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Mon, 2014-09-15 22:45Sharon Kelly
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Pennsylvania Plant Agrees to Stop Dumping Partially-Treated Fracking Wastewater in River After Lengthy Lawsuit

A Pennsylvania wastewater treatment plant alleged to have dumped toxic and radioactive materials into the Allegheny River has agreed to construct a new treatment facility, under a settlement announced Thursday with an environmental organization that had filed suit against the plant.

Back in 2011, Pennsylvania made national headlines because the state's treatment plants – including municipal sewage plants and industrial wastewater treatment plants like Waste Treatment Corporation – were accepting drilling and fracking wastewater laden with pollutants that they could not remove.

In July 2013, Clean Water Action alleged in a lawsuit that Waste Treatment Corp. of Warren, PA violated the federal Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, along with Pennsylvania's Clean Streams Law by continuing to discharge partially treated wastewater, carrying corrosive salts, heavy metals and radioactive materials into the river, which serves as the drinking water supply for hundreds of thousands of people, including much of the city of Pittsburgh. 

Under the terms of the settlement, within 8 months, Waste Treatment Corporation must install advanced treatment technology that will remove 99% of the contaminants in gas drilling wastewater.

Until those treatment methods are in place, Waste Treatment Corporation agreed to stop accepting wastewater from Marcellus shale wells, notorious for its high levels of radioactivity, and to cut the amount of wastewater it can accept from conventional gas wells by over a third.

“The settlement represents the first time an existing industrial treatment plant discharging gas drilling wastewater in Pennsylvania agreed to install effective treatment technology to protect local rivers,” Clean Water Action wrote in a press release.

Thu, 2014-09-04 06:00Sharon Kelly
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Shale Oil Drillers Deliberately Wasted Nearly $1 Billion in Gas, Harming Climate

In Texas and North Dakota, where an oil rush triggered by the development of new fracking methods has taken many towns by storm, drillers have run into a major problem.

While their shale wells extract valuable oil, natural gas also rises from the wells alongside that oil. That gas could be sold for use for electrical power plants or to heat homes, but it is harder to transport from the well to customers than oil. Oil can be shipped via truck, rail or pipe, but the only practical way to ship gas is by pipeline, and new pipelines are expensive, often costing more to construct than the gas itself can be sold for.

So, instead of losing money on pipeline construction, many shale oil drillers have decided to simply burn the gas from their wells off, a process known in the industry as “flaring.”

It's a process so wasteful that it's sparked class action lawsuits from landowners, who say they've lost millions of dollars worth of gas due to flaring. Some of the air emissions from flared wells can also be toxic or carcinogenic. It's also destructive for the climate – natural gas is made primarily of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and when methane burns, it produces more than half as much CO2 as burning coal.

Much of the research into the climate change impact the nation's fracking rush – now over a decade long – has focused on methane leaks from shale gas wells, where drillers are deliberately aiming to produce natural gas. The climate change impacts of shale oil drilling have drawn less attention from researchers and regulators alike.

Sat, 2014-08-02 07:31Sharon Kelly
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As Energy Department Announces Methane Measures, Critics Call for Stronger Action

On Tuesday, the White House released a report estimating that delaying action on climate change could cause $150 billion a year in damage to the U.S. economy.

“These costs are not one-time, but are rather incurred year after year because of the permanent damage caused by increased climate change resulting from the delay,” the assessment warned.

That same day, President Obama announced moves to help reduce greenhouse gasses. But some critics charge that the President's actions have so far failed to be proportionate to the crisis the White House predicts.

As DeSmog reported, on Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency's program on natural gas pipeline leaks came under fire from the EPA's own internal watchdog. The EPA inspector general lambasted the agency for setting up rules that rely heavily on voluntary leak repairs by pipeline companies while turning a blind eye to state policies that allow those companies to simply pass the price of leaking gas to consumers instead of making costly repairs.

The resulting leaks, the EPA audit concluded, cost consumers over $192 million and the resulting greenhouse gasses each year were equal to putting an addition 2.7 million cars on the road.

On the heels of that report, the Obama administration announced that it would adjust its methane pollution controls — but the measures they announced fell far short of what some experts argue is necessary to curtail methane's climate hazards. The Department of Energy's new measures include adjustments to its voluntary leak control program and add funding for research into ways to better curb leaks.

While we applaud the commitments made by DOE, labor unions, utility groups, and other stakeholders,” Earthworks Policy Director Lauren Pagel told the Oil and Gas Journal, “voluntary measures and new research initiatives don’t adequately protect communities and the climate.”

Tue, 2014-07-29 05:00Sharon Kelly
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EPA Internal Audit Finds Flawed Pipeline Oversight Adds $192 Million a Year to Gas Bills, Harms Climate

On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency's internal watchdog, the inspector general released a scathing report on the agency's failure to control leaks from the nation's natural gas distribution system.

