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DEP investigating air quality complaints near Monessen Coke Plant
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The state Department of Environmental Protection is investigating emissions coming from the newly restarted Monessen Coke Plant after the agency received five air quality complaints from nearby residents since the facility began operating again last month.

The plant officially restarted coke production Sept. 14 after going into “hot idle” in June 2020 while temporarily closing, and flaring and other emissions can once again be seen emanating from the plant on Donner Avenue in the city.

DEP spokeswoman Lauren Fraley said the agency has been working with plant operator Cleveland-Cliffs Inc. of Ohio and has a contractor at the site to “observe visible emissions” after receiving the complaints recently.

“As part of DEP’s process to investigate complaints it receives, DEP has requested information from Cleveland-Cliffs on its operations since the restart, including information on coking and flaring, and will be conducting off-site and on-site inspections,” Fraley said in an email statement.

Protect PT, a local environmental group based in Harrison City, has also been monitoring the situation after volunteers canvassed nearly 500 households in Monessen and Rostraver Township over two days last week to ask residents about air quality problems.

“This is just another layer of pollution that these residents are already facing,” said Protect PT Executive Director Gillian Graber, who was part of the canvassing team. “Residents feel like they can’t go outside and are confined to their homes.”

Last week’s canvassing had been scheduled long before the coke plant restarted operations after the group sent surveys to 7,000 households in Rostraver Township last year asking about potential environmental issues involving the nearby Westmoreland County Landfill. Graber said they also questioned people last week about potential issues with the coke plant after some residents reported black soot appearing on their properties.

One of those Rostraver Township residents, Jack Kruell, said he noticed in late August or early September an overnight event in which vegetables in his garden were damaged and a black substance appeared on roads and sidewalks near his Johnson Avenue home. While that event happened before the coke plant officially restarted, he’s unsure if there were other activities happening there as the ovens were brought out of hot idle. Kruell took samples that he plans to have tested this week to help determine the origin of the black substance.

“It’s everywhere. And of course you look at people’s gardens, leaves, etc., it was not just my phenomenon here,” Kruell said. “This will be the fingerprint of the source. We have a big problem here.”

Kruell said he has been in contact with the compliance officer at the Monessen Coke Plant, and feels like the company is attempting to address his concerns.

“This hasn’t happened in quite some time here. It was clean here,” he said.

The DEP said it’s not unusual for operators to test equipment as part of their restart plan, although it was not known what may have been reactivated before coking resumed Sept. 14.

“It would be typical for maintenance activities to take place and natural gas boilers to restart before coking begins again,” Fraley said.

Cleveland-Cliffs spokeswoman Pat Persico said they have been working with DEP and are currently in compliance following an “audit” by the environmental agency on Sept. 30. Persico said they were informed of the complaints by area residents and have worked to fix any issues.

“We’re aware of those (and) we’ve addressed those,” Persico said. “We’re in good standing.”

Protect PT is now installing air monitors at homes in the area and encouraging residents who notice problems to report air quality issues using the Report PT app that can be downloaded on the group’s website at www.protectpt.org. There is additional information on the group’s website on how to document problems and report them to the DEP and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Because Westmoreland County does not have a health department, we’re getting left to fend for ourselves when it comes to the impact from industry. It shows why industry needs to be held in check,” Graber said. “We’re just not getting the attention in Westmoreland County that we deserve. These residents are getting left behind.”

The Monessen Coke Plant was part of a $1.4 billion acquisition when its previous operator, ArcelorMittal, was sold to Cleveland-Cliffs last October. Cleveland-Cliffs announced in June it was bringing back 100 workers from the idled Monessen facility and planned to restart production in August.

Pipeline developer charged over systematic contamination
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The corporate developer of a multi-billion-dollar pipeline system that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia was charged criminally on Tuesday after a grand jury concluded that it flouted Pennsylvania environmental laws and fouled waterways and residential water supplies across hundreds of miles.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced the sprawling case at a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, where Sunoco Pipeline LP spilled thousands of gallons of drilling fluid last year. The spill, during construction of the troubled Mariner East 2 pipeline, contaminated wetlands, a stream and part of a 535-acre lake.

Energy Transfer, Sunoco’s owner, faces 48 criminal charges, most of them for illegally releasing industrial waste at 22 sites in 11 counties across the state. A felony count accuses the operator of willfully failing to report spills to state environmental regulators.

Shapiro said Energy Transfer ruined the drinking water of at least 150 families statewide, releasing a grand jury report that includes testimony from numerous residents who accused Energy Transfer of denying responsibility for the contamination and then refusing to help.

The Texas-based pipeline giant was charged for “illegal behavior that related to the construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline that polluted our lakes, our rivers and our water wells and put Pennsylvania’s safety at risk,” said Shapiro, speaking with Marsh Creek Lake behind him.

Messages were sent to Energy Transfer seeking comment. The company has previously said it intends to defend itself.

The company faces a fine if convicted, which Shapiro said was not a sufficient punishment. He called on state lawmakers to toughen penalties on corporate violators, and said the state Department of Environmental Protection – which spent freely on outside lawyers for its own employees during the attorney general’s investigation – had failed to conduct appropriate oversight.

Residents who live near the pipeline and some state lawmakers said Mariner East should be shut down entirely in light of the criminal charges, but the administration of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has long ignored such calls to pull the plug. There was no immediate comment from Wolf’s DEP.

