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.
This photo taken July 27, 2011 shows a farmhouse in the background framed by pipes connecting pumps where the hydraulic fracturing process was underway at a Range Resources site in Claysville, Pa.
A water testing company that worked with Range Resources to evaluate whether or not residential water supplies were contaminated is defending itself against a lawsuit that claims the company allowed the gas driller to alter a print out of the test results, which Range then submitted to the Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP used the altered results, in part, to conclude that the Washington County residents’ drinking water was safe, and passed on the lab results to the residents. The family, John, Beth and Ashley Voyles, had also had their water tested as part of the EPA’s landmark fracking study, and say they agreed to the testing only if they would have access to the results. The EPA came to the opposite conclusion of DEP, advising the Voyles not to drink their water. Before receiving the test results, the Voyles had already stopped drinking their water, which they say made them sick.
The company, TestAmerica, has facilities across the U.S. and is a member of the industry group Marcellus Shale Coalition. The company’s website declares itself “the leader in environmental testing.” TestAmerica is defending itself against a civil lawsuit brought by the Voyles who say the company conspired with the gas driller to defraud them of accurate test results, which would have revealed dangerous contaminants. The accusations are part of a larger case against Range Resources, and attorneys representing TestAmerica will be in Washington County Court of Common Pleas on Thursday, in an attempt to get the company dismissed from the civil suit. Continue Reading →
Hydraulic fracturing opponents, including Ray Kemble of Dimock, Pa., front, demonstrate before Gov. Tom Wolf takes the oath of office to become the 47th governor of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, January, 2015.
A federal public health report on Dimock’s much-publicized water woes found threatening levels of chemicals in 27 private water wells, and explosive levels of methane in 17 private water wells during a six-month period in 2012. The results were based on samples taken four years ago, while a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in the area was in place. The chemicals include cancer-causing levels of arsenic in 13 wells. Other substances include potentially toxic levels of cadmium, copper, iron, lead, lithium, manganese, potassium, sodium and 4-chlorophenyl phenyl ether.
The report, a “health consultation” by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which is part of the Centers for Disease Control, looked at data from 64 private drinking water wells and also found an immediate risk of explosion in five homes due to high levels of methane in their water, and potential threats to another 12 homes. None of the information is new to the resident’s themselves, who each received a toxicology report from the EPA and ATSDR back in 2012. Some residents requested and received visits by federal researchers and experts at the time to explain the results.
The report does not analyze current water samples, and makes no conclusions about the status of the well water today. It does not identify the source of these chemicals, some of which could be naturally occurring. The authors of the report say some issues with the water-quality remain, but this is most likely the result of anecdotal information from residents themselves, not new data. Continue Reading →
Former Pennsylvania DEP Secretary John Quigley resigned last week following controversy over an email he sent to environmental advocacy groups, criticizing them for not pushing back against legislative efforts to stall or block environmental regulations.
“I’ve slept on this but can no longer hold back,” Quigley wrote. “Where the f*ck were you people yesterday? The House and Senate hold Russian show trials on vital environmental issues and there’s no pushback at all from the environmental community? Nobody bothering to insert themselves in the news cycle?”
Quigley sent the profanity-laced note to several environmental groups the day after state House and Senate panels voted to reject oil and gas regulations, which he had championed in his job at the helm of the state Department of Environmental Protection. The same day, a Senate committee had also approved a bill to give lawmakers more oversight in efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
A view of the Delaware River from Morrisville, Pa.
A new lawsuit seeks to jump start natural gas drilling in Northeast Pennsylvania along the Delaware River where a defacto moratorium on Marcellus Shale gas production has been in place for six years. The federal suit filed by the Wayne Land and Mineral Group challenges the authority of the Delaware River Basin Commission to regulate natural gas drilling. The DRBC, a four-state agency that includes a federal representative, oversees water quality for the Delaware River based on a compact signed back in 1961. The lawsuit argues the DRBC has overreached its authority.
“The Commission, relying on the enormous power that it contends has been delegated to it by Section 3.8 of the Compact, and seeking to placate those State governments and special interest groups opposed to natural gas development, has declared that all natural gas well pads and related facilities targeting shale formations in the Basin are “projects” that it will review under Section 3.8 of the Compact.”
Pipeline opponents and climate activists protest outside the home of FERC commissioner Tony Clark. The activists say FERC is a captured agency that rubber stamps pipeline projects.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is the target of a week-long series of protests by pipeline opponents who say the agency is a “rubber stamp” for industry. Seven people were arrested blocking the driveway entrance to the agency on Monday, while others plan to picket the homes of FERC commissioners, and disrupt the agency’s monthly meeting on Thursday. But the disruption will have to take place outside of FERC headquarters. On Wednesday, FERC decided the public will only be able to view the agency’s proceedings via webcast.
Melinda Tuhus is a spokeswoman for the group Beyond Extreme Energy and was one of those arrested on Monday as part of what the group is calling the “Rubber Stamp Rebellion.”
“The reason we’re going to the commissioner’s homes is, they don’t listen and they need to be held accountable,” said Tuhus. Continue Reading →
Lizzie Rothweil stands outside her house in South Philadelphia, where energy efficiency improvements helped reduce her winter energy bills by about $40 a month.
