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PennFuture Facts :: brief, interesting looks at topical environmental issues PennFuture Facts :: brief, interesting looks at topical environmental issues

Monday, April 18, 2016

On their terms: residents combat poor air quality to #CleanUpClairton

Although regulatory agencies are required to protect public health by enforcing federal air quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we find that in reality that may not always be the case. 

For example, 20 miles south of Pittsburgh, residents of the City of Clairton are questioning whether a recent settlement with the largest coke producer in North America will protect public health.

"We've seen the consent agreements between U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works and the health department over the past several years that I have lived here, and, frankly, the air quality has not changed," said Clairton resident, Pat Jones. "We are skeptical." 

With the lack of community trust that regulatory agencies are creating a path toward a healthier, livable environment, residents are taking matters into their own hands. We outline some ways community members in and around the City of Clairton are combatting poor air quality on their own terms.

Smoke School

Recently, Eastern Technical Associates (ETA) offered a free Visible Emissions Certification program, or "smoke school." This type of program is required by the EPA in order for an individual to be recognized as a qualified observer of stationary emissions sources, like U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works. 

The class took place at Settlers Cabin Park on an early Tuesday morning. ETA brought their smoke machine and demonstrated the various different opacity levels from both black and white smoke emissions. Each participant would fill in estimated opacity levels on a zero to 100 scale for each round of testing. The test is harder than it looks - most participants went through three rounds before passing the test. 

Chris Harper, an electrical engineer from Edgewood, has been a certified smoke reader for a couple years. He uses his certification to be a citizen watchdog over Clairton Coke Works, because he says the pollution plumes affect his community. 

Harper also publishes an online air quality dashboard for others to see what is going on throughout the region. 

Speck Monitors

Carnegie Mellon University's CREATE Lab is using technology to foster citizen engagement in air quality. Through spinoff, Airviz, knowing what is in the air you breathe is as easy as borrowing a book from your local library. 

This month, Airviz donated 10 Specks - monitors that detect particulates in homes and workplaces - to the Clairton Public Library

Odessa Ellis, children's services coordinator for the library, said she is very excited about having the Specks and plans to incorporate them into children's programs and hopes parents will check them out for home use. 
Clairton Public Library's Odessa Ellis, Freda Montgomery, and Audrey Minarcik show off the library's new Speck sensors.
Clairton School District, Southside Human Resource Community Center, and a locally owned and operated Clairton daycare center have already adopted Specks.

Student Activism 

As community groups and residents in the Mon Valley area are working toward monitoring the air quality, younger residents are contributing to spreading awareness of the issue. With a large percentage of Clairton students having asthma, air quality is a major concern for them. 

High school students of Stay Positive Clairton, a project of Youth Opportunites Development, are learning to spread the word of about air quality in their neighborhood. Partnering with environmental groups like PennFuture and PennEnvironment, they are preparing to gather signatures for a petition to the Allegheny County Health Department during community events like basketball games as well as door-to-door canvassing. 

Stay Positive Clairton's program director, Brandon Ziat, says that the petition is a great leadership opportunity for kids to build leadership skills and shape their community. 

"Every day when I drive to work with the kids, I see the plant. Air pollution is a constant worry and it's great to know that something is being done about it and kids can get involved," added Ziat. 

Do you suspect poor air quality in your area? 
We want to hear your story. 

Annie Regan is the western Pennsylvania outreach coordinator for PennFuture and is based in Pittsburgh. She tweets @MsAnnieRegan. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The hidden truth behind existing sources (of methane pollution)

Over the past year, the chatter on methane pollution from oil and gas operations has gotten much louder—and that's a good thing. This has been helped along by the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed rules in August 2015 to cut methane pollution from new and modified sources in the oil and gas industry. Going a step further, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a four-point plan in January 2016 to curb methane pollution from new and existing sources of oil and gas operations in Pennsylvania. Last month, President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to work on rules for existing sources of oil and gas methane pollution that would address emissions across the U.S. and Canada.

It's the latter proposals to cut existing sources of oil and gas methane pollution that have caused much consternation among oil and gas producers. These companies, and their lobbyists, are quick to offer sound bites suggesting that they've got this, they are addressing existing sources of pollution voluntarily as it's in their best interest, and that there's no need for what they view as unnecessary and duplicative standards. The short answers, from where we sit, are no, no and no.

