Earthworks

Lax state permitting of oil and gas operations undermines air quality & public health

State and industry records show industry ‘games’ the regulatory system to avoid scrutiny while regulators look the other way

February 28, 2017

Clean Air Council * Clean Water Action * Earthworks * Moms Clean Air Force

Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Feb 28 -- A groundbreaking analysis reveals the way the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) enforces the federal Clean Air Act can actually undermine air quality and public health. Permitted to Pollute: how oil & gas operators and regulators exploit clean air protections and put the public at risk investigates the impact of a common regulatory practice: allowing operators to expand and change processing and compression facilities under older permits designed for smaller, more limited activities.

“It’s no surprise that oil and gas companies game the system to avoid laws and regulations requiring them to operate more cleanly,” said report author and Earthworks’ Eastern Program Coordinator Nadia Steinzor. She continued, “It is a surprise that DEP regulators, deliberately or not, are participating in this process which is risking Pennsylvanians’ health.”

Permitted to Pollute is the product of a year-long investigation in two parts:

  1. Researching the operations and permitting history of facilities. File reviews at DEP revealed how oil and gas operators seek authorization for their activities, how DEP permits shifting activities at facilities, and how pollution from each facility is, and isn’t, tracked.

  2. Identifying patterns of air pollution exposure for nearby residents. Certified thermographers, using industry-standard infrared cameras, recorded normally invisible volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other pollution from each facility. Air samples taken near each facility using Summa canisters were analyzed by an independent accredited lab.

“This research confirms that oil and gas air pollution is likely much worse than operators and DEP ever own up to,” said Joe Minott, Clean Air Council’s Executive Director and Chief Counsel. “The state must put public health first by enforcing the law and requiring operators to fully measure and significantly reduce their emissions."

Earthworks’ investigation found that operators of three separate gas facilities in Southwestern Pennsylvania regularly and systematically sought separate permits for multiple sub-facilities at each plant. This practice should have, at a minimum, quickly triggered DEP’s consideration of reclassifying each plant from a “minor” to a “major” air pollution source under the federal Clean Air Act. “Major” sources require federal permits and far greater scrutiny and public transparency during both permitting and operation than do “minor” sources.

"In the wake of EPA's determination that Pennsylvania's monitoring of water systems is insufficient, Earthworks' study raises concerns that the same lack of oversight is also happening within the air program," said Steve Hvozdovich, Pennsylvania Campaigns Director for Clean Water Action. “It's counterproductive to the protection of health and the environment for the state to allow the oil and gas industry to continue to expand while at the same time continuing to disinvest in oversight."

Earthworks’ air sampling at the three project sites revealed the presence of dozens of polluting chemicals related to oil and gas operations, including some that were above health exposure limits. Yet neither operators nor DEP test the air around wells and facilities to determine risks to workers and residents.

"The current permitting process for oil and gas facilities is not protective of human health, especially the health of children," said Patrice Tomcik, Field Organizer for Moms Clean Air Force. “Many compression and processing facilities are located near homes, schools, and parks where young bodies can be assaulted by harmful air pollutants, and facilities that leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas pollutant. As a mother living in Butler County with gas operations, my children and all Pennsylvania’s children deserve the most protective pollution controls available."

“With the Trump Administration moving to hamstring the US Environmental Protection Agency and gut enforcement of federal health and safety laws, state regulation of oil and gas operations becomes ever more important,” said Earthworks energy program director Bruce Baizel. He continued, “Unfortunately our research shows that Pennsylvania regulators aren’t doing what it takes to put air quality and health before oil and gas industry profits. And other research shows that Pennsylvania is by no means unique in this regard.”


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Tagged with: regulation, permitted to pollute, pennsylvania department of environmental protection, pennsylvania, air pollution

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