Pennsylvania has revived a program that helps homeowners secure low interest loans to make energy efficiency improvements. KeystoneHELP is a public private partnership between the Pennsylvania Treasury Department, Renew Financial, and the nonprofit Energy Programs Consortium. Through the program, Pennsylvania homeowners can get up to $20,000 to make home improvements including more efficient HVAC equipment, water heaters, air conditioning, roofing, insulation and windows.
Philadelphia architect Lizzie Rothwell says she and her husband used the energy efficiency loan to install new roof insulation and replace the duct work in their 2-bedroom South Philly home. She says this reduced their winter energy bills by $40 a month.
“We talk about the energy use of our cars but I don’t think people think about their homes that much and its really important,” she said. “It’s a huge huge percentage [of total energy use].” Continue Reading →
Elise Gerhart stands with a protest sign after Sunoco crews cleared her family land of trees. Gerhart sat in a white pine tree while the tree-clearing happened around her. A continuing court case could not stop the tree cutting.
Pipelines criss-cross the countryside and lie scattered beneath the urban landscape. They bring us water, natural gas, gasoline. What if someone came knocking on your door wanting to put one through your front yard? That’s exactly what is happening across Pennsylvania right now, as pipeline companies use eminent domain to secure land from uncooperative landowners.
Our story begins with 29-year-old Elise Gerhart, sitting up in a white pine tree, on a platform she built about 40 feet high on her parents land in Huntingdon County. Chain saws roared around her.
“This is my home, you know, I grew up here,” Gerhart shouts down from her perch. My parents owned this place five years before I was born.”
Down below police officers were guarding work crews and arresting her mother on her own land.
This is eminent domain in action. The idea that the government can take land for the public good. That’s why we, the public, get to enjoy national parks, and drive on highways. One of the earliest enforcement of eminent domain by the federal government was used to expand the Gettysburg National Military Park. Continue Reading →
A worker shields his face against temperatures in the teens as he guides a section of pipe while working on a shale gas pipe line Friday, Feb. 13, 2015, in Zelienople, Pa. The completed pipeline is to connect area gas wells to a local compressor station
The Atlantic Sunrise pipeline project won preliminary approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Thursday, paving the way for the $3 billion expansion of the Transco system to move forward as environmentalists simultaneously filed a federal lawsuit objecting to the pipeline. FERC released its draft environmental impact statement in conjunction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, concluding the environmental impact would not be significant. From the EIS:
The FERC staff concludes that approval of the project would result in some adverse environmental impacts; however, most of these impacts would be reduced to less-than-significant levels with the implementation of Transco’s proposed mitigation and the additional measures recommended in the draft EIS.
David Sweet will serve as the newest member of the state's Public Utility Commission. He resigned his position as energy advisor to Governor Wolf this week.
Governor Wolf’s energy advisor has a new job. David Sweet, appointed by Wolf to help foster energy related manufacturing in the state will be the newest member of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. It’s unclear whether Wolf plans to replace Sweet with a new energy advisor.
Sweet did not have a high public profile in Wolf’s administration. He served on the governor’s pipeline task force and says he had a variety of assignments based on the priorities of the Governor and his chief of staff John Hanger, who has since resigned.
“I got involved when there were interdepartmental issues,” said Sweet. “Often, in that realm, they’d be transportation issues, land use, and economic incentives.” Sweet says he was heavily involved in projects at the Port of Philadelphia. He wouldn’t give details but says there “will be a number of announcements over the next few months.”
Philadelphia business leaders have been pushing to establish the city as an “energy hub,” a place where Marcellus Shale gas could be used in building a manufacturing base and reviving port traffic.
Sweet says he was also involved in helping Drexel University and Philadelphia University, through a partnership with MIT, win a multi-billion dollar grant from the Department of Defense for advanced research in textiles.
When he was appointed by Wolf last year, Sweet told StateImpact that the governor did not choose him for his energy expertise, but rather, his political savvy. Continue Reading →
A flame flickers near a protrusion of pipes at the area where a natural gas explosion at a pipeline complex burned one person and damaged houses on Friday, April 29, 2016, in Salem Township, Pa. The explosion caused flames to shoot above nearby treetops in the largely rural area, about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh, and prompted authorities to evacuate businesses nearby.
A 15-mile long section of Spectra Energy’s Texas Eastern Transmission line, which exploded last week in Salem Township, Westmoreland County, will remain shut down until the company takes a number of corrective actions. Federal regulators issued a corrective action order to the company on Wednesday. The Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, says the cause of the explosion is unknown and an investigation is continuing.
But the order also says the preliminary investigation shows evidence of corrosion on the pipeline, which “indicates a possible flaw in the coating material” used in weld joints at the time of construction in 1981. A statement by Spectra Energy says the pipe will be examined by an independent metallurgist.
“The preliminary investigation has identified evidence of corrosion along two of the circumferential welds: one at the point of failure and another excavated after PHMSA’s response to the Failure Site. The pattern of corrosion indicates a possible flaw in the coating material applied to girth weld joints following construction welding procedures in the field at that time.”