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.

Judge halts all drilling on Mariner East 2 construction

In the distance, construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline at Raystown Lake Recreation Area in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania. Sunoco is drilling beneath the lake as part of construction. A judge halted all drilling on the project Tuesday.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

In the distance, construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline at Raystown Lake Recreation Area in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania. Sunoco is drilling beneath the lake as part of construction. A judge halted all drilling on the project Tuesday.

A Pennsylvania judge on Tuesday ordered a two-week halt to all drilling for the construction of the controversial Mariner East 2 pipeline after dozens of water contamination incidents and several environmental violations by the builder, Sunoco Pipeline.

Judge Bernard Labuskes of the Environmental Hearing Board suspended drilling until August 7 when a state court will hear arguments from the company and its opponents over whether the suspension should be extended until another hearing on whether to withdraw permits for the $2.5 billion cross-state project.

The judge granted an order of “temporary partial supersedeas” to the Clean Air Council, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and Mountain Watershed Association which together are challenging the issuance of construction permits for the pipeline by the Department of Environmental Protection.

“The permits that are the subject of this appeal are hereby superseded effective immediately to the extent they authorize the permittee to conduct horizontal directional drilling,” the judge wrote in a one-page order.

However, the judge said the order could be modified if Sunoco submits affidavits explaining why halting drilling would damage equipment, compromise safety, or do more environmental harm than good at the 55 locations along the 350-mile pipeline route where the drilling is taking place during construction. Construction has not yet begun at 168 additional drilling locations. Continue Reading

DEP issues few violations, one fine for Sunoco’s pipeline construction spills

Workers cleared trees to make way for the Mariner East 2 pipeline in Delaware County, where school officials are seeking assurances on safety.

Emily Cohen / StateImpact PA

Workers cleared trees to make way for the Mariner East 2 pipeline in Delaware County in March. The company has spilled at drilling mud in dozens of incidents.. DEP has issued four violations, and one fine.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection has issued four Notices of Violation, one consent order and one fine to Sunoco Pipeline for dozens of drilling mud spills that occurred along the length of the Mariner East 2 pipeline construction project. The DEP released a statement on Friday describing its efforts to manage Sunoco’s construction of the 350-mile long pipeline where drilling has caused water-contamination incidents in recent weeks.

DEP also provided a link to a list of 49 incidents, as well as copies of the Notices of Violations, one of which was issued on Thursday.

The agency fined Sunoco $87,600 and issued a consent decree on June 27 for 13 separate drilling mud spills that occurred between May and June in Cumberland County. The Notices of Violations report 552,000 gallons of bentonite mud spilled into LeTort Spring Run, an Exceptional Value wetland in Cumberland County. Exceptional Value waterways are those that are clean enough to support fish and wildlife, such as wild trout streams, or those that have high value recreational use.

In response to a Notice of Violation, Sunoco said on June 7 that it had “contained, captured and recirculated” the fluid back to the drill rig, and that it was not “discharged throughout the wetland.”

But the consent decree, dated about three weeks later on June 27 reports that Sunoco had not yet remediated the problem, and had shut down operations at DEP’s request on June 9. Up until Friday’s release, no public notification had been made of this incident. Continue Reading

DEP staffers warned superiors of dangers to private water wells from pipeline construction

In the distance, construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline at Raystown Lake Recreation Area in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania.

Lindsay Lazarski / StateImpact PA

In the distance, construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline at Raystown Lake Recreation Area in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania.

A Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection official waved a red flag to higher ups in January over potential issues with Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 pipeline construction on private water wells.

“Though we don’t regulate it, this private well issue has the potential to really blow up…,” wrote Domenic Rocco, waterways and wetlands program manager for the DEP’s Southeast regional office. Rocco sent the email detailing his conversation with a worried resident of Delaware County who lived near the pipeline route. He also sent a long list of concerns DEP program staff had regarding the agency’s permit reviews of Sunoco’s construction plans.

