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Hearings enable residents to speak on methane emissions

Vanessa Lynch and her husband moved back to the Pittsburgh region following his military service. They thought it was a good place to nurture a family.

This is no longer Smoky City Pittsburgh, but she has concerns.

“Pennsylvania is now the second-largest producer of natural gas in the nation, and thus is a significant producer of air pollution, including methane. A recent analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund finds methane in (the state) is leaked 16 times more than what is reported by the oil and gas industry.

“When we moved back ... we expected to do so in a healthy and safe environment. We did not expect to have sacrificed so much to ensure the safety of our country, only to return home and not have our own community working to protect us and our children in return.”

Lynch expressed her sentiments Wednesday during a virtual public hearing on a proposed rule to control volatile organic compounds emissions from oil and natural gas sources.

For three hours Tuesday through Thursday, Pennsylvanians could testify at hearings conducted by the Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board, an independent 20-member panel that adopts Department of Environmental Protection regulations. State DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell chairs the board.

Testimony focused on a VOC-related rule that was recommended by Gov. Tom Wolf, drafted by the DEP, then approved by EQB by an 18-1 vote in mid-December. It awaits final approval. The rule’s intent is to reduce methane leaks and improve leak detection.

VOCs, by definition, “are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids and include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors.”

The federal Environmental Protection Agency said numerous VOCs “are human-made chemicals that are used and produced in the manufacture of paints, pharmaceuticals and refrigerants.”

EQB estimates that under the proposed rule, VOC emissions would decrease annually by 4,400 tons and methane emissions by more than 75,000 tons.

Lynch is a Pennsylvania field organizer with Moms Clean Air Force, a national environmental advocacy group. She was among more than 100 people statewide to provide testimony.

Rajani Vaidyanathan, an electrical engineer from Allegheny County, testified: “In these times of COVID-19, which is a respiratory syndrome, it behooves us to pay more attention to our air quality … I have a metabolic syndrome and my spouse has hypertension, so we really need you, the DEP, to help us be safe in these times with better air pollution controls.”

Karen Knutson testified that she lives in Indiana Township, in a largely rural section of Allegheny County, and spends time in rural Mercer County. She said she has seen “lots of small producing gas wells and they almost seem to accompany every other farm. The tanks are rusty. The wells are old. They are not too far from the house.”

Patrick Henderson of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an oil and gas industry trade organization, testified Thursday evening. He said: “Pennsylvania’s shale gas industry takes seriously its responsibility to operate safely and efficiently and prides itself in going above and beyond federal and state environmental standards. After all, our employees live in our local communities, and have a vested interest in ensuring that our water, land and air resources are protected and enhanced.”

He included about a half-dozen bullet points on the upside of natural gas. Among them were: Since 1990, domestic natural gas production has risen 50% while methane emissions have declined 43%; gas is generating 40% of Pennsylvania’s electricity today compared with 1% in 2000; and VOCs from power generation have fallen 33% since 2005, about the time shale gas began to boom in Pennsylvania.

Henderson closed by saying that as DEP “moves forward with this rule-making, we encourage all parties to recognize these benefits and foster policies to encourage the continued development and use of Pennsylvania’s natural resources.”

Lynch said 79 individuals provided testimony Tuesday and Wednesday, and 73 were in favor of the VOC/methane rule-making.


Coronavirus
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COVID-19 frustrations, misconceptions continue to grow like a virus

West Virginia state Sen. John Unger has seen the effects of COVID-19. A good friend of his, David Sanders, is fighting for his life and is currently in critical condition, using a ventilator as he battles the virus.

“I’ve heard people say that it’s a hoax,” Unger said. “Well, you tell that to his family then. I absolutely know it’s not a hoax. There are these people who think we never landed on the moon, and there are people who believe the world is flat.”

Unger has been a senator representing Jefferson and Berkley counties in West Virginia for 20 years. He’s also a pastor of three different churches.

“My constituents and my parishioners are being impacted by this,” he said. “It’s devastating. The bottom line is I know it’s real because I know people have been impacted by it, and I’m not able to visit them as a pastor.”

Unger said he suspects that people who vocalize a disbelief in the pandemic are frustrated with the government and inconsistencies with handling and reporting the pandemic.

“I can understand the sentiment that people don’t trust the government,” he said. “I don’t trust the government, and I’m an elected official.”

One of those inconsistencies, he said, is the way the states shut down in March. Yet now that numbers are starting to climb again in many reopened states, governors are refusing to shut things down again.