The report, titled “Improvements Needed in EPA Efforts to Address Methane Emissions From Natural Gas Distribution Pipelines,” describes a string of failures by the EPA to control leaks of one of the most potent greenhouse gases, methane, from the rapidly expanding natural gas pipeline industry.

“The EPA has placed little focus and attention on reducing methane emissions from pipelines in the natural gas distribution sector,” the report begins. “The EPA has a voluntary program to address methane leaks — Natural Gas STAR — but its efforts through this program have resulted in limited reductions of methane emissions from distribution pipelines.”

To date, the industry has faced little binding regulation on leaks, in part because the EPA assumes that pipeline companies will not allow the product they are attempting to bring to market to simply disappear. But the reality is that when gas is cheap and repairs are expensive, pipeline companies often put off repairs unless there's a threat of an explosion.

Under many state policies, pipeline companies would have to pay upfront costs for pipeline repairs — or they simply choose to pass the cost of lost gas from unrepaired leaks on to consumers, an issue that the audit faults the EPA for failing to take into account.

Nationwide, the Inspector General report concluded $192 million worth of natural gas was lost from pipelines in 2011 alone.

Thu, 2014-07-24 09:48Sharon Kelly
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After Rancher's Death, Calls for Fracking Health Study Grow Stronger

Last month, Terry Greenwood, a Pennsylvania farmer whose water had been contaminated by fracking waste, died of cancer. He was 66 and the cause of death was a rare form of brain cancer.

His death drew attention from around the globe in part because Mr. Greenwood was among the first farmers from his state to speak out against the gas industry during the early years of the state's shale gas rush.

Mr. Greenwood went up against a company called Dominion Energy, which had drilled and fracked a shallow well on his small cattle ranch property under a lease signed by a prior owner in 1921.

In January, 2008, Mr. Greenwood had reported to state officials that his water supplies had turned brown and the water tasted salty. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection subsequently found that the company, whose gas well was drilled 400 feet from the Greenwoods' water well in 2007, had impacted the Greenwoods' water. State officials ordered Dominion to temporarily supply the family with drinking water.

Mr. Greenwood's death was mourned by environmentalists around the world. In London, for example, attendees at a fracking education event recorded video messages for the Greenwood family and raised over $500 for Terry's survivors.

“Terry Greenwood was one of the most compelling people you could ever listen to,” wrote filmmaker Josh Fox. “There was just something about the way he spoke, there was a decency and a positivity that shone through every word no matter how distressing or disturbing the subject matter was.”

But the story of Mr. Greenwood's fight against the drilling industry and lax oversight by state regulators does not stop there.

In the weeks since his death, there has been a steady stream of further revelations about ineptitude by state environmental and health officials in protecting the public from the type of threats that may have killed Mr. Greenwood. These revelations are both a reminder of the importance of Mr. Greenwood's fight and a reiteration of how little has changed. 

Last week, Dr. Eli Avila, formerly Pennsylvania's health secretary, made headlines when he told the Associated Press that the state had neglected health impact studies.

The lack of any action speaks volumes,” Dr. Avila, now Orange County, New York's public health commissioner, told the AP. His perspective was shared by other health experts. “Pennsylvania is 'simply not doing' serious studies into possible health impacts of drilling, Dr. Bernard Goldstein, who has five decades of public health experience at hospitals and universities in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania” said, the AP reported.

The lack of oversight and transparency has been endemic to Pennsylvania and its handling of fracking.

Wed, 2014-07-23 09:08Sharon Kelly
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Pennsylvania Environmental Regulators Flunk State's Own Shale Gas Audit

In January 2013, Pennsylvania's auditor general announced that he would conduct an investigation into whether state regulators were effectively overseeing the impacts from the shale gas drilling rush.

A year and a half later, the results are in: the state's environmental regulators are failing badly in at least eight major areas, at times declining to cite drillers who broke the law. In a damning 158-page report, the state's auditor general highlighted the agency's wide-ranging failures. The report detailed the Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) use of a legal “loop hole” to avoid inspecting wells and described the agnecy's failure to fulfill its duty to track the industry's toxic waste. The report also faulted the agency for a reliance on voluntary measures in policing the industry.

The federal government has largely taken a hands-off approach to policing the drilling boom. What federal rules do exist have various broad exemptions exemptions for the oil and gas industry. Pennsylvania, which features a large swath of the Marcellus shale, is widely viewed as ground zero for the current fracking boom. In the unusually candid report released this week, state auditors have concluded that the state is overwhelmed by the industry and is providing insufficient oversight.

“It is DEP’s responsibility to protect the environment from these environmental risks and to ensure that laws and regulations which govern potential impacts to water quality are enforced,” Pennsylvania's auditors wrote. “Unfortunately, DEP was unprepared to meet these challenges because the rapid expansion of shale gas development has strained DEP, and the agency has failed to keep up with the workload demands placed upon it.”

Auditors described state environmental regulators as woefully outgunned and unprepared for the sudden arrival of the shale gas drilling frenzy.

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