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." 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.

Man injured after pipeline explodes near his home in western Pa.

The explosion, which burned one person, caused flames to shoot above nearby treetops in the largely rural Salem Township, about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh, and prompted authorities to evacuate homes and businesses nearby.

Kerry Jobe via AP

The explosion, which occurred on a 30-inch interstate natural gas pipeline, burned one person and caused flames to shoot above nearby treetops in the largely rural Salem Township, about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh. It prompted authorities to evacuate homes and businesses nearby.

A man has been taken to the hospital with serious burns after a 30-inch interstate natural gas transmission pipeline exploded next to his home in Westmoreland County. About a dozen homes have been evacuated and a quarter mile evacuation zone remains in place. Video from the scene shows a raging fire lighting up the early morning sky. First responders on the scene say the man did not come in direct contact with the flames, but it was the intense heat that scorched him and his home.

The explosion happened at around 8:30 am Friday morning, about 200 yards behind a home in Salem Township, which lies 30 miles east of Pittsburgh. It destroyed that home, torched a field and damaged several homes near by.

Richard Johnston was in his house a quarter mile away. He thought a jet airplane had crashed in the field across from his house.

“We heard a terrible explosion and looked out and saw the fireball all around the place. We grabbed our dog, grabbed our coat and ran,” he said. ”The heat was too great, you had to leave.”

“It was just fire…everywhere you looked,” he said. “Debris on fire blowing across the yard here.”

Johnston said it was so hot firefighters stayed in their truck and told him his house might have to burn down. As it happened, the house survived, but plastic latticework and siding melted on the side of the house facing the blaze.

Fire officials say the injured man’s home was completely destroyed by the flames. His name has not been released and his condition is unknown at this point. He was taken to UPMC Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh.

“It looks like a bomb went off. As far across my windshield as I could see was just a massive fireball,” Forbes Road Fire Chief Bob Rosatti told reporters at a news conference.

“While the fire was contained and gas was shut off—residual gas in the pipeline is continuing to burn,” says John Poister, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. “A quarter mile evacuation zone is being maintained until further notice.”

Four pipelines cross the field where the explosion occurred. A nearby gas storage injection well operated by Dominion has been shut in as a precaution, Poister said.

Johnston said he’d known the pipelines were there, but hadn’t paid them much thought.

“It enters your mind,” he said. “They’re there. I always knew that. I knew something like that’s possible.”

Creighton Welch is a spokesman for Houston-based Spectra Energy, which owns the Texas Eastern line. He tells StateImpact Pennsylvania he has limited information at this point, but the company has activated its emergency response plan.

“Our first concern is for the safety of the community, our employees, and any others who may be affected,” says Welch.

The federal Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration has jurisdiction over the interstate line and has sent an inspector to investigate the cause. Pipeline safety experts say it could be weeks before the cause is known.

PA One Call, the organization that coordinates safe digging near pipelines and underground utilities, reported that a contractor was scheduled to dig in the vicinity of the pipeline explosion this morning. Bill Kiger, executive director of PA One Call, told StateImpact that he doesn’t know if the contractor began the scheduled excavation today or not. Spectra Energy released a statement this afternoon confirming only one injured person. Kiger says the pipeline company is known for following the PA One Call rules.

“Spectra Energy is typically a good company to work with,” he said.

Over the past decade, Spectra has paid $403,142 in fines related to its Texas Eastern transmission system, according to data on PHMSA’s website.

In one case that’s still pending, regulators are seeking a $239,200 fine for a May 2014 incident in Greene County, where Spectra failed to administer required drug and alcohol testing for employees after a fire and accidental leak of 1,000 cubic feet of gas that caused $186,437 in property damage.

Continue Reading

Spate of small earthquakes shuts down fracking activity in Lawrence County

In this Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014 photo, a fracking wastewater storage facility sits just outside the city limits of Reno, Texas. With real-time monitors, scientists have linked a swarm of small earthquakes west of Fort Worth, Texas, to nearby natural gas wells and wastewater injection. In 84 days from November 2013 to January 2014, this area shook with 27 magnitude 2 or greater earthquakes.

LM Otero / AP Photo

In this Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014 photo, a fracking wastewater storage facility sits just outside the city limits of Reno, Texas. With real-time monitors, scientists have linked a swarm of small earthquakes west of Fort Worth, Texas, to nearby natural gas wells and wastewater injection.

A series of five small earthquakes within the space of 24 hours in Lawrence County, near the Ohio border, has led to the shutdown of nearby fracking operations. The earthquakes range in magnitude from 1.69 on the richter scale to 1.91, which are small and typically not felt on the surface. The quakes occurred just after midnight on Monday in the vicinity of Mahoning Township, with the last one registered at 10:10 PM the same day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Neil Shader says Hilcorp Energy shut down their operation on Tuesday and the DEP is investigating whether the string of small quakes were caused by fracking.

Penn State professor Andrew Nyblade says there is a correlation, in space and time, between the quakes and the fracking operation, but a causal link has not yet been established.

“These are the first seismic events that have been correlated to fracking [in Pennsylvania],” said Nyblade. “That’s not to say this hasn’t happened before.”