“So I guess people are questioning if they’re not doing anything about it now, why did they do anything about it in the first place?” Unger said. “It’s inconsistent messaging. It leads people to doubt and they can’t make rational decisions.”

In more rural regions, like Alpena, Mich., case numbers were lower recently than they were last month. That’s one reason why Mike Centala, a farmer in Alpena County, thinks the COVID-19 restrictions in his county should not have been the same restrictions as in more densely populated areas.

He said he believes the pandemic was “overblown.”

“We have really bad flu seasons, but this has been magnified so much that people are scared,” he said. “The flu can kill you, too, if you’re not healthy or have pre-existing conditions.”

Centala suspects the coronavirus “went through” his area in late January and early February, as some of his family members were ill with a dry cough.

“I believe it’s over in this area,” he said. “Could it come back? Sure.”

Unger, however, is adamant that the virus isn’t over. In fact, he believes there are more cases of coronavirus in his state than what is being reported. He also believes that there isn’t enough testing.

“This game’s not over yet,” he said. “We may not even be in the second half yet.”

Carrie Brainard, public information officer for the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department, said she’s seen people on social media say that they believe the dangers of the pandemic were exaggerated.

“It’s a pandemic – it’s a new thing, and they’re still working through what is and isn’t going to happen with it,” Brainard said. “My concern is that we don’t want the public to get complacent and start thinking that, since people are surviving, it’s over with.”

There’s a “misconception,” Brainard said, that if people were sick in January, they are likely immune to the novel coronavirus.

“But they haven’t seen that to be the case with COVID-19,” she said. “To assume that is not a wise idea.”

She also said people assume that because they don’t often get the flu in the summertime, they won’t contract coronavirus during the summer.

“Because the case numbers have gone down and stayed low, people think it’s over,” Brainard said.

Her department, which covers a six-county region with about 160,000 people, has only reported 79 positive cases since the pandemic began, Brainard said. Those low numbers could change, however, if people stop taking precautions, she said.

“We’re now seeing in West Virginia, people are coming back from Myrtle Beach, which is a hot spot at the moment, and they’re coming back with COVID-19 because they didn’t social distance or wear a mask while they were there,” Brainard said. “It is an inconvenience to have to wear a mask, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

In the Eastern Panhandle, Unger said that “hardly anyone” is wearing masks anymore, while just across the border, in Maryland, people are required to wear them.

“That virus doesn’t stop at county lines,” he said. “We’re playing a very dangerous game in acting like nothing is happening.”

In Pennsylvania, which has reopened with capacity and social distancing restrictions, Gov. Tom Wolf is strongly encouraging people to continue wearing masks.

“Mask-wearing needs to be a part of our everyday routines,” he said in a news release. “When you leave the house, grab your keys, your wallet and your mask. Mask-wearing has proven to be an important deterrent to the spread of the virus, and keeping Pennsylvanians safe and healthy is the goal as we reopen and continue our mitigation efforts.”

Rep. Pam Snyder, in Pennsylvania’s 50th legislative district, said since the pandemic began, she’s been on weekly calls with White House representatives and multiple federal agencies about measures and precautions to take at the state level.

“The federal government believes that this is real, and we all need to do our part, or at least the best we can, until a vaccine or treatment can be found,” Snyder said. “We’re all starved for getting back to our lives. I just think it’s important that we all be responsible citizens.”


Coronavirus
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Washington, Greene report new COVID-19 cases

Washington County saw its number of new COVID-19 cases rise again as 14 more were reported, according to statistics released Sunday by the Pennsylvania Department of Health. The new cases bring the total for Washington County to 211 since data began being collected in March.

Greene County had four new cases for a total case count of 39, and Fayette County gained five new cases for a total of 111.

In Allegheny County, the Pennsylvania Department of Health reported 96 new cases but no additional deaths, for a total of 2,568 cases and 183 virus fatalities.

State health department figures released Sunday afternoon showed an additional 505 positive cases of COVID-19, bringing the statewide total to 85,496. Approximately 6,484 of the total cases are health care workers.

The virus killed an additional three people statewide, bringing total deaths to 6,606. Six of those occurred in Washington County while Greene County continues to have no COVID-19 deaths.

“As nearly the entire state is now in the green phase, we must remain committed to protecting against COVID-19,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said in a release issued Sunday. “Pennsylvania has been a model for the country on how to reopen effectively using a careful, measured approach. However, the virus has not gone away. Each of us has a responsibility to continue to protect ourselves, our loved ones and others by wearing a mask, maintaining social distancing and washing our hands frequently. Together we can protect our most vulnerable Pennsylvanians, our essential workers and our healthcare system.”