The email recipients included Ann Roda, director of the office of program information, John Hohenstein, DEP chief of dams and waterways, and Donald Knorr, a water pollution biologist with the Southeast regional office. It was released as part of ongoing litigation challenging Sunoco’s permits.

Continue Reading

Mariner East 2 construction has resulted in dozens of spills, documents show

An aerial view of Mariner East 2 construction in rural Pennsylvania. Construction of the pipeline has resulted in dozens of incidents where drilling mud was released into surface water and groundwater aquifers.

Jeremy Long / Lebanon Daily News

An aerial view of Mariner East 2 construction in rural Pennsylvania. Construction of the pipeline has resulted in dozens of incidents where drilling mud was released into surface water and groundwater aquifers.

Construction of Sunoco Pipeline’s $3 billion 350-mile long Mariner East 2 pipeline resulted in at least 61 drilling mud spills from April 25 through June 17, 2017, according to newly released documents. The spills have occurred in ten of the 12 counties along the route and range from minor releases of five gallons to larger more serious releases of tens of thousands of gallons. The documents, pasted below, include reports of “inadvertent returns,” and were released by the Department of Environmental Protection as part of ongoing litigation by the Clean Air Council challenging the department’s issuing of water crossing permits for the project last February.

The Council wants the Environmental Hearing Board to suspend construction while its case is pending review, but has so far been unsuccessful.

The spills primarily contain bentonite, a muddy clay substance used as a lubricant in drilling beneath waterways during horizontal directional drilling. Bentonite is non-toxic but can do damage to drinking water wells by clogging up an aquifer. A recent incident in Chester County forced 15 families to switch to bottled water and the company has since agreed to pay to hook residents up to the public water supply after some resident’s water wells went dry, and others experienced cloudy water.

If a large amount of the clay enters streams and wetlands, it can impact aquatic life. The drilling mud has entered trout streams, Exceptional Value wetlands, ponds, groundwater aquifers and uplands. Continue Reading

Sunoco halts drilling in Chester County where pipeline construction damaged drinking water wells

A sign marks the path of the Mariner East 1 pipeline through Chester County.

Kim Paynter / Newsworks

A sign marks the path of the Mariner East 1 pipeline through Chester County.

Sunoco has agreed to halt drilling operations related to the Mariner East 2 pipeline construction in Chester County where 15 households have been without water for the past couple weeks due to aquifer intrusion by horizontal directional drilling. The West Whiteland Township residents who rely on private drinking water wells have experienced cloudy water or loss of water completely. More than 100 community members gathered at the West Whiteland Township building on Thursday night to discuss the situation with both township and Sunoco officials.

Township supervisor George Turner told the gathering that the company agreed to suspend drilling operations until “the water situation is addressed.”

“Effective today they are not drilling north of that site until further notice,” said Turner.

Sunoco has been supplying bottled water and offered to pay for hotel rooms so impacted residents can shower and bathe since the July 4th holiday weekend, when it was first notified by home owners that their wells had either run dry or had tainted water. Continue Reading

Environmental legal advocate seeks Pa. budget declared unconstitutional

A caravan of trucks travel through the Loyalsock State Forest to a natural gas drilling site.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

A caravan of trucks travel through the Loyalsock State Forest to a natural gas drilling site. An advocate has asked the Commonwealth Court to declare the state budget unconstitutional.

Responding to the Supreme Court’s recent decision bolstering the state’s Environmental Rights Amendment, the environmental lawyer who successfully argued the original case challenging the use of revenue from oil and gas operations on state land for non-conservation activities has asked the Commonwealth Court to declare the current state budget unconstitutional.

John Childe, with the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation, argues using proceeds from the state’s Oil and Gas Lease Fund to pay general operating expenses at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources runs afoul of the Supreme Court’s decision, which ruled article 1, section 27, or what is also known as the Environmental Rights Amendment, requires all three branches of government to hold the state’s natural resources in public trust, incorporating all the fiduciary responsibilities associated with the state’s private trust laws.

“If that’s a constitutional use of our natural resources then we don’t have control over those funds,” said Childe. “They can’t commingle that money with commonwealth money.” Continue Reading

Does offshore drilling have a future off the Jersey Coast?

