Yonker well site

A view of the Yonker well site near the Fort Cherry School District campus.

An environmental group is cautioning against trusting an air-quality study that shale gas driller Range Resources commissioned at a well site in Mt. Pleasant Township.

High on the list of criticisms from Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project – a nonprofit based in Peters Township – were that the firm Range Resources chose to study air quality near its Yonker well pad, Gradient Corp., has a track record of apparent coziness with corporate and industry clients. Gradient analyzed two years of air-quality data gathered by monitors near the Yonker well pad, less than a mile from the Fort Cherry School District campus.

“It was clear to us that it’s a completely invalid study, based on the reputation of the organization that was hired to do the study,” said Raina Rippel, director of EHP.

The group published a point-by-point response to the Gradient study at the end of May. At the top of a press release three weeks earlier, Range had trumpeted Gradient’s report – which has yet to undergo peer review – as showing “no health impacts from shale development.”

That wasn’t the reason the firm was hired in this case, Range said. A company spokesman pointed to the qualifications of Chris Long, a Gradient scientist involved in the report.

“Chris Long has done work for a lot of industries,” Mark Windle said. “He does a lot of work for state environmental agencies, and he’s done work for us. But the reason we hired him ... he is one of the most qualified toxicologists and scientists in this space.”

No one from Gradient returned a message left at the firm’s office in Cambridge, Mass., last week.

A major bone of contention for EHP – whose review team included toxicologist David Brown, research and communication specialist Beth Weinberger and Nathan Ribar, environmental educator for the group – was that none of the monitors were downwind from the Yonker pad.

Two of those sites were located between the pad and the campus to the northwest. A third was placed to the southwest.

The prevailing wind in that area blows east and northeast.

“You’re not going to capture the majority of emissions coming off of a source if you site the monitor upwind of an emission source,” Rippel said.

Gradient analyzed data on levels of fine particulate matter and volatile organic compounds between December 2016, the month before drilling began, and October 2018, a year after the Yonker wells entered production. The researchers concluded that the recorded amounts of pollutants were “consistently below” levels that should cause concern.

While representatives for Range and the authors of Gradient’s report said those findings aligned with previous research on air quality near fracking sites, other scientists’ conclusions have suggested the overall health effects of the industry are something other than benign.

One 2017 study found babies near frack sites in Pennsylvania were more likely to weigh less and show other negative health symptoms than peers living farther away.

EHP also said the monitors’ placement outside of the campus for a study measuring risks at the schools, and Gradient’s reliance on averages – rather than instances when emissions were at their highest – made its conclusions questionable.

Representatives for the driller insisted on their validity.

Mark Wayner, manager of field environmental compliance for the company, said the standards that Gradient used are the same ones followed by environmental regulators.

Echoing language in the firm’s 36-page report, they also posited that because of the high number of other active frack wells in that area – 160 of them within five miles – the implications extended beyond the Yonker pad.

“The objective always has been to show any potential impacts from our operations on the school district to those vulnerable populations of students,” Windle said. “But, not by design, we ended up taking a full-scale, cumulative look at probably the most densely developed part of the Marcellus shale.”

Range said it sought the study to address health concerns raised by parents and others during the approval process for the Yonker pad. Range representatives said the company sought approval to place monitors on school property but ran out of time.

District Superintendent Jill Jacoby didn’t return messages.

Rippel said she didn’t want the report Range commissioned to be used to promote its interests in other contexts.

“I think this raises serious concerns about the validity of this study, and at EHP we are concerned if this study were to show up as a justification in future hearings or other legal matters,” she said.

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