoirs revert to an old water management system that conservationists say could hurt fisheries, aquatic ecosystems and flood mitigation.

It’s a complicated system that needs to take into consideration not just drinking water supplies, but managing reservoir releases to prevent flooding, keeping the salt line from reaching Philadelphia’s water intakes, and supporting fragile ecosystems. Continue Reading

Gas production increased in 2016, as number of new shale gas wells decreased

A natural gas well behind a house in southwestern Pennsylvania.

courtesy of FracTracker Alliance

A natural gas well behind a house in southwestern Pennsylvania. Gas production reached 5.1 trillion cubic feet in 2016.

Pennsylvania’s shale gas drillers continued to break records for production in 2016, tapping about 5.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Although the increase in production was not as high as in previous years, it still represents an upward trend, while the number of new well permits are declining, according to data published this week by the Department of Environmental Protection. Pennsylvania still ranks second behind Texas in total volume of natural gas production.

The state’s annual oil and gas report is in electronic form for the first time as part of the department’s efforts to put more drilling data online in a publicly accessible format. It includes GIS information on well sites, and charts outlining trends over the past ten years. Continue Reading

Philadelphia aims to cash in on solar job boom

Dennis Hajnik installs solar panels on a roof in Bryn Mawr, Delaware County.

Emma Lee / WHYY

Dennis Hajnik installs solar panels on a roof in Bryn Mawr, Delaware County. Philadelphia has a plan to bring those panels to 500 city rooftops by the end of 2018, which it says will create 75 new jobs.

On a rooftop in Bryn Mawr, Delaware County, four men are working to install 18 solar panels on top of a four-bedroom house. They wear safety harnesses and helmets, lowering down one solar panel at a time onto metal frames. One is 21-year-old Thomas Glenn. Several years ago, Glenn dropped out of high school and was living with his parents in the Kensington section of North Philadelphia.

“You know, I was playing video games all day, listening to music,” Glenn said. “At the time I was waiting until I turned 18 so I would become a security guard or I was going to work at McDonalds.”

Glenn says solar helped turn his life around. After getting his G-E-D, he ended up in a training program for city youth, which led to this job with a small solar company.

“The money’s good, you get nice long hours and you’re doing something good,” he said.

He’s now living on his own, making $15 an hour. The more experienced crew members are making between $20 and $25 an hour.

Continue Reading

Commonwealth Court rejects appeal on Mariner East 2 pipeline

Elise Gerhart stands with a protest sign by an area of tree-clearing on her parents land. The Gerhart's lost their appeal to the Commonwealth Court. Although trees have been cleared, construction has not yet begun.

courtesy of Elise Gerhart

Elise Gerhart, daughter of Ellen and Stephen Gerhart, stands with a protest sign by an area of tree-clearing on her parents land. The Gerharts' lost their appeal to the Commonwealth Court. Although trees have been cleared, construction has not yet begun.

A Huntingdon County family who have become vocal opponents of Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 pipeline project has lost an appeal to Commonwealth Court over the company’s taking of their land through eminent domain. The appeal by Stephen and Ellen Gerhart of Union Township is just one of about a dozen cases pending before the Commonwealth Court challenging takings by Sunoco for the 350-mile natural gas liquids pipeline project.

Sunoco Logistics spokesman Jeff Shields said the ruling is consistent with prior court decisions.

“The court’s recognition that Sunoco Pipeline is a public utility providing public benefits through its Mariner East 2 project is consistent with its prior ruling and every decision rendered by the lower courts,” he wrote in an email.

Given the number of cases and the issues involved, it’s hardly the last word from the court system on whether Sunoco should have been granted eminent domain authority in building a pipeline to carry natural gas liquids, most of which will be exported. Continue Reading

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