Your Environment Update for June 25, 2015

  • Fresh broccoli at a farmstand in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. Photo: egrodziak via Flickr

In this week’s Environment Update: Shell clears the air quality permit hurdle for its new ethane cracker, what the California drought means for Great Lakes farmers, and what one environmental group is saying about Pennsylvania's poor record of investigating fracking-related health complaints.

Health Department Called Out Over Fracking Complaints

The environmental group Food and Water Watch says the Pennsylvania Department of Health isn’t doing all it could when it comes to investigating fracking-related health complaints. The group examined four years of records between 2011 and 2015 and found 86 fracking-related complaints.

Linda Headley of Fayette County filed one of the complaints. She says that when drilling started near her home, she and her son started getting sick. So she called the health department, but they only documented some of their health problems.

“I was diagnosed with chemically-induced asthma. They did not put that my son has stomach cramps, he gets rashes, nosebleeds,” Headley says.

Headley says the health department records also got a lot of facts wrong. For one, the records say the Department of Environmental Protection did air sampling near her property. Headley says that never happened.

The health department records don’t prove a connection between drilling activities and illness. But Scott Edwards of Food and Water Watch says they do show that the health department did not properly respond to the complaints.

“Instead of going out there and doing a proper investigation into these complaints, most people mostly got a ‘Thank you for calling, you should go see your doctor,’ or ‘Have you called the DEP and asked them to go out and do some testing?'" Edwards says.

A spokesperson for the health department told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that the department is "committed to thoroughly investigating every environmental health complaint the department receives." The department says it is also reviewing its protocol.

Shell Closer to Building Ethane Cracker

Check one more box off the list for Shell’s proposed plan to build an ethane cracker near Pittsburgh. The company got several environmental permits from the state this week, including the all-important air quality permit.

An ethane cracker takes natural gas and breaks it up into smaller molecules that are used to make plastics. The company says the permits were a big milestone, especially the air quality permit.

John Poister, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection, says Pittsburgh’s air already falls below federal clean air guidelines. So Shell has to meet strict pollution controls to ensure the region’s air doesn’t get any worse.

“They have to show that the public would not be exposed to undue risks from any potential emissions from the plant,” Poister says.

To do this the company has to buy pollution reduction credits. Joseph Minott of the Clean Air Council says these are important, but that the DEP could have done more.

“This doesn't change the fact that this is a humongous pollution source and is going to have an impact on that community,” Minott says.

Minott says the DEP could have made Shell monitor for pollution in the neighborhood around the plant. Local officials in Beaver County, where the plant would be built, have expressed support for the plan.

Now the decision over whether to build the cracker is in Shell's hands. The company says it hasn’t made that decision yet.

Reporting by Reid Frazier

California Drought Gives a Boost to Great Lakes Farmers

The ongoing drought in California is starting to mean more business for farmers around the Great Lakes. In New York, broccoli farmers lost their business to California 30 years ago. Now, they’re being asked to fill the void. And  some agricultural experts say the water restrictions out west are reducing milk production—which also looks to be increasing the market for milk producers in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Reporting by Julie Grant