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Pennsylvania: Shale permits not on ‘trigger list’ for extra review in poor areas

February 10, 2013 12:11 am 

By Don Hopey / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The state Department of Environmental Protection has granted hundreds of permits for Marcellus Shale gas development in Pennsylvania’s poor and minority communities.

None of those permits for gas wells, wastewater impoundments or compressor stations has triggered intervention by DEP’s Office of Environmental Advocate to inform residents of those communities about potential health and environmental impacts from proposed industrial developments.

That’s because the state’s rapidly proliferating Marcellus Shale gas facilities are not included on the list of “trigger permits” the DEP uses to determine when to provide enhanced notification, information and public participation opportunities in those “environmental justice” communities.

And Holly Cairns, new director of DEP’s Office of Environmental Advocate, said there are no plans to change that.

“[Marcellus permit proposals] were not recognized as a trigger permit at the time this program was developed,” Ms. Cairns said. “And they’re not something that’s on the table for consideration at this time.”

PG graphic: ‘Environmental Justice’ communities and gas drilling (Click image for larger version)

But they should be, according to environmental, minority and citizen group leaders, because of the rapid proliferation of Marcellus Shale developments permitted throughout the state and the risks of air pollution and water contamination caused by drilling, accidents, spills, leaks and explosions at those facilities.

A Post-Gazette review compared state permit data to the new DEP Environmental Justice Census Tracts map released last month. It found 228 Marcellus Shale permits were granted by the department from 2007 through 2011 in the environmental justice-designated communities. And 160 of those permits were granted in areas that were identified as environmental justice communities when the Office of Environmental Advocate opened over a decade ago.

“Marcellus wells and other operations should be a trigger for environmental justice review, extra notification and hearings. That should be a no-brainer,” said George Jugovic Jr., an attorney who was DEP southwest region director in the Rendell administration and is now president and CEO of Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, a statewide environmental organization.

Mr. Jugovic said including Marcellus Shale development proposals in the environmental justice program would mean enhanced review and scrutiny of those permits, additional community outreach and public hearings. He said he wouldn’t expect to see a permit denied in an EJ area, but the additional review could produce siting or design accommodations that would benefit nearby residents.

How EJ zones came to be

DEP’s Office of Environmental Advocate was created in 2002 in response to concerns that residents of minority and low-income communities often face more serious health and environmental risks because a disproportionate number of pollution-producing facilities are located in those communities.

The most prominent example involved charges that the DEP violated federal civil rights law by approving permits for five waste disposal and incinerator facilities and in 1996 was considering a permit for a sixth in Chester, a largely African-American community in Delaware County near Philadelphia. The U.S. Supreme Court declared the environmental racism case moot in 1998 after the DEP denied the permit, but the dispute received national attention and resulted in the establishment of the state program to inform “EJ” communities of major development proposals and encourage public involvement.

The DEP defines environmental justice communities as those where at least 20 percent of the population is living in poverty or 30 percent or more is non-white. The DEP’s original environmental justice map, based on census data from 2000 and used through the end of 2012, contained 666 areas meeting that definition. The DEP’s new map shows 851 such environmental justice areas, including many new ones in Cambria, Clearfield, Fayette, Forest and Potter counties, which are in prime Marcellus Shale drilling areas of the state.

Aimee Erickson, executive director of the Bridgeville-based Citizens Coal Council, said Marcellus Shale developments are intentionally omitted from the program by the DEP even though there are more of those facilities and they have potential to cause harm to poor and minority communities.

“Marcellus Shale is flying under the radar but it should not be,” Ms. Erickson said. “It absolutely would have the kind of effect that should be included in environmental justice reviews. It’s another type of extractive industry, like mining, and should be included.”

The DEP’s environmental justice program targets specific “trigger permits” for industrial operations like coal mines and coal refuse disposal sites and prep plants, landfills, industrial wastewater facilities, commercial waste incinerators and concentrated animal feed lots for, according to one of the DEP’s own program documents, “special scrutiny by DEP and an enhanced public participation process.”

According to the DEP, the Office of Environmental Advocate, which has just three employees statewide, worked on six permits in EJ areas in 2011, four of them for Consol Energy mines, subsidence areas or coal refuse disposal areas in Greene County. In 2012, the office worked on five permits in EJ areas, one for a Consol mine expansion in Greene County and another for an Amfire Mining Co. mine in Indiana County.

John Poister, a DEP spokesman, said the Office of Environmental Advocate has also done EJ community outreach work on “brownfield” industrial site redevelopment proposals in McKees Rocks, Hazelwood, the Hill District, Jeannette in Westmoreland County and in Chester.

‘Failing to recognize criteria’

The Office of Environmental Advocate, however, has been less than helpful to residents of Ulysses, Potter County, where a large Marcellus Shale wastewater processing facility is planned.

The township is designated an environmental justice community on the DEP’s new map, and two of the three permits needed are still under review by the DEP. But because the facility applied for its permits in August 2012, the DEP denied requests from residents asking for new permit reviews. According to a DEP email, “Although [the township] is now listed on the new maps received in December 2012, the determination is made based upon the available information at the time of the application submittal.”

Melissa Troutman, of Mountain Watershed Association, a grass-roots environmental group in Fayette County that has been working with Potter County residents, said a new group there, Triple Divide Caretakers, asked the DEP last week to hold an EJ program public meeting on the wastewater facility proposal.

“We believe that in refusing to re-evaluate these permits based on the new EJ designations, DEP de-legitimizes the EJ program by failing to recognize the criteria … meant to protect communities that are often targeted by corporations for toxic waste disposal and processing,” Ms. Troutman said.

Terri Davin, president of the Greene County Watershed Alliance, worked with Consol on its five mining permits in environmental justice areas and said such enhanced review and transparency on Marcellus permits would be beneficial to the communities affected.

“The outreach on the mining permits was helpful and because of the amount of land impacted by gas drilling, the additional notification and review should be extended to those permit proposals,” Ms. Davin said. “Wells are impactful and compressor stations, which nearby residents can see and hear and smell, can impact the quality of life of those communities around them. There needs to be more transparency.”

Ms. Davin, who was a member of the DEP’s Environmental Justice Advisory Board for two years until resigning at the end of 2012, said the advisory board never discussed or considered adding Marcellus Shale development permits to the “trigger permit” list during that time.

According to the minutes of its May 2012 meeting, the advisory committee did hear a presentation by Alisa Harris, DEP special deputy secretary for external affairs, about the economic benefits of Marcellus Shale development and how DEP Secretary Michael Krancer has “worked with institutions, the MSC [Marcellus Shale Coalition] and the industry to explain the benefits of job training for Marcellus Shale.”

Act 13, the Corbett administration-backed regulatory update for oil and gas drilling, was also discussed later in that meeting. But there was no mention or discussion in the meeting minutes about Marcellus Shale gas drilling impacts in poor and minority communities.

Clea Patrick Hollis, a member of the DEP’s Environmental Justice Advisory Board, said the board hadn’t addressed the issue of adding Marcellus Shale permits to the EJ trigger list before its meeting last Wednesday. But after she was asked about it by a reporter, she said she raised it during the board’s afternoon session.

“The rest of the day was spent about this very issue. I would say it’s under discussion,” said Ms. Hollis, who served as president of the NAACP in Johnstown for 10 years. “And I would say yes, it should be.”

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983. First Published February 10, 2013 12:00 am

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