FILE - In this Jan. 31, 2016 file photo, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez addresses a large rally in Asbury Park, N.J., opposing federal plans that would allow oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. The Obama administration has moved to restrict access to offshore oil drilling leases in the Atlantic, as well as off Alaska. But President-elect Trump has said that he intends to open up offshore drilling, and environmentalists and coastal businesses say it could be the first major fault line that divides them from the new president.

Mel Evans / AP Photo File

In this Jan. 31, 2016 file photo, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez addresses a large rally in Asbury Park, N.J. The Obama administration banned offshore oil drilling in the Atlantic. But President Trump will review the policy with the goal of achieving "American energy dominance." Environmentalists and coastal businesses oppose it.

Trump administration plans to review Obama-era policy on offshore oil and gas drilling, including areas off the coasts of New Jersey and Delaware, opened up to public comment Monday. And it’s likely the Department of Interior will get lots of pushback from beach communities along the Atlantic coast, including Maryland and Virginia.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says leasing more coastlines to oil and gas exploration is part of President Trump’s goal for “American energy dominance.”

“Offering more areas for energy exploration and responsible development was a cornerstone of the President’s campaign and this action is the first step in making good on that promise for offshore oil and gas,” said Zinke.

Pipeline protestors face arrest, charges on their own land

Ellen Gerhart has been battling with Sunoco Logistics over the construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline on their property in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

Ellen Gerhart has been battling with Sunoco Logistics over the construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline on their property in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania. Court has ordered her and her supporters to not interfere with pipeline construction. Some have been sitting in trees.

Responding to a request by Sunoco Logistics, a Huntingdon County judge has ordered a family and their supporters off the construction path of the Mariner East 2, which runs through their property. The ruling by Judge George Zanic means the family could be arrested on their own land.

Ellen and Stephen Gerhart oppose construction of the pipeline on their 27-acre property in Huntingdon, Pa. Their daughter Elise, along with supporters, have built tree houses in the three remaining white pine trees that stand in the way of construction. People have been living in the trees 24/7.

“This is my home, and my family’s home,” said 30-year-old Elise Gerhart, standing about 50 yards away from the tree houses, beneath a camouflaged shelter on her land. “People have a right to live in peace but these corporations think their right to make money trumps that. And I don’t agree with that.”

The Gerharts have up until this point, lost their court battle against Sunoco’s eminent domain taking. They have asked the Supreme Court to review their case. In the meantime, construction along the 350-mile natural gas liquids pipeline continues. Continue Reading

Pa. Supreme Court’s landmark environmental ruling faces first test​

Lloyd Haun, Amber Colledge, Nancy Miller, Kaitlin Elliot, Nick Miller, and Andrew Geller demonstrate outside of the Huntingdon County Courthouse in support of the Gerhart family.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

Lloyd Haun, Amber Colledge, Nancy Miller, Kaitlin Elliot, Nick Miller, and Andrew Geller demonstrate outside of the Huntingdon County Courthouse in support of the Gerhart family. Common Pleas judge George Zanic is reviewing the Supreme Court's recent decision on the Environmental Rights Amendment before making a ruling on the Gerhart's case.

A landmark ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court means that state agencies and judges will have to pay more attention to the public’s right to clean air and water when making permit decisions and issuing court rulings. At the same time, officials will have to stop using oil and gas lease revenues to fund day-to-day operations, analysts said.

The court’s historic decision last week on an appeal by an environmental group elevates the Environmental Rights Amendment to the state constitution to a status equal to other constitutional rights, and directs the Commonwealth to act as a “trustee” of the state’s natural resources, rather than an owner.

That may mean that the Department of Environmental Protection, and other regulators, will take a closer look at permit applications for controversial projects like the Mariner East 2 pipeline to make sure they would not violate the Amendment, and it provides more legal ammunition for people who are challenging permit decisions in court, according to environmental lawyers and a former DEP Secretary. Continue Reading

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

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