News

02/20/2019 - Drilling on shaky ground: Why Chester County’s DA is investigating the Mariner East pipeline project

StateImpact Pennsylvania reporter Susan Phillips discusses the Mariner East project's problems, and how a pipeline explosion in western Pennsylvania led District Attorney Tom Hogan to take a hard look at a pipeline in his own backyard.

02/18/2019 - Report shows how more Pennsylvania drivers can go electric

Of the 8 million vehicles registered in Pennsylvania, just 15,000 of them are electric.

The Department of Environmental Protection has released a plan several years in the making that outlines how the state can boost that number. Education is a key component.

“There’s not enough information or not enough being done to let people know what vehicles are available, where to go to get those vehicles to test drive them, where the infrastructure is, how the infrastructure works, and the benefits,” said Rick Price, executive director of the nonprofit Pittsburgh Region Clean Cities.

Price is part of a coalition of state officials, clean transportation advocates and businesses that helped develop the plan. It coincides with the state’s climate change goals, including a recent announcement by Gov. Tom Wolf that he wants Pennsylvania’s greenhouse gas emissions to drop 80 percent by 2050. The transportation sector contributes 20 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Secretary Patrick McDonnell, who heads the DEP, said better outreach is necessary to the public, and to auto dealers, who can inform customers about the state’s financial incentives for clean vehicles.

McDonnell said one of the biggest barriers that prevents residents from buying electric cars is a lack of confidence that drivers will be able to find a charging station if they run low on power during a road trip.

“With any alternative fuel, we have the chicken and egg issue,” he said. “Do you buy the car first, or do you make sure the infrastructure is there? We need to make sure we are moving the infrastructure along with the markets.”

Pennsylvania has 400 charging stations, with the vast majority in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas. The report says leading electric vehicle markets have 275 plugs per million people, yet Pennsylvania lags behind at just 43 per million residents.

The state has taken some recent steps to bridge that gap. Its Driving PA Forward initiative uses money from a settlement with Volkswagen to replace or retrofit diesel engines. One part of the program offers grants to help cover the cost of installing charging stations. That’s in addition to another grant program for installing alternative fuel infrastructure, including stations for vehicles that run on electricity, propane or compressed natural gas.

The plan suggests other steps officials could take, like working with utilities to develop financing options or updating building codes to have new facilities install wiring for charging stations. Some options would require action by the Legislature or state regulators.

Now that the report is out, Price hopes to expand upon his group’s existing outreach efforts. He said the coalition will update its website, drivelectricpa.org, to make it a “one-stop shop” for information about electric vehicles.

Then, he hopes to hold events throughout the state to bring in speakers. Plus, they would give people a chance to test-drive electric vehicles.

“The hardest thing to get used to is the quietness,” he said with a laugh.

The report foresees one issue the state will run into if far more drivers go electric: a drop in gasoline tax revenue. That money funds road and bridge maintenance.

“It is something we and a number of other states are going to have to wrestle with going forward, as we see some dramatic shifts over the next 10, 20 years,” McDonnell said.

02/15/2019 - PA to begin its own process of setting health limit for two PFAS chemicals

Pennsylvania will begin the process of setting its own health limits for two toxic PFAS chemicals because it’s unclear when the federal government will set national standards, the Department of Environmental Protection said late Thursday.

Responding to Thursday’s announcement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it will begin the process of setting maximum contaminant limits (MCLs) for PFOA and PFOS this year, the DEP committed for the first time to laying the groundwork for a statewide standard for the chemicals.

“Pennsylvania will begin the process to set an MCL for PFOS and PFOA,” DEP spokesman Neil Shader wrote in an email. “To that end, the Department of Environmental Protection will be moving forward with a Request for Proposals to hire a consulting toxicologist to evaluate existing health studies with the ultimate goal of establishing a protective MCL for the state.”

The email welcomed what it called the EPA’s “first steps” toward setting a federal health limit but said Pennsylvania would move ahead with establishing its own MCL because “the people of Pennsylvania cannot wait on the federal government.”