Existing sources of oil and gas operations, or the hundreds of thousands of wells, tanks, and compressor stations across the U.S., routinely vent, flare and leak methane. Methane, or CH4, is the primary constituent of natural gas and is a potent greenhouse gas, 86 times more so than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after its release into the atmosphere. This airborne pollution is a public health problem, a waste of our natural resources, and a climate disaster in the making.

When oil and gas producers refer to methane pollution and say they've got this, they're wrong. Methane pollution from existing sources—the bulk of the problem—continue to increase as both Pennsylvania and EPA inventories indicate. Where we have seen some marked declines is in the category of green well completions, or the process of completing a well and readying it for production. It's worth noting that green completions are the one regulated category of methane emissions. Two words: Rules work.

As to voluntary compliance, that's pretty much another fallacy. The EPA's Natural Gas STAR program, which promotes voluntary efforts to rein in oil and gas pollution, struggles with woefully low buy-in from the industry. While Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary John Quigley has singled out Southwestern, Shell, Chevron and CONSOL as large producers that work to cut methane pollution, he also acknowledges that the bulk of small-mid size producers are nowhere near curbing emissions on a voluntary basis. Further, Quigley has stated that methane emission figures in the state are "unrealistically low" because leaks are so common and rarely measured.

Lastly, the suggestion that proposed methane rules for existing sources in Pennsylvania would be unnecessary and duplicative is absurd. Unnecessary? See the two previous paragraphs. Duplicative? Impossible, as Pennsylvania currently has no comprehensive regulatory framework for methane pollution from oil and gas operations. Colorado does, Pennsylvania is working on it, and California recently proposed its own suite of methane rules. We applaud Sec. Quigley's continued call for "best-in-the-nation" standards on methane pollution in PA.

Existing sources of methane pollution are a clear and present danger and must be addressed. The Wolf administration is on its way to doing just that, and 70 percent of Pennsylvanians in a recent poll support the effort. The proposed rules are laudable, and we thank the governor for his bold leadership.

In the weeks and months ahead, PennFuture will provide ample opportunity for citizens of the commonwealth to show their support for rules that cover existing sources of methane pollution. It's time to rein in this harmful pollution and protect our communities. We stand ready to help.

Elaine Labalme is strategic campaigns director for PennFuture and is based in Pittsburgh.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

How crowdsourcing and technology are democratizing air quality monitoring

Allegheny County’s air ranks among the worst counties nationally for cancer risk. And our recent notice of legal action shows that businesses and regulatory agencies don’t always act in the best interest of public health. 

But what recourse do we have?
The federal Clean Air Act enables organizations like PennFuture to file citizen suits against polluters on behalf of its members.

But what else can we do?
Innovations and evolving technology allow people to become more informed and vocal about what’s in their environment. From social media to monitoring devices, residents can test their own air and water quality and push that information out like never before. 

How can you learn about what’s in your air?


Airviz Inc. and the CREATE Lab of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute developed Speck™, a small device that helps detect fine particulate matter in your indoor environment. 

Image via:
Clairton resident Cheryl Hurt, who owns a child daycare center, finds it particularly (no pun intended) helpful in a neighborhood located next to a coke plant. Speck allows her to determine when it is and isn’t a good day for the kids to go outside.

In addition, Clairton School District is one of the handful of schools that adopted a Speck and will have them available to check out from their library. With these Specks readily accessible, science and math teachers can use the sensors to teach air quality and statistics to their students through provided curricula.

Learn more from the CREATE Lab director, Illah Nourbakhsh. 


In addition to the Speck, Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) is studying particulate matter hotspots in Pittsburgh and you could help in the process! It’s a fairly simple commitment that involves strapping an air monitoring device on your bike while following a specific protocol. 

Image via: GASP
Once the equipment is attached to your bike, continue on your daily commute and GASP will then gather the obtained data to see where the problem areas in Pittsburgh are located, and suggest ways for improvement for your route. 

See what pollution has already been recorded from previous bikers.


Do you notice the difference in air quality from day to day? Can you see it in the gif of the North Shore below? The Breathe Cam, a project of CMU's CREATE Lab in partnership with the Breathe Project, gives a regional view of air quality and shows comparisons of clear days and hazy days when fine particulate matter in the air is higher. 

