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Pennsylvania panel to examine drilling impacts on poor communities

Pennsylvania’s Office of Environmental Justice, all but moribund during the administration of then-Gov. Tom Corbett, gets new life this week with the appointment of a director and a mandate to review, for the first time, shale gas facilities that could increase the health and environmental risks in poor and minority communities.

Whether those expanded reviews will reduce those risks in so-called environmental justice communities, where almost 500 wells have already been drilled, is much less certain.

Environmental justice communities are defined as those where at least 20 percent of the population is living below the poverty line or 30 percent are non-white. The DEP’s 2014 state environmental justice map identifies 851 communities or municipalities that meet that criteria, including many in Cambria, Fayette, Forest, Greene, Potter and Washington counties, where numerous shale gas drilling and development sites exist.

John Quigley, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said last week that the Office of Environmental Justice’s mission will be “rebuilt from the ground up,” including the addition of shale gas development permit applications to a “trigger list” the office has used to determine when to provide such communities with enhanced notification, information and public participation opportunities.

“Shale gas was removed from the trigger permit list and that was not a defensible action” Mr. Quigley said. “That’s going to be changed. Whether it’s a gas well or compressor station permit application, it will trigger an appropriate review.”

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Pennsylvania established an environmental justice office within the DEP in 2002, after the department was sued for approving five waste disposal permits in the largely African-American community of Chester, Delaware County, near Philadelphia. It also was done in response to concerns that poor and minority communities often face serious health and environmental risks because facilities like landfills, power plants, factories and coal mines are disproportionately located in those places.

As of the end of September, 489, or 5.2 percent, of the 9,444 shale gas wells in the state could be found in environmental justice communities, according to both the DEP and Fractracker Alliance. The latter is an independent nonprofit headquartered in Camp Hill, Pa., near Harrisburg, that maps and collects data on the international impacts of oil and gas industry operations. The Office of Environmental Justice reviewed none of those permits.

Neil Shader, a DEP spokesman, said Office of Environmental Justice reviews would not result in the DEP recommending siting or design changes. Rather the DEP would inform communities of the development plans and foster more public engagement and awareness of things like increased heavy truck traffic and sources of water for drilling, Mr. Shader said. That would allow residents and gas development companies to “reach mutually beneficial solutions” that reduce the health or pollution risks for nearby residents, he said.

But George Jugovic Jr., chief counsel at PennFuture, a statewide environmental organization, worries that the Office of Environmental Justice reviews “have no real teeth,” because Act 13, the state’s 2012 oil and gas law amendment, limits the criteria the DEP can use to deny a drilling permit, and the trigger list does not include environmental justice considerations.

“It’s movement in the right direction for the DEP to consider environmental justice communities when making its decisions. And it makes no sense to have carved out those exceptions for oil and gas operations,” Mr. Jugovic said. “But the question the department really needs to answer is what difference does a review make if drilling companies aren’t required to make changes to reduce risks in those communities?”

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The Office of Environmental Justice has been without a director for several months, and the last staffer in the three-person office retired two months ago. The DEP’s Mr. Quigley said he will name a new director for the office later this week, but isn’t sure when new staffers will be added because a hiring freeze is in effect until a state budget is passed by the Legislature.

He said the DEP’s staffing has been reduced by 14 percent over the past decade, compared with other state departments, which have lost an average of 6 percent. Over the past seven years, the DEP has lost 671 staff positions, including 411 permit reviewers and field inspectors.

“We are kind of behind the eight ball,” Mr. Quigley said.

Environmental justice considerations and reviews will also be part of all future DEP program and policy decisions, Mr. Quigley said.

“Environmental justice has to be a touchstone,” he said. “It must be linked with the policy office, and all policies must take environmental justice into account.”

An example is the state’s ongoing development of a plan to implement the federal Clean Power Plan, which will regulate emissions from coal-burning power plants. Ten of the DEP’s 14 public hearings on the Clean Power Plan are in or adjacent to environmental justice communities.

“Low income areas are disproportionately impacted not only by the high cost of electricity, but also by the pollution generated by production of that electricity,” Mr. Quigley said. “We have to engage better with the communities that bear the brunt of the pollution.”

Clea Patrick Hollis, a member of the DEP’s Environmental Justice Advisory Board, welcomed the addition of shale gas development sites to the office’s trigger list and review process and praised the administration for holding public hearings in environmental justice communities.

“It’s good the DEP is stepping out and taking the initiative to hold the listening sessions in communities where there is environmental injustice,” said Dr. Hollis, who headed the Johnstown chapter of the NAACP for a decade. “We need to find out their concerns and they need to know they have a voice.”

This article was written by Don Hopey from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.