One of Nyblade’s graduate students, Kyle Homman, recently completed research and wrote his thesis on seismicity in the state, and did not find evidence linking earthquakes to oil and gas activity. The study spanned 23 months, from February 2013 to December, 2014. Nyblade says the research located more than 1500 “seismic events,” and linked them to blasting activities at coal mines and quarries. He says there were about 10 earthquakes not linked to mining activity. Continue Reading

Pocono forest fire destroys more than 8,000 acres

Smoke rises from a fire in the Poconos that began a week ago and just came under control. The fire stretched 16 miles and burned 8,000 acres.

courtesy of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Smoke rises from a fire in the Poconos that began a week ago and just came under control. The fire stretched 16 miles and burned 8,000 acres.

Pennsylvania state forestry officials say a brush fire that’s consumed more than 8,000 acres of woodlands in the Poconos is finally under control.  It took about 130 firefighters to battle the blaze in Pike and Monroe counties, which has been burning for a week. Dubbed the “Sixteen Mile Fire,” it’s damaged about a dozen structures including some vacation cabins.

Department of Conservation and Natural Resources spokeswoman Chris Novak says spring is wildfire season in Pennsylvania.

“This particular spring has been especially dry,” said Novak. “We have not had the wet weather that we’ve had in the past couple of years. This is one of the largest fires we have had in the past 25 years.” Continue Reading

Federal appeals court hears arguments over LNG exports

One of seven holding tanks at Dominion's Cove Point Liquefied Natural Gas Terminal.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

One of seven holding tanks at Dominion's Cove Point Liquefied Natural Gas Terminal.The former import terminal is getting converted to an export facility.

The battle over Dominion Energy’s Cove Point liquefied natural gas export terminal in Lusby, MD, is now in the hands of a federal appeals court, even as construction on the facility continues. The D.C. circuit court of appeals heard oral arguments from attorneys representing environmentalists, industry and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on Thursday over whether or not FERC violated the National Environmental Policy Act by approving construction of the export terminal without conducting an environmental impact statement.

FERC granted approval to the $3.8 billion project in 2014, and construction on expanding the idled import terminal into an export terminal began in October, 2014. Cabot Oil and Gas has a contract with a Japanese power company to sell 350,000 MMBtu of Marcellus Shale gas per day for 20 years once the Cove Point plant is completed.

The Sierra Club, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the Patuxent Riverkeeper and EarthReports Inc. sued the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission after the commission rejected the environmental groups’ appeal to consider the upstream impacts of exporting LNG, and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions. Continue Reading

Clinton and Sanders spar over fracking ahead of NY and PA primaries

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-V.t, right, and Hillary Clinton react as they speak during the CNN Democratic Presidential Primary Debate at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Thursday, April 14, 2016, New York.

Seth Wenig / AP Photo

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT right, and Hillary Clinton react as they speak during the CNN Democratic Presidential Primary Debate at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Thursday, April 14, 2016, New York.

As the two Democratic presidential hopefuls try to distinguish themselves for primary voters in New York and Pennsylvania, fracking is becoming a key issue. The fracking debate is a familiar one to both New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians, and Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton clamored over each other during CNN’s Democratic Presidential Primary Debate at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Thursday night. New York state bans fracking, while across the border in Pennsylvania, fracking has helped make the state second only to Texas in natural gas production nationwide.

During the debate, Bernie Sanders continued his attacks on Hillary Clinton’s support for fracking and natural gas production when she served under President Obama.

“When you were Secretary of State you also worked hard to expand fracking all over the world,” said Sanders.

Senator Sanders worked to make a clear distinction between himself and Clinton, saying he would ban fracking. Continue Reading

Bernie Sanders releases anti-fracking ad

As Presidential campaigns turn their attention to delegate-rich New York and Pennsylvania, the fracking debate has emerged as a wedge between the two Democratic rivals. Bernie Sanders, who wants to ban fracking everywhere, has released this ad:

New York currently bans fracking, while fracking has made Pennsylvania the second highest natural gas producing state behind Texas.

At a rally on Monday, Sanders praised New Yorkers for pressuring Governor Andrew Cuomo to prevent shale gas drilling in the state, and criticized Hillary Clinton, saying the two had a strong difference of opinion over the issue.

At a debate between the two candidates in Michigan last month, Clinton expressed conditional support for fracking.

“I don’t support it when any locality or any state is against it, number one,” she said. “I don’t support it when the release of methane or contamination of water is present. I don’t support it, number three, unless we can require that anybody who fracks has to tell us exactly what chemicals they are using. By the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place.”

New York voters go to the polls next Tuesday, while Pennsylvanians vote a week later, April 26.

Mariner East 2 update: Chainsaws return, along with a tree-sitter

A tree clearing crew member from Sunoco on the Gerhart's property last week. Most of the trees were cleared last week but crews returned on Thursday to cut the remaining trees that were left untouched due to protesters occupying them.

Reid Frazier / The Allegheny Front

A tree clearing crew member from Sunoco on the Gerhart's property last week. Most of the trees were cleared before a March 31 deadline. Crews returned on Thursday to cut the remaining trees that were left untouched due to protesters occupying them.

