Pennsylvania

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Trump’s EPA cuts would endanger Pennsylvanians, says environmental chief

The Trump administration wants to drastically reduce the size of the Environmental Protection Agency.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The Trump administration wants to drastically reduce the size of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The state’s top environmental regulator is warning his federal counterpart that proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency would have an “immediate and devastating effect” in Pennsylvania.

On Thursday the Trump administration released a budget blueprint which seeks to cut roughly a third of the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget – some $2.6 billion.

In a sharply-worded letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Acting Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell describes the cuts as showing, “the Trump administration’s disregard for its responsibility to protect the health and safety of American citizens.”

The DEP relies on the federal government for about a third of its funding. Much of the state’s work involves enforcing federal environmental laws, like the Safe Drinking Water Act. The department is already strained by significant staffing shortages, and has seen its state funding decline by 40 percent over the past decade.

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DRBC says it’s still weighing gas drilling rules, but no decision on the horizon

Delaware Riverkeeper Maya Van Rossum encourages students to make their careers in clean energy.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

In this file photo, the Delaware Riverkeeper's Maya van Rossum speaks at a fracking protest.Van Rossum says she's worried the Delaware River Basin Commission could issue new gas drilling regulations, which would reverse a de-facto moratorium.

The Delaware River Basin Commission is continuing to examine rules that might allow natural gas drilling in the basin but it isn’t close to a decision, and would submit any plans for a new rule on the issue to public comment, the federal government’s representative on the commission said Wednesday.

Lt. Col. Michael Bliss of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers read a statement to the commission’s quarterly business meeting, saying that commission staff have devoted “extensive time and effort” to evaluating rules that might allow the commission to lift a de-facto moratorium on shale development in the four-state watershed. Continue Reading

DEP staffer behind contested mining permit had worked for coal company

Ryerson Station State Park

Courtesy: Center for Coalfield Justice

Late last year the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection approved a controversial coal permit under Ryerson Station State Park. The DEP staffer who reviewed the permit used data he'd collected on behalf of the coal company in his decision to approve it.

A judge has raised concerns over how the state Department of Environmental Protection handled a controversial mining permit under a western Pennsylvania state park. Court records show the agency’s approval of the Consol Energy permit partially relied on data collected by a DEP staffer who had previously done consulting work for Consol.

Two environmental groups challenged the permit allowing Consol to mine under a stream in a Greene County’s Ryerson Station State Park late last year. In a rare move, the state Environmental Hearing Board sided with the groups.

In his opinion, Judge Steven Beckman questions the role of Jeffery Thomas, a licensed professional geologist with DEP’s California District Mining Office. Before joining DEP in July 2015, Thomas testified he’d worked for Moody & Associates environmental consulting firm for 11 years. Some of his work there was on behalf of Consol’s Bailey Mine. Thomas then said he used data he’d collected as a consultant to later evaluate Consol’s permit application to DEP for that same mine.

Judge Beckman notes he found it “extremely surprising” DEP management allowed this situation to occur.

“It is inherently difficult to be fully objective in reviewing data that you collected on behalf of a permit applicant,” writes Beckman. “We question the wisdom of assigning a department employee to review his own data collected on behalf of a permit applicant, as part of the process of determining whether to issue a permit.”

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Sunoco rejects township’s Mariner East complaint to PUC

Boris, a German shepherd, walks along a pipeline path in Chester County.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

Boris, a German shepherd, walks along a pipeline route in Chester County, which is often used as a recreational path.

Sunoco told the Public Utility Commission that its actions regarding a section of the Mariner East 1 pipeline does not subject residents of a Chester County township to “clear and present danger.” The township had filed a complaint with the PUC alleging the company violated an agreement over the installation of a valve for its pipeline project.

The company denied there is any danger posed by its failure so far to install a remote-control valve on a section of the existing Mariner East 1 pipeline in West Goshen Township, as it undertook to do in a 2015 settlement agreement with the township.

Sunoco (SPLP) said public safety is currently protected by a manual valve which complies with federal safety regulations, and which it plans to replace with a remote-control valve by March 31.

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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

Mariner East 2 critics say any leak could cause ‘catastrophe’ in Delco

Construction equipment clears trees in Aston, Delaware County to make way for the Mariner East 2 natural gas liquids pipeline.

Construction equipment clears trees in Aston, Delaware County to make way for the Mariner East 2 natural gas liquids pipeline.

Opponents of the planned Mariner East 2 pipeline warned on Monday of an “unprecedented catastrophe” if the pipeline leaks, subjecting residents of a Delaware County township to the risk of burns from a flammable vapor cloud that could ignite amid schools, homes and businesses.

The Middletown Coalition for Community Safety, an anti-pipeline group, released an independent study saying that any explosion of natural gas liquids from the line could inflict serious burns on anyone within 1,100 feet of a leak. 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.”

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Reports: Trump considers PUC Commissioner Powelson for federal post

Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Robert Powelson.

Pa. PUC

Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Robert Powelson.

Multiple news outlets are reporting President Donald Trump is considering tapping Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Robert F. Powelson for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The five member independent commission oversees the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas, and oil. Since February it’s had three vacancies and is unable to advance projects without a quorum.

Bloomberg also reports Trump intends to nominate Jones Day attorney Kevin McIntyre as FERC chairman, and Neil Chatterjee, the senior energy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

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Environmental chief warns of ‘significant’ staffing shortages

Acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Acting Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell warned legislators Thursday that he's dealing with significant staffing shortages after years of budget cuts to the agency.

Pennsylvania’s top environmental regulator warns his agency is dealing with significant staffing shortages, following years of shrinking funding from the state. His comments come amid reported plans by the Trump administration to drastically cut the EPA’s budget. Such a move could devastate the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which heavily relies on federal money.

“We need more money. That’s the fundamental challenge,” says Acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell.

DEP is down to staffing levels not seen since the 1990′s. The agency currently has a staff of about 2,400 — nearly 800 fewer people than it had in 1995. Over the past decade, state funding declined by 40 percent.

At a budget hearing Thursday, Sen. John Yudichak (D- Luzerne) asked McDonnell if he was facing a staffing crisis.

“We have significant staffing issues in some of our programs,” McDonnell replied. “If there’s a mistake the department has made over the years– it’s managed cuts. We haven’t maybe managed what’s left. The discussion always revolves around the amount of money and the amount of people. I want to translate that back into the service provided those programs.”

Senators from both parties expressed concerns about DEP’s embattled water program. In late December, the EPA warned the agency that it was failing to enforce Safe Drinking Water Act standards. The failure could be grounds for the state losing primacy– and with it millions of federal dollars. In response, DEP announced plans to increase water permit fees. It hopes to raise $7.5 million and hire 33 new inspectors. But the process of implementing the fees could take up to three years.

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Sunoco rejects township’s attempt to block valve for Mariner East 2

A sign marks the path of the Mariner East 1 pipeline through Chester County.

Kim Paynter / Newsworks

A sign marks the path of the Mariner East 1 pipeline through Chester County.

Sunoco Logistics rejected an attempt by a Chester County township to block construction of a valve for its Mariner East 2 pipeline, saying the project is a public utility that may not be regulated by municipalities.

West Goshen Township in the western suburbs of Philadelphia wrote to the company last month denying it permission to install the above-ground valve on the grounds that the work would violate a zoning ordinance.

But in a letter released by the township on Thursday, Sunoco (SPLP) said there is “settled law” in Pennsylvania that prevents municipalities applying a zoning ordinance to a public utility project.

The company called the township’s assertion “meritless” and accused it of trying to delay the natural gas liquids pipeline project. Continue Reading

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