Although the administration of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf set up an “Action Team” of state officials to respond to PFAS contamination last September, it did not say then that setting a MCL would be part of the team’s mandate, and has not publicly set that goal until now.

Advocates for stricter limits on PFAS chemicals in drinking water say that MCLs are essential to protecting public health, and have questioned why Wolf’s team did not name the establishment of those limits as its primary goal.

DEP’s Shader said the timing of the emailed statement, on the same day as the EPA’s announcement of its own plan to curb the chemicals, was just a coincidence. Critics of the EPA plan said it offered no immediate way of cleaning up contaminated water supplies, and represented another delay from an agency that has been widely criticized for failing to set enforceable national health limits for the chemicals.

In Pennsylvania, the new plan includes obtaining laboratory equipment and training personnel in order to do in-house testing for PFAS chemicals, the DEP said. It will also finalize a sampling plan in coming weeks, and plans to begin monitoring “other” water systems for contamination in May or June.

The DEP previously said it was monitoring 20 sites around the state for PFAS contamination.

Shader did not immediately respond to questions on what Pennsylvania’s MCL might be, how long it would take to implement, or whether the DEP would draw on PFAS science already developed by other states such as New Jersey.

PFAS chemicals including PFOA and PFOS were once used in consumer products like nonstick cookware and flame-retardant fabrics. They are no longer made or used in the U.S. but persist in public and private water systems as well as soil in some places because they don’t break down in the environment. The EPA says the chemicals are linked to some forms of cancer and other illnesses including elevated cholesterol, low birth weights, and thyroid problems.

In Pennsylvania, concern has focused on the Horsham/Warrington/Warminster area of Bucks and Montgomery Counties where high PFAS levels have been found in public and private water systems near two former military bases that used the chemicals in firefighting foam for decades. Although some towns there have now removed PFAS chemicals from public water supplies, the bases remain a source of contamination, threatening to taint local ground water.

In January, a New Jersey landfill canceled an agreement to take 4,500 tons of PFAS-contaminated soil from the Willow Grove base at Horsham where the Navy is trying to remove the most polluted soil.

Growing evidence of the PFAS risk to public health and the EPA’s longstanding failure to set national MCLs has prompted some states including New Jersey to set their own limits that are much stricter than the EPA’s current health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS combined.

Pennsylvania currently uses the EPA’s health advisory level as its public health benchmark, but campaigners say that’s not strict enough to protect public health.

Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a Pennsylvania-based environmental group that has long campaigned for the state to set MCLs for PFAS chemicals, welcomed the DEP’s statement but said it will keep pressing DEP to ensure it actually sets a limit.

“It is good news to finally hear that PA DEP is saying they are ‘beginning the process’ but we have heard promises before without results,” said DRN’s deputy director, Tracy Carluccio. “We will be watchdogging the next steps by PA DEP.”

She said DRN petitioned Pennsylvania’s Environmental Quality Board in May 2017 to set an MCL for PFOA, and the petition was accepted but no MCL was set.

Mark Cuker, an environmental attorney, and member of the grassroots group Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water, says Pennsylvania should act quickly by consulting the science produced by New Jersey’s Drinking Water Quality Institute, a panel of scientists that advises the state’s DEP. The DWQI recommended a much lower safety standard for PFAS chemicals than the EPA’s current advisory of 70 parts per trillion. That recommendation includes a maximum contaminant level of 14 ppt for PFOA and 13 ppt for PFOS and PFNA, which has been adopted by other states.

Cuker says there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel.

“New Jersey did comprehensive scientific analyses by top-flight people,” said Cuker. “Large compendiums of hundreds and hundreds of pages. It was good enough for California, it was good enough for New York. It should be good enough for Pennsylvania. This is not action, this is just words.”

02/14/2019 - EPA says it will begin to regulate PFOA and PFOS this year

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday it will this year begin the process of setting maximum contaminant limits for PFOA and PFOS, two toxic chemicals that are linked to cancer and other illnesses and are widespread in drinking water and soil.