A pipeline opponent in Huntingdon County has taken to the trees for the second time in a week. Elise Gerhart says she heard the sound of chainsaws buzzing on her family’s land this morning and was surprised to find Sunoco work crews cutting down trees after a March 31 deadline aimed at protecting the endangered Indiana bat. Gerhart had sat in a tree for three days last week to protect it from removal.

The trees were cleared in preparation for construction of Sunoco Logistics Mariner East 2 pipeline. Sunoco had said in a court filing to a Huntingdon County judge that they had to clear trees by March 31 in order to comply with federal regulations regarding the Indiana bat. The company stopped all activity on the land at the end of last week, and Gerhart came down from the tree.

“[Sunoco] said they had to cut by March 31,” Gerhart said over the phone from her treetop perch, “And here I am, April 7, up in a tree.”

Gerhart says she and her family never heard from Sunoco that the crews would be back to cut the remaining trees this week.

“Sunoco doesn’t do anything responsibly,” said Gerhart through a text message. “They are reckless through and through and they don’t answer to anybody.” Continue Reading

Property owner faces charges for protesting Mariner East pipeline

Elise Gerhart stands with a protest sign by an area of tree-clearing on her parents land.

courtesy of Elise Gerhart

Elise Gerhart stands with a protest sign by an area of tree-clearing on her parents land. The Gerharts are fighting Sunoco's right to eminent domain in court. Her mother Ellen will appear in court on criminal charges Wednesday.

Three people, including the property owner, face charges related to protesting Sunoco’s tree-clearing activities in Huntingdon County last week. The three will appear in Huntingdon County Court of Common Pleas next month.* Ellen Gerhart was arrested while workers were cutting trees on her property to prepare for construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline. Gerhart, along with her husband Stephen, have resisted leasing any land for the pipeline and are challenging Sunoco’s right to eminent domain in court.

Ellen Gerhart, along with supporters Alex Lotorto and Elizabeth Glunt, face charges of disorderly conduct. Gerhart also faces the charge of “indirect criminal contempt,” which carries a potential fine of $300 and up to six months of jail time.

“It’s a shame that it had to get to this point,” said Gerhart in a release. “There’s no recourse for property owners but to try to protect themselves and the environment because of the government’s failure to do so. The whole thing is a gross violation of our constitutional rights.” Continue Reading

Philly’s energy hub: A renaissance for the Delaware Valley or a pipe dream?

A view of the Sunoco facility in Marcus Hook, Delaware County. Business leaders want to use Marcellus Shale gas to power an industrial renaissance along the Delaware River.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A view of the Sunoco facility in Marcus Hook, Delaware County where Marcellus Shale ethane travels to via the Mariner East pipeline. Business leaders want to use Marcellus Shale gas to power an industrial renaissance along the Delaware River.

The Delaware River had at one time supported a thriving manufacturing hub. Now a group of Philadelphia area business leaders want to bring that back through the use of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale gas. But turning Philadelphia into an East Coast “energy hub” may not be so easy.

On the surface it looks simple. Pennsylvania has a lot of shale gas. But the gas is not selling at high prices right now, forcing producers to slow down. Phil Rinaldi is chair of the Philadelphia Energy Action Team and CEO of Philadelphia Energy Solutions, the largest refiner on the East Coast. He’s the visionary behind the city’s energy hub.

“The reserves in the Marcellus are enormous and they’re trapped there because the market doesn’t exist to take those molecules away at a reasonable price,” he said.

Rinaldi wants to connect all those idle shale gas molecules with Philadelphia’s idle industrial waterfront property. Those sites are already linked to rail lines, and in some cases pipelines.

“You really create a series of businesses that cascade into other businesses that cascade into other businesses,” he said. “So it’s a question of getting that momentum started. Take that Marcellus where you have reserves you measure in centuries, and just basically move that reserve here.” Continue Reading

Philadelphia’s shale boosters want more pipelines

Workers unload pipes at a staging area in Worthing, S.D., for the proposed 1,130-mile Dakota Access Pipeline that would stretch from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa to a hub in Illinois.

Nati Harnik / AP Photo

Workers unload pipes at a staging area in Worthing, S.D., for the 1,130-mile Dakota Access Pipeline that would stretch from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa to a hub in Illinois.

The Philadelphia Energy Action Team, a group of business interests organized as part of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, says the key to turning the city into an energy hub is getting more pipes in the ground. The group released their report on revitalizing the city’s economy using shale gas Wednesday morning. A goal of the effort is to double the amount of natural gas and natural gas liquids used in the tri-state region each year from the current 3 billion cubic feet a day.

The 60-page report, “A Pipeline for Growth,” is a detailed look at how the Delaware Valley, which includes Southeast Pennsylvania, northern Delaware, and South Jersey, can capitalize on the abundance of Marcellus Shale gas, including methane, ethane, butane, and propane.

“What the Energy Action Team is, is a civic coalition,” Action Team chair Phil Rinaldi told StateImpact. “It is not a commercial entity. It’s not building a pipeline or a factory. It’s trying to build the kind of political impetus for getting that done.” Continue Reading

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