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.
The Department of Environmental Protection has issued a “Notice of Violation” to a gas drilling company that contaminated a drinking water aquifer in Potter County two weeks ago. The DEP says the incident polluted at least five private drinking water supplies with a surfactant not approved by the agency for use in drilling through ground water.
JKLM Energy says while in the early stages of drilling a Utica Shale well, the company used surfactant to free a broken drill bit about 570 feet below the surface. The company estimates that about 98 gallons of the surfactant, diluted with 22,000 gallons of water, spilled into the aquifer.
DEP says its tests have revealed the surfactant known as “F-485″ and a lubricant known as “Rock Drill Oil 150″ in the groundwater near to the well site in Sweden Township. Surfactants are soapy substances, used in various stages of the drilling process to cut down on friction. This particular surfactant contained a 10 -15% concentration of isopropanol, or rubbing alcohol. But isopropanol is not an approved chemical for cutting through such a shallow stage of the well bore in Pennsylvania. While drilling through an aquifer, producers are required to use only ”air, freshwater or freshwater based drilling fluids.” Continue Reading →
Philadelphia Energy Solutions is the largest oil refining complex on the Eastern seaboard. Half of all Bakken Crude traveling across the country by rail ends up at the PES plant. It's also one of the largest contributors to hazardous air pollutants in Philadelphia.
Oil refineries will have to curb toxic air emissions under new rules announced Tuesday by the Environmental Protection Agency. The new regulations will also give neighboring residents more information about potential pollution exposures.
For the first time, fence line pollution monitors will be required, and oil refiners will have to disclose the pollution in a publicly accessible database. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says monitors placed on the fence lines of the facilities will be able to detect carcinogenic toxins like benzene.
“This rule creates a kind of neighborhood watch for refinery pollution,” McCarthy said in a call with reporters. “Families along the fence lines will not just know what’s coming out of the stacks of these facilities they’ll know if toxic emissions are coming across their fence line.”
Hazardous emissions from refineries can cause respiratory illnesses and increase the risk of cancer. Much of those emissions occur during shut-downs and start-ups, or unplanned emergencies where the refinery has to vent for safety reasons. The EPA says these rules will eliminate flares and “upset emissions events.”
The U.S. has 142 oil refineries and four of those are in the Philadelphia area. Philadelphia Energy Solutions is the largest refiner on the East Coast, and processes half of all the crude coming out of the Bakken Shale in North Dakota. Continue Reading →
A sign opposing the PennEast pipeline project on a lawn in Durham Township, Pa.
Backers of a controversial pipeline project that would ship Marcellus Shale gas from northeast Pennsylvania to New Jersey filed an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Thursday, while opponents vowed to block the proposal.
The FERC application marks the first major step toward seeking approval of the proposed 114 mile-long PennEast pipeline that would transport shale gas from Luzerne County, Pennsylvania to other major interstate natural gas pipelines near Trenton. The planned 36-inch line would carry one billion cubic feet of high-pressure gas through six counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Pipeline proponents say the line will provide needed reliability and price stability to the densely populated New Jersey and New York markets during the winter months, and supply new natural gas power plants with a cleaner burning fuel that would cut the state’s carbon emissions. PennEast representatives say the gas is not intended for export, rather it would help boost domestic manufacturing by supplying a cheap source of energy to factories.
But opponents of the line say they’re not buying those arguments and are organized and ready to block the pipeline project.
“We are absolutely committed to fighting this pipeline,” said Patty Cronheim, with the Hopewell Township Citizens Against the PennEast Pipeline, one of dozens of grassroots opposition groups that have sprung up to fight the proposal. ”There’s widespread commitment between citizens groups, municipalities, county, state and federally elected officials as well as the landowners and we will take every possible measure to stop this pipeline.” Continue Reading →
The Homer City Generating Station, Homer City, Pa.
Pennsylvania’s environmental regulators say they need extensive public input before putting together a plan to reduce carbon emissions. The call for comments comes on the heels of the recent federal mandate that states reduce climate-warming carbon dioxide from power plants.
Last month, the EPA announced standards to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Under the plan, each state gets a target reduction level.
For Pennsylvania, that was a 33 percent reduction in CO2 emissions from 2012 levels by 2030. Though it set targets for reducing emissions, the EPA has left it up to the states to figure out how to reach those goals. In general, the three main avenues to emission reductions include improving the efficiency of coal-fired plants, converting coal plants to natural gas, and increasing use of renewables. But the state can also use other options, including energy efficiency.
Much is at stake for Pennsylvania, including the role of coal and natural gas in generating electricity. The state will also have to analyze the impact on electricity prices. EPA has laid out guidelines, but the Wolf administration has lots of policy decisions to make regarding the plan it must submit to the federal government by September 2016.
“It’s important to note that we’re starting with a blank page here,” said DEP Secretary John Quigley on a call with reporters. “We want to hear from all stakeholders about what the best path is for Pennsylvania.”
In an effort to draw in as much public and stakeholder comment as possible, Quigley said the DEP is “open to everything and attached to nothing.” Continue Reading →
A sign protesting a proposed deep injection well sits on the lawn of a home in Brady Township, Clearfield County.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has delayed decisions on controversial deep injection well permits, while waiting for rulings from the federal courts. The siting of the deep injection wells became federal cases after local municipalities passed ordinances to ban the drilling waste disposal wells.
It’s the first time DEP has taken such a position and this move has both injection well opponents and industry lawyers criticizing the agency for shirking its responsibility.