The Breathe Project explains the science behind what we see, smell, and breathe each day and ways individuals, businesses, and governments can get involved to improve air quality for the region. The site's Breathe Meter also provides a side-by-side comparison of how Pittsburgh stacks up against cities throughout the nation in terms of air quality. Next time you notice a hazy sky, check out this resource. It might be pollution, not be your Instagram filter, that makes the skies look grey and tan instead of blue. 

What does this rise in technology and crowdsourcing mean?
This rise of technology and how organizations utilize new hands-on innovation tools could mean more than creating a general interest in environmental issues for citizens. It could have actual impact on environmental regulations. Seeing actual metrics and visuals before our eyes instead of what seemed to be intangible, invisible issues like air pollution will make us realize there IS a problem and we CAN do something about it. 

While the legislative process can seem tedious and lagging, especially with pressing environmental issues that need immediate action, these accessible tools can help us engage in these environmental issues without the slow assistance of government. This year, vow to be informed on what is going on around you in your own community and be a part of the solution! And who knows what technologies will be in store for the future.

Are you already using these tools or others? 
Let us know.

Do you suspect poor air quality in your area?
We want to hear your story.

Annie Regan is the western Pennsylvania outreach coordinator for PennFuture and is based in Pittsburgh. She tweets @MsAnnieRegan.  

5 Pennsylvania conservationists you need to know

March is Women’s History Month and we thought we’d celebrate the occasion by highlighting five women from across Pennsylvania who boast impressive achievements in conservation. You’ll notice that each woman we’ve highlighted resides in a different part of the commonwealth -- a testament to the diversity of environmental and conservation issues in the state as well as the dedicated leadership of its citizens.

Pittsburgh, PA
Caren Glotfelty currently is the executive director of the Allegheny County Parks Foundation, a position she’s held since August 2014. Prior to this role, Caren spent more than a decade as Senior Program Director of the Heinz Endowments Environment Program, where she promoted its mission by directing funds toward projects in community revitalization, land use and conservation, and environmental health. Glotfelty also served as the Maurice K. Goddard Chair in Forestry & Environmental Resources Conservation at Penn State University, specializing in issues related to natural resources policy and state and local environmental. In addition, she served as the Deputy Secretary for water management in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources under Gov. Robert P. Casey.  

Best known for: Holding positions in government, the philanthropic community, the nonprofit sector, and academia relating to land use and water quality.

Harrisburg, PA
Cindy Dunn was appointed the sixth secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources under Gov. Tom Wolf. Prior to her appointment, Dunn has held various other leadership positions in the agency. Dunn is the immediate past president and CEO of PennFuture and the recipient of the 2015 Celebrating Women In Conservation Award. In addition, she served as executive director of Audubon Pennsylvania and as the Pennsylvania program director for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

Best known for: Connecting with the natural places and spaces she works tirelessly to protect as a birder, hiker, angler, and canoer.

Thornhurst, PA
Barbara "Bonnie" Smith, president of the watershed protection group North Pocono CARE (Citizens Alert Regarding the Environment), a non-profit organization in Northeastern Pennsylvania working to protect the Lehigh River and its tributaries for future generations. Smith is also a member of PennFuture's board of directors and was a recipient of Chatham University’s Distinguished Alumnae award in 2015.

Best known for: Petitioning successfully to have the Lehigh River classified as “exceptional value,” the highest protection under the law, protecting over 219 stream miles of the Lehigh’s headwaters and tributaries in the Pocono Plateau.

Philadelphia, PA
Carol Collier joined the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University as its senior advisor for watershed management and policy in 2014 after retiring from her role as executive director of the Delaware River Basin Commission, a post she held for more than 15 years. Prior to that, Collier was the executive director of Pennsylvania’s 21st Century Environment Commission and regional director of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection - Southeast Region. She also spent time in the private sector as vice president of environmental planning with BCM Environmental Engineers, Inc.

Best known for: Promoting the strengths and addressing the challenges of the Delaware River Watershed for decades.

Erie, PA
Sister Pat Lupo, OSB has long been a champion of the environment and conservation in Pennsylvania. Pat is a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie and a science educator who taught elementary and high school levels for more than 20 years. She has also worked for non-profit environmental organization, Environment Erie, where she served as education director. Pat currently works at the Erie Neighborhood Art House (NAH), a ministry of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, which provides classes in the visual, performing, and literary arts to at-risk children in Erie.