The agency released a long-awaited Action Plan on how to manage contamination by the two chemicals and others in the PFAS family.

“EPA is moving forward with a maximum contaminant level process outlined in the Safe Drinking Water Act for PFOA and PFOS, two of the most well known and prevalent PFAS chemicals,” said the EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Water, Dave Ross.

“By the end of this year, EPA will propose a regulatory determination, which is the next step under the Safe Drinking Water Act, for establishing an MCL,” Ross said.  “Our intent is to establish a MCL for PFOA and PFOS.”

But critics said the EPA’s plan represents another deferral of federal action to curb the chemicals.

“Essentially, EPA announced they are going to study further whether or not they will consider setting federal MCLs, a ‘plan’ that lacks any sense of urgency and offers no timely relief to people exposed to these highly toxic compounds in their water,” said Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a Pennsylvania-based environmental group that advocates for stricter limits on the chemicals.

DRN said there is no reason for the EPA not to act immediately to set MCLs given voluminous scientific evidence of PFAS’ risks to public health. “Decades have passed since EPA began looking at these contaminants, which begs the question why they need more time to decide on MCLs,” it said.

In the Philadelphia region, PFOA and PFOS contamination has become a big issue in Montgomery and Bucks counties, in areas around two former military facilities. Residents in Horsham, Warrington, and Warminster have found out their water was contaminated. The chemicals are believed to have come from firefighting foams used at the military sites.

Mark Cuker is a member of the Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water and an environmental attorney. Cuker says he wants an MCL set for “non-detect” — meaning no level of them would be considered safe.

Currently, the EPA has an advisory level of 70 parts per trillion, while states like New Jersey have moved to set much more stringent levels.

“There’s just no reason why this couldn’t be done by now,” said Cuker. “So here’s an analogy, you’re drowning, life guard says I’m coming. You’re now going down for the third time. Lifeguard is still sitting on the beach saying I’m coming.”

Environmental Working Group, a national advocate for curbing PFAS, called the EPA’s plan “a recipe for more contamination.”

EWG said the plan would not stop the introduction of new PFAS chemicals, clean up drinking water supplies, or alert the public to PFAS pollution.

“It’s shameful that the EPA has taken two decades to produce a plan that allows increased exposure to compounds whose makers have used the American people as guinea pigs and, with the EPA’s complicity, covered it up,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs.

EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, at a news conference in Philadelphia, said the plan involved a “historic” coordination of the agency’s offices.

“It took groundbreaking efforts to develop this plan,” Wheeler said. “This is the first time we have utilized all of our program offices to deal with an emerging chemical of concern.”

At a separate briefing, Ross said the decision to begin PFAS regulation was contrary to a recent press report that the EPA had decided not to set national standards for the chemicals.

As part of its plan, EPA has also begun the process of listing PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the Superfund law. That will help communities deal with existing contamination and recover costs from responsible parties.

Ross said EPA will also publish recommendations “very soon” on cleaning up the two chemicals in groundwater, an important source of drinking water for many communities. Ross said the EPA is also looking at whether to regulate other chemicals in the PFAS family.

The plan will include expanded monitoring for PFAS and will add the chemicals to its Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Program. Ross said the agency’s latest testing showed that about 1 percent of public water systems had at least one sample with PFOA and PFOS concentrations greater than 70 parts per trillion, the agency’s current health advisory limit for the chemicals.

He said EPA will also step up its research into the human health and ecological effects of PFAS, will look at contamination pathways and the costs of curbing the substances, with special attention to emerging replacements for PFAS chemicals, notably GenX.

“Our goal is to close the gap on the science as quickly as possible,” Ross said.

Ross said the agency will also develop a “communication toolbox” on PFAS that state and local governments can use to communicate with the public on responding to the contamination.

“We owe it to the American public to be able to explain in very simple and easy to understand terms what are the risks that they face in their daily lives,” he said. “We are stepping up to provide the leadership that the public needs and deserves.”