“It’s chicken shit because it passes the buck to the federal judge,” said Thomas Linzey, attorney for Grant Township, Indiana County, which banned deep injection wells through an ordinance last year.
DEP says it does not reflect a change in policy regarding deep injection wells. In Pennsylvania, underground injection well permits are primarily issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But the state does have authority over permitting the conversion of former producing wells into drilling waste disposal wells.
Last month, DEP oil and gas director Scott Perry wrote to at least two operators, referring to the ordinances and the current litigation as reasons to postpone decisions on the well sites. In a letter to Pennsylvania General Energy regarding a proposed injection well for Grant Township, Perry says the review is nearly complete.
“However, a conflict between this project and an ordinance adopted by Grant Township entitled Community Bill of Rights Ordinance (Grant Township Ordinance) has been brought to our attention.”
A Philadelphia Gas Works crew back fills part of Van Pelt Street after replacing aging gas lines in North Philadelphia.
Philadelphia Gas Works says it can cut in half the time it takes to replace its leaky pipes if it raises the customer infrastructure surcharge by 2.5 percent. For the average resident who uses natural gas to heat their home, that would mean an increase of $1.65 to $1.70 each month.
“So not a huge increase per customer,” said PGW spokesman Barry O’Sullivan. “But multiplying that across our entire customer base gives us that flexibility and that freedom to be able to get that infrastructure upgraded even faster and allow our customers in Philadelphia to benefit from that newer system.”
Philadelphia has struggled to replace about 1500 miles of mains — the pipes that run beneath city streets — some of which were installed more than a century ago. These cast iron and bare steel pipes include about one-quarter of the city’s gas pipes and the leaks can be deadly. In 2011, an explosion in Allentown killed 5 people, including a newborn. Leaks also pose environmental hazards because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and contributes to climate change at a faster rate than CO2. Continue Reading →
A drill worker covered in mud, shale, and drill cuttings seals off a well and cleans the blowout preventer at a Cabot Oil & Gas natural gas drill site in Kingsley, Pa.
A waste disposal company has backed off its controversial plan to use 400,000 tons of natural gas drill cuttings to help expand an airport in Tioga County. The proposal would have put the waste, which includes dirt and rock displaced by shale gas well-drilling, on a steep embankment near a tributary to the Pine Creek Gorge, a pristine watershed also known as the “Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.”
The Department of Environmental Protection says the Montgomery County company, Clean Earth, did not respond to the agency’s questions on a number of issues with the permit application, which the DEP calls “technical deficiencies.” So Clean Earth decided to withdraw an erosion and sediment control permit application for the first stage of the project. StateImpact Pennsylvania first reported on the project back in July.
The DEP sent a letter to the company in February, detailing the agency’s concerns and seeking answers from Clean Earth. Drill cuttings, which can originate hundreds or thousands of feet below the surface, often contain naturally occurring radiation, heavy metals, and industrial chemicals. But instead of responding to the requested information, Clean Earth agreed to abandon the project.
In the February 24 letter, DEP Chief of the Waterways and Wetlands Program James Kuncelman outlines concerns about the company’s proposal to stockpile the waste without protecting it from the elements, which would have posed a risk to the watershed. Rain and snow falling on top of the drilling waste could have created contaminated run-off, leaching into ground water or making its way into the nearby Pine Creek Gorge. The letter, which is copied below, lists ten separate points of concern. Continue Reading →
Amalio Medina sits in front of his un-air conditioned shop in the midday heat, Thursday, July 18, 2013, during a heat wave in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania's new Climate Change Assessment predicts more hot days like this one.
Prepare for longer, hotter summers, more rain, more destructive storms, and bankrupt ski resorts. That’s the conclusion of a team from Penn State on what Pennsylvanians can expect from climate change. By 2050, Philadelphia temperatures will be more like Richmond, and Pittsburgh will be like Washington, D.C. In fact, Pennsylvania has already warmed by 1° Celsius since the early 1900′s, and the future looks even hotter and wetter.
“The findings of this assessment report are stark,” said DEP Secretary John Quigley on a call with reporters. “The entire state will experience the effects of climate disruption. I personally find this report profoundly disturbing. Science is showing us that we are not only changing and disrupting our climate significantly, but these changes are occurring alarmingly fast.”
That’s 2° C higher than what climate experts and policy makers say is the threshold for dangerous impacts. A global average temperature rise of 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels is considered the tipping point for catastrophic change.
“That is a startling number,” said Dr. James Shortle, lead author on the report.
Workers move a section of well casing into place at a Chesapeake Energy natural gas well site near Burlington, Pa. in Bradford County, April, 2010.
State environmental regulators say three natural gas drillers contaminated 17 separate drinking water wells in north central Pennsylvania and together the companies have paid close to $375,000 in fines. The Department of Environmental Protection blamed well construction for methane migrating into drinking water supplies. If methane builds up in an enclosed space like a house, the colorless, odorless gas can cause an explosion. The pollution incidents in Bradford, Lycoming and Tioga counties date back to 2011 and 2012.
“These were complex and lengthy investigations that took a considerable amount of time to resolve,” said DEP Director of District Oil and Gas Operations John Ryder in a release. “But the department was able to conclusively determine that methane gas from natural gas wells had migrated off-site and impacted private wells serving homes and hunting clubs.”
Ryder was not available to explain why the investigations took three to four years to complete.
On May 17, 2011 a citizen complaint led to an investigation of XTO Energy operations in Lycoming County. DEP says “casing and cement issues” led to methane contamination in seven private water wells, as well as leaks in Little Muncy Creek and German Run. XTO paid a $95,753 fine. Continue Reading →
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