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.

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.”

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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.

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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

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