In particular, Pat has worked tirelessly to mitigate climate change and to transition the commonwealth away from fossil fuels toward clean energy. She has been interviewed about her advocacy work, penned numerous opinion pieces, and presented testimony before various bodies on climate change.

Best known for: Articulating the importance of conservation through her faith perspective and the moral obligation to protect the planet from harm.

PennFuture is honoring Sister Pat this month with the Celebrating Women in Conservation Award for her commitment to environmental activism and her achievements in conservation in Pennsylvania. 
The event is Wednesday, March 23 at 10am at the Erie Art Museum. The event is open to the public but registration is required by Friday, March 18. The event is co-sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation and the Erie Art Museum.

Katie Bartolotta is southeastern Pennsylvania outreach coordinator for PennFuture and is based in Philadelphia. She tweets @KatieBartolotta.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Shale & Public Health: A conversation that's not fading away

The League of Women Voters of PA presented its third annual Shale & Public Health Conference in Pittsburgh on November 18, and what's abundantly clear is that the nexus of natural gas drilling and public health in Pennsylvania is a subject of continued interest and debate.

A packed room at the University of Pittsburgh's University Club heard a succession of speakers weigh in on impacts to public health from fracking activity in the Marcellus Shale region ranging from compromised air quality to poor outcomes in newborns.

Dr. Bruce Pitt, department chair, University
of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health
Dr. Bruce Pitt, department chair of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, is participating in leading research to better assess perinatal outcomes for mothers in natural gas drilling regions. He noted that there is a fetal basis for adult diseases that can be traced back to the environmental experiences of the mother. Dr. Pitt's current studies are focused on Washington, Butler and Westmoreland counties in southwestern PA -- a heavily-fracked region -- and are showing an increased incidence of babies that are small for gestational age as well as premature births. Dr. Pitt further noted that we need more studies over "an extended period of time" to better assess the public health impacts of natural gas development, and that a 30-year cycle of study makes sense to allow for a full life cycle of fracking plus longer-forming diseases such as certain cancers.

The Southwestern Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project's Dr. Jill Kriesky reiterated the need for a registry on the health impacts of fracking in PA. "We need a [fracking] health registry since researchers have determined that there are public health impacts from this activity," said Kriesky. "The goal is for Pennsylvania to have a robust health registry other states would want to replicate so we have this data across the country."

Dr. Brian Schwartz of Johns Hopkins University is the lead on the much-discussed Geisinger study of health impacts in the fracking regions of northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA). The Geisinger Health System, which has a large presence in NEPA, has an abundance of well-tracked data, making it a good candidate for study. "By using Geisinger data, we're studying the data of people in [fracking] impacted counties," noted Schwartz, adding that the National Institutes of Health is funding three studies to date that are looking at environmental issues and associated health outcomes. One study's key takeaway: An association between fracking and pre-term birth that is 40 percent higher, "conservatively," in fracking regions. Schwartz's continuing research includes studying asthma exacerbation in drilling regions (the disease's latency is short, making it an ideal vehicle to assess fracking impacts) as well as the study of certain cancers including leukemia and tumors.

Dr. Bernard Goldstein, emeritus dean and
professor, Pitt Graduate School of Public Health
Dr. Bernard Goldstein, the emeritus dean and professor of the Pitt Graduate School of Public Health, touched down in Pittsburgh the night before the conference after spending the fall teaching in Cologne, Germany. Consequently, he honed in on the differences in how fracking is viewed in the U.S. and the EU. While European countries with large shale reserves are keen to drill, their public is largely opposed. That's in stark counterpoint to the U.S., where it's unlikely that we'll completely abandon fossil fuels, thereby making it ever clearer that we have to get drilling right for the sake of public health and the environment. Dr. Goldstein continued: "We have not had the oversight we need in Pennsylvania [on shale gas development]. No one on Gov. Corbett's Marcellus Shale Advisory Committee had a public health background."

It was clear after a full day of speakers and breakout sessions that the conversation in PA on shale gas drilling is fluid. However, much more has been learned, especially about the harmful air pollution related to fracking that is leading to negative health outcomes for Pennsylvanians, including our most vulnerable populations.

Consequently, we should continue to push for the strongest possible rules to address air pollution from natural gas drilling including methane emissions from both new and existing sources. Absent strong protections and strict enforcement, we will not be able to ensure good public health and a safe environment.

Elaine Labalme is strategic campaigns director for PennFuture and is based in Pittsburgh. She tweets @NewGirlInTown.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

All across the U.S., the talk is about "existing sources"

I had the pleasure, and privilege, of participating in a national methane fly-in on November 4-6 in Washington, D.C. Lest you think we flew methane-spewing drones over our nation's capital, this was actually a collection of 35 advocates from 10 states who met to discuss the issue of harmful methane pollution from the oil and gas sector. We also met with our elected leaders to urge them to support the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) recently proposed rule to cut methane emissions from new and modified sources in the oil and gas sector including oil and gas wells and compressor stations.

The Pennsylvania delegation on its way to a White House meeting, from L-R: Patrice Tomcik, Western Pa. Field Organizer, Moms Clean Air Force; Dr. Evelyn Talbott, University of Pittsburgh; Dr. Marsha Haley, UPMC; Lois Bower-Bjornson, parent-activist, Washington County, Pa.; Matt Walker, Community Outreach Director, Clean Air Council; and Elaine Labalme, Strategic Campaigns Director, PennFuture.

And there's the rub. While we applaud the EPA for taking this important first step -- and it's certainly a step in the right direction -- the bulk of the methane pollution problem is from existing sources of emissions, or oil and gas wells that are here today, not waiting to be drilled tomorrow. By 2018, it is expected that 90 percent of methane pollution in the oil and gas sector will come from existing sources of emissions. In Pennsylvania, the second-largest natural gas producing state in the nation, that numbers thousands upon thousands of wells.

It was validating to hear that environmental advocates from as far away as New Mexico, Montana and North Dakota are just as concerned as we are in Pennsylvania around existing sources of methane pollution. These harmful emissions contribute to negative public health outcomes such as asthma attacks in children and lung and heart disease in seniors and those in under-served communities; are a wasted natural resource in that the $1 billion of methane emissions in 2013 could have heated five million U.S. homes and returned revenue to local communities; and exacerbate climate change as methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas with 86 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after its release into the atmosphere.

Forget the triple bottom line -- methane pollution is a disastrous triad for public health, the economy and the environment.

Here in Pennsylvania, we continue to call on Gov. Tom Wolf to launch a rulemaking for the direct regulation of methane emissions in Pennsylvania from new, modified and existing sources in the oil and gas sector.

In Washington, D.C. last week, our 10-state group of advocates -- which included representatives from labor, faith, parent and environmental groups along with passionate members of the Native American community -- had the opportunity to meet with representatives of the EPA's Bureau of Air Quality and urge the agency to expand its proposed methane rule to cover existing sources as well.

This is a fight we must win, and I was honored to stand alongside like-minded individuals in our nation's capital who were unafraid to sound the call for comprehensive, essential methane rules to protect our citizens and communities.

Elaine Labalme is strategic campaigns director for PennFuture and is based in Pittsburgh. She tweets @NewGirlInTown.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Let's do this: Time to enact proposed revisions to PA oil and gas rules

While Pennsylvania's Oil and Gas Technical Advisory Board (TAB) said YES on October 27 to moving proposed revisions to the state's oil and gas rules on to the Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board (EQB), it wasn't before asking for even more time to review a suite of standards that has been in the works for almost five years and already been subject to two public comment periods that generated over 30,000 comments.

The five voting members of the TAB, several of whom have ties to the oil and gas industry, floated a resolution after an exhaustive, five-hour briefing on the proposed rules by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The resolution would allow TAB to present a report to the EQB on the proposed rules at a later date, a report which will not incorporate comments from the TAB's four non-voting members, who represent community and environmental groups and other non-industry constituencies.

Are you keeping up? We can't blame you if you're not as the process to revise the state's oil and gas rules has been fraught with the threat of industry-backed lawsuits, needless delays, and the flat-out dismissal of the public interest by oil and gas industry lobbyists -- this despite strong public support for updated rules to cover everything from leaky centralized wastewater impoundments to the proximity of drilling activity to public resources that would include schools and playgrounds.

Oh yeah, did we say that these rules need to be finalized by March 2016 or the whole MULTI-YEAR-LONG process starts all over again?

The oil and gas industry, and those who are enabling its misguided efforts around these rules in Pennsylvania, need to stop delaying what has been a thorough and exhaustive process and move forward in support of updated standards that will help ensure clean air and water for Pennsylvanians while helping to protect public health and the environment.

Elaine Labalme is strategic campaigns director for PennFuture and is based in Pittsburgh.