Critics have frequently accused the EPA of failing to take a leadership role in curbing PFAS. Some state officials have called on the agency to set national standards for the chemicals, to avoid what they call a “patchwork” of state regulations.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) called the plan “insufficiently protective” and accused the EPA of lacking urgency on PFAS protection. He noted that former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt had committed to publishing a national management plan on the chemicals almost a year ago.

“It has taken the EPA nearly a year just to kick the can even further down the road,” Carper said.

 

 

02/13/2019 - EPA to unveil long-awaited ‘Action Plan’ on curbing toxic PFAS chemicals

In this July 25, 2018 photo US Environmental Protection Agency’s Peter Grevatt, Director of the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water and Cosmo Servidio, Regional Administrator for the Mid-Atlantic Region, listen to members of the public comment during a PFAS Community Stakeholder Meeting, on in Horsham, Pa.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will announce on Thursday a long-awaited plan for how to manage the toxic PFAS class of chemicals, which has contaminated drinking water and soil in many parts of the United States including the Horsham and Warrington area of eastern Pennsylvania.

The agency said its “Action Plan” will include monitoring and cleaning up the chemicals, which are linked to cancer and other health conditions including high cholesterol, low birth weights, and immune system problems.

But it is unclear whether the agency will also propose enforceable Maximum Contaminant Limits (MCLs) for drinking water, which advocates say are essential for protecting human health against the chemicals. Implementation of any new standards could take years.

“EPA’s Action Plan will move forward with the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) process outlined in the Safe Drinking Water Act for PFOA and PFOS—two of the most well-known and prevalent PFAS chemicals,” the agency said Wednesday.

According to a Congressional aide who was briefed late Wednesday, it will be a five-part plan that includes more monitoring, more research, and listing the chemicals as hazardous substances that would enable communities to go after polluters.

Any move to propose MCLs would come as a surprise after a recent report from Politico that the EPA had decided not to set national standards for the chemicals despite calls from campaigners and state officials for it to establish levels that would protect public health.

Enforceable national standards would replace the EPA’s current health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS combined, a level that campaigners say is not stringent enough to protect public health.

U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Bucks County Republican who co-founded of a group of House lawmakers calling for stricter PFAS standards, said Wednesday he was “cautiously optimistic” that the EPA announcement would curb the chemicals but said he had no more information than was contained in the EPA’s advisory.

“That sounds good but we want to know the details,” Fitzpatrick said. “This is a very serious matter for a lot of people in our community in Bucks and Montgomery Counties.”

David Andrews, senior scientist at Environmental Working Group, a national advocate for PFAS curbs, said he expects EPA to nudge the regulatory process forward but not to propose specific MCLs.

“The next step would be a regulatory determination that they would pursue MCLs so if they follow that process it would be an incremental step,” Andrews said.

Blood tests on 235 Horsham, Warrington and Warminster residents by the Pennsylvania Department of Health last year found a large majority had levels of four PFAS chemicals that exceeded the national average, and that some of them had illnesses including elevated cholesterol, endocrine disruptions and cancer.

Pennsylvania officials have been working to curb PFAS levels at 20 sites where contamination of soil or groundwater or both has been found. Concern has focused on the Horsham area because of high contamination in drinking water there, stemming from the chemicals’ long-term use in firefighting foam at nearby military bases.

While local authorities such as Horsham Township have now installed filters to cut PFAS levels in water systems to within health limits, high levels of contamination persist in soil on the bases and in ground water beneath them.

02/13/2019 - Environmental groups plan to sue US Steel after Clairton fire

A pair of environmental groups says they plan to sue U.S. Steel following the December fire at Clairton Coke Works that damaged pollution control equipment.

PennEnvironment and the Clean Air Council alleged Wednesday that several of the company’s Mon Valley facilities are operating in violation of their Clean Air Act permits.

Coke oven gas produced at Clairton normally goes through a desulfurization process before it’s flared or used as fuel. The groups say some of the gas gets piped to U.S. Steel’s nearby Irvin and Edgar Thomson plants. Because the facilities continue to use the gas without sending it through the desulfurization equipment, which was damaged by the fire, the groups contend the facilities are violating their permits.

“We will not sit idly by and let a chronic polluter run roughshod over our environmental laws and put the health of our residents at risk,” said Ashleigh Deemer, PennEnvironment’s western Pennsylvania director.

Since the fire, nearby air monitors have detected high levels of sulfur dioxide, which can be a respiratory irritant in high doses. Several spikes occurred in December and early January at the Allegheny County Health Department’s Liberty monitor, and another in early February in North Braddock.

Lifelong Clairton resident Melanie Meade attended a press conference Wednesday announcing the legal action. She said she was grateful the environmental groups were taking on U.S. Steel.

“It is as if no one hears us and no one cares about our health and our wellbeing, and we have been looked over,” she said. “That should stop. This lawsuit allows them to know that we have support and we are willing to fight for our health and our wellbeing.”

The National Environmental Law Center — which is representing the environmental groups — sent a letter on Wednesday to U.S. Steel, notifying the company that it intends to sue. That starts the clock under a provision of the Clean Air Act, which requires a 60-day window between giving notice to a company and formally filing a federal lawsuit.

The environmental groups say that if U.S. Steel does not adequately address its concerns within that time frame, they will ask for a court order requiring the company to comply with its permits, as well as civil penalties to punish past violations and to deter future violations.

U.S. Steel said in a statement that it’s reviewing the groups’ letter. The company added that it’s committed to working with stakeholders and officials “to achieve our common goal of protecting our shared environment and the jobs of thousands of skilled Mon Valley Works employees that manufacture world-class steel products.”

Kelly Yagatich, a southwest Pennsylvania outreach coordinator for the Clean Air Council, said legal action was necessary because the Allegheny County Health Department has not responded adequately to Clairton’s pollution problems.

“The health department is misleading the public by suggesting it does not need to impose additional requirements that would reduce pollution from the plant since there are no longer exceedances at a distant air monitoring station 2 miles away as there were multiple times following the fire,” she said.

She reiterated environmentalists’ call that the department place Clairton on “hot idle.” Such an order would mean that the facility stops producing coke but does not shut down entirely.

“It’s disappointing to hear the organizations say that publicly, as just last week in a public hearing, they applauded the steps that the department has taken, and have reiterated that to us since that time as well,” county health department spokesperson Ryan Scarpino wrote in an email.

At that hearing, health officials said an enforcement action against U.S. Steel is coming. They also recommended a host of steps the state could take to better address situations like this, including requiring coke plants and industrial facilities to curb production on bad air quality days, as well as increase penalties for air quality violations.

As for Wednesday’s notice that environmental groups plan to sue U.S. Steel, Scarpino said, “We applaud this step, and the fact that these residents are using the tools at their disposal to effect change, much like the department has done with the tools available to our agency.”

02/13/2019 - Solar jobs grow in Pennsylvania while declining nationally

Pennsylvania had 4,219 solar jobs in 2018 — a 10 percent increase over the previous year, the report found.

02/13/2019 - Wolf’s support for pipeline-safety bills boosts bipartisan advocates

Continued problems with Sunoco's Mariner East project, and the company's failure to fix problems related to a line in western Pennsylvania, have raised the profile of legislation that has stalled in the past.

02/12/2019 - ‘energy, explained’ podcast: The black lung disease epidemic that ‘shouldn’t have happened’

NPR reporter Howard Berkes joins StateImpact's Reid Frazier to discuss regulatory failures -- and the human cost, including to Pennsylvania miners -- of a disease that has been described as 'suffocating while alive.'

02/08/2019 - PA DEP halts new pipeline permits for Mariner East, cites ongoing violations with Revolution pipeline

The DEP says Energy Transfer, which is the parent company of Sunoco, failed to fix problems after an explosion rocked Beaver County in September.