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.

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

EPA Region 3 union rep says Trump’s proposed cuts would hurt public health

Gary Morton, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local which represents EPA workers, joins protesters outside the agency's Center City offices.

Emma Lee / WHYY

Gary Morton, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local which represents EPA workers, joins protesters outside the agency's Center City offices.

The union representing employees with the Environmental Protection Agency says President Trump’s proposed cuts to the agency would risk public health. The administration is proposing to slash the EPA’s budget by 31 percent. That would include eliminating more than 3,000 jobs at the agency.

Gary Morton is president of AFGE local 3631, which represents EPA employees working on the ground in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia and D.C. Morton says morale took a hit when staff members heard about the proposed cuts.

“It was devastating, it was extremely devastating to morale,” Morton said, speaking outside of EPA Region 3 headquarters in downtown Philadelphia on Tuesday. “The proposals as they are will not allow us to protect human health and the environment.” Continue Reading

Battle re-emerging over fracking along Delaware River

A drilling protest sign sits on the lawn of a home along the Delaware River. Opposition to drilling within the Delaware River basin is strong, and led to a stalemate among commissioners.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A drilling protest sign sits on the lawn of a home along the Delaware River. Opposition to drilling within the Delaware River basin is strong, and led to a stalemate among commissioners.

Defenders of a longstanding de-facto moratorium on natural gas drilling in the Delaware River Basin say there are gathering signs of a renewed push to allow natural gas production by the industry and its allies.

Environmental groups including Delaware Riverkeeper Network say officials from the Delaware River Basin Commission, which is composed of representatives from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and the federal government, have been in talks with member states about finalizing work on oil and gas regulations that began before a de-facto moratorium was imposed seven years ago.

Opponents of any move to open the basin to shale gas development also worry about a lawsuit brought by a group of Wayne County landowners who challenge the DRBC’s right to regulate drilling.

And they fear that there will be new pressure from the Trump administration, via the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, its representative on the DRBC, to allow gas drilling at the eastern edge of the Marcellus Shale. Continue Reading

DEP approved Mariner East 2 permits despite deficiencies, documents show

A worker clears trees for the Mariner East 2 pipeline in Aston, Delaware County.

Emily Cohen / StateImpact PA

A worker clears trees for the Mariner East 2 pipeline in Aston, Delaware County. The 350-mile pipeline project will bring natural gas liquids to Marcus Hook, Delaware County. DEP issued permits despite lingering deficiencies.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection issued final permits for the Mariner East 2 pipeline even though the pipeline’s builder, Sunoco Logistics, had not met all regulatory requirements at the time of issuance, DEP documents show.

The state’s top environmental regulator acknowledged that the company’s applications for permits on water crossings and soil disturbance contained many “deficiencies,” but gave the multi-billion dollar project a green light anyway, according to the documents obtained by StateImpact.

One of the documents, issued for permits in Berks County, quotes the state’s Bureau of Waterways, Engineering and Wetlands as saying that the existence of deficiencies in the application for a Chapter 105 water permit would not stop the permit being issued for that section of the 350-mile natural gas liquids line.

“The Bureau explained that minimum standards have been met and many remaining identified deficiencies are not required to be addressed for permit issuance,” said the document, dated Feb. 10, three days before the permits were issued. “Therefore, at the direction of the Bureau, special conditions have been drafted to address the outstanding items.”

Continue Reading

How EPA cuts could impact Pennsylvania

Supreme Court associate justice Samuel Alito, right, swears in Scott Pruitt as the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in the White House complex in Washington, Friday, Feb. 17, 2017. Holding the bible is Marlyn Pruitt, wife of Scott Pruitt, and their son Cade Pruitt is standing second from right.

Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo

Supreme Court associate justice Samuel Alito, right, swears in Scott Pruitt as the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in the White House complex in Washington, Friday, Feb. 17, 2017. Holding the bible is Marlyn Pruitt, wife of Scott Pruitt, and their son Cade Pruitt is standing second from right.

With the Trump administration proposing to cut the EPA’s budget by about 25 percent, according to recently leaked documents, state environmental budgets could be impacted as well.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection relies on the federal government to cover about 30 percent of its budget. Much of that money goes toward enforcing laws that protect air and water quality.

While the reported proposals to cut EPA’s budget also include slashing funds to states by 30 percent, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has stressed federalism since taking charge of the agency. Speaking to EPA employees last week, Pruitt said “federalism matters,” and that he wants to “engender the trust of those at the state level” rather than see them as “adversaries.”

Carol Collier is the senior advisor of watershed management and policy director for the environmental studies and sustainability program at the Academy of Natural Sciences. She used to be in charge of the Delaware River Basin Commission, a multi-state body that oversees water quality. Speaking at a panel hosted by StateImpact Pennsylvania Monday night, Collier says the EPA serves as a check on states that are tasked with enforcing federal laws. Continue Reading

Trump plans to ditch Obama’s protection for small wetlands and waterways

A photo of a Delmarva bay in spring shows the wetland flooded. In summer and fall this same wetland is dry. Under Obama's Waters of the U.S. Rule this isolated wetland would be protected.

courtesy of DNREC Wetland Monitoring and Assessment Program

A photo of a Delmarva bay in spring shows the wetland. In summer and fall this same wetland is dry. Under Obama's Waters of the U.S. Rule this isolated wetland would be protected, if Trump withdraws the rule, it would not be protected under the Clean Water Act.

Update: President Trump signed an order Tuesday afternoon instructing the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to re-do the rule.

On the campaign trail, President Trump promised to get rid of regulations, especially those designed to protect the environment. One of those regulations has to do with water. In fact very small bodies of water. It’s often referred to as the Waters of the U.S. Rule (WOTUS), or the clean water rule, and it’s the Obama administration’s attempt to define which isolated wetlands, or intermittent streams, are regulated under the Clean Water Act, passed in 1972.

The Trump administration is expected to announce this week a reversal of the rule, which was challenged in court soon after it was enacted in 2015 and has since been blocked from enforcement.

When Congress passed the Clean Water Act 25 years ago, it defined waters that would need some protection from pollution as “navigable.” For most of us that means big enough to float a boat. But when it comes to pollution sources, the need to provide clean water extends upstream of large river systems.

“Everyone agrees it doesn’t strictly mean navigable anymore,” says Owen McDonough, with the National Association of Home Builders – one of the industry groups that opposes WOTUS. “We’re not talking about, for instance, things like the Susquehanna River, or Chesapeake Bay. But as you get farther and farther upstream, into headwaters of streams, that’s been a pretty difficult line to draw.”

McDonough says the gray area included intermittent or ephemeral streams, those that may not flow unless there’s a heavy rain, or isolated wetlands, or ponds. Those areas that are sometimes land, sometimes water.

Over the years, Congress tried and failed to clarify the rule. Past administrations tried and failed as well. And the courts seemed to add to the confusion over what among these tiny waterways deserved protection from pollution discharge and run-off, and what didn’t.

Continue Reading

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

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