The August 2020 spill at Marsh Creek was among a series of mishaps that has plagued Mariner East since construction began in 2017. Early reports put the spill at 8,100 gallons, but the grand jury heard evidence the actual loss was up to 28,000 gallons. Parts of the lake are still off-limits.

“This was a major incident, but understand, it wasn’t an isolated one. This happened all across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” said Shapiro, a Democrat who plans to run for governor next year. He said that spills of drilling fluid were “frequent and damaging and largely unreported.”

The pipeline developer continued to rack up civil violations even after Mariner East became one of the most penalized projects in state history. To date, Energy Transfer has paid more than $16.4 million in fines for polluting waterways and drinking water wells, including a $12.6 million fine in 2018 that was one of the largest ever imposed by the Department of Environmental Protection. State regulators have periodically shut down construction.

But environmental activists and homeowners who assert their water has been fouled say that fines and shutdown orders have not forced Sunoco to clean up its act. They have been demanding revocation of Mariner East’s permits.

Carrie Gross, who has been living with the roar of Mariner East construction in her densely packed Exton neighborhood all day, six days a week, for much of the last four years, fears that criminal charges will be just as ineffectual as DEP’s civil penalties.

“I would say this is just another example of Energy Transfer paying to pollute, and that’s part of their cost of doing business. Until somebody permanently halts this project, our environment and our lives continue to be in danger,” Gross said.

The dental hygienist lives about 100 feet from the pipelines and works about 50 feet from them. She said she worries about the persistent threat of sinkholes, a catastrophic rupture or an explosion even after construction is over.

Shapiro’s news conference was originally rescheduled for Monday, but was abruptly postponed after the state environmental agency provided last-minute information to the attorney general’s office. The new information led to the filing of two additional charges, Shapiro said.

Energy Transfer acknowledged in a recent earnings report that the attorney general has been looking at “alleged criminal misconduct” involving Mariner East. The company said in the document it was cooperating but that “it intends to vigorously defend itself.”

The various criminal probes into Mariner East have also consumed DEP, which has spent about $1.57 million on outside criminal defense lawyers for its employees between 2019 and 2021, according to invoices obtained by The Associated Press.

The money was paid to five separate law firms representing dozens of DEP employees who dealt with Mariner East. Together, the firms submitted more than 130 invoices related to Mariner East investigations, performing legal work such as reviewing subpoenas and preparing clients to testify, the documents show.

When Mariner East construction permits were approved in 2017, environmental advocacy groups accused the Wolf administration of violating the law and warned pipeline construction would unleash massive and irreparable damage to Pennsylvania’s environment and residents.

The Mariner East pipeline system transports propane, ethane and butane from the enormous Marcellus Shale and Utica Shale gas fields in western Pennsylvania to a refinery processing center and export terminal in Marcus Hook, outside Philadelphia.

Energy Transfer also operates the Dakota Access oil pipeline, which went into service in 2017 after months of protests by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and others during its construction.

Washington district switches to remote learning at high school as COVID cases rise
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Washington School District’s Junior-Senior High School students will be switching to virtual, at-home synchronous learning Wednesday through Friday in an effort to slow the spread of positive COVID-19 cases in the building.

In addition, all extracurricular activities at the junior-senior high school, including athletics, band, and the Prexie Center, a social and tutoring program, will be canceled for the rest of the week, starting at 3 p.m. Tuesday.

The elementary school is unaffected.

The school district plans to reopen for in-person learning at the junior-senior high school on Monday.

Dr. James Konrad, superintendent, said the number of COVID-10 cases has spiked to 44, or 7.2%, as of Monday, with 13 additional cases since Friday.

“With an increase such as that in a few days, we are being precautionary and strategic to close for a few days, and do another deep clean of the building,” Konrad said. “I have been in constant contact with our district physician and the state Department of Health and they support this closure.”

The decision also comes after a recommendation from the school district’s pandemic team.

Konrad said the district plans to revisit the numbers next week to determine if any additional virtual learning days will be required.

Washington Park School will remain open, and elementary school students there will continue with in-person classes.

Washington Area Career and Technology Center students will be responsible for finding transportation to the center while the junior-senior high school is closed.

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases in Washington, Fayette and Greene counties remains high, according to the Centers for Disease Control and the state Department of Health.

In Washington County, an average of 124 cases were reported each day over the past seven days, with 100 new cases reported on Monday.

In Fayette County, the seven-day average number of cases was 79, with 53 new cases added Monday. The number of COVID-19 cases increased 38% from the average two weeks ago, according to state health officials.

Greene County’s average number of cases remain extremely high, with a seven day average of 21 cases.

Nationwide, the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations has fallen.

As of Oct. 5, there were 4,019 additional positive cases of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania, bringing the statewide total to 1,453,387, according to the DOH.

Locally, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has risen in Washington, Greene and Fayette counties, as the trend in the 14-day moving average number of hospitalized patients in Pennsylvania continues to increase.

Currently, 2,882 Pennsylvanians are hospitalized with COVID-19, with 682 of those patients in the ICU.

So far, 29,611 Pennsylvanians have died from COVID-19. The DOH reports 356 deaths in Washington County, 358 deaths in Fayette County, and 49 deaths in Greene County.

The U.S. COVID-19 death toll has surpassed 700,000, making it the deadliest pandemic in U.S. history.

About 69.1% of Pennsylvanians age 18 and older are fully vaccinated.

The DOH noted all Pennsylvanians ages 12 and older are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, which are safe and more than 95% effective at preventing severe illness or death from the virus.

According to the CDC, as of Monday, Pennsylvania ranks fifth among all 50 states for total doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered.