20 November 2020
Air pollution in the Mon Valley will be the focus of a virtual rally on Friday.
Kristina covers environmental health and justice issues in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. She has received recognition or awards from the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Association of Health Care Journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Institute of Health Care Management, the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania, the Carnegie Science Center, and the Pittsburgh-based Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) for her reporting on these topics.
Prior to joining EHN, Kristina covered issues related to environmental and social justice as a freelancer for a wide range of digital media outlets including Slate, Vice, Women's Health, MTV News, The Advocate, CNN, and Bustle. She is also the co-president and co-founder of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Association of LGBTQ Journalists.
She lives in Pittsburgh, where she spends much of her free time kayaking the city's iconic three rivers, consuming coffee and eating adventurously.
Reach her at email@example.com
Living near fracking operations that frequently engage in flaring—the process of burning off excess natural gas—makes expectant parents 50 percent more likely to have a preterm birth, according to a new study.
Flaring in the Bakken shale in North Dakota. (Credit: Trudy E. Bell)
Flaring on an Ohio well pad in 2016. (Credit: Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance)
PITTSBURGH—If air pollution levels in all of Allegheny County were lowered to match the levels seen in its least-polluted neighborhoods, about 100 fewer residents would die of coronary heart disease every year, according to a new study.
A Pittsburgh rally in 2018 for Antwon Rose, a Black 17-year-old from East Pittsburgh who was shot and killed by a White police officer in 2018. (Credit: Mark Dixon)
The Edgar Thomson Mill in the Pittsburgh-area communities of Braddock and North Braddock. (Credit: Mark Dixon)
ZeroHour Climate March in Pittsburgh, 2018. (Credit: Mark Dixon)
Particulate matter pollution emitted by Pennsylvania's fracking wells killed about 20 people between 2010 and 2017, according to a soon-to-be-published study.
A new study has uncovered a link between fracking chemicals in farm water and a rare birth defect in horses—which researchers say could serve as a warning about fracking and human infant health.
Credit: Paz Arando/Unsplash<p>They didn't find significant differences in the feed, soil, air, or blood and tissue samples from the two farms. But they did find a significant difference in the water: There were higher levels of four kinds of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—chemicals <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5134738/" target="_blank">commonly used in fracking</a>—in the water at the Pennsylvania farm that weren't seen in water at the New York farm. Those chemicals included fluoranthene, pyrene, 3,6-dimethylphenanthrene, and triphenylene, all of which have been linked to health problems in humans and animals.</p> <p>Following that discovery, the farmer installed a water filtration system, which brought the levels of PAHs in the water on the Pennsylvania farm down to levels comparable to those seen at the New York farm. After that, they saw a marked decrease in the birth of dysphagic foals: In 2014, 26 percent of all of the farmer's foals had been born dysphagic; in 2015, 41 percent were dysphagic; and in 2016, after the installation of the filtration system, the rate fell to 13 percent. </p> <p>The researchers believe the reduction in PAHs in the water, along with a reduction in the amount of time the mares were spending on the Pennsylvania farm during their pregnancy, led to the corresponding reduction in birth defects in the horses—though Mullen added that more research is needed to evaluate the toxicity of those chemicals at the levels they observed.</p> <p>"I think it's a bit soon to say that all farms should have filtration systems installed for their wells," she said, "but this study does provide at least preliminary evidence that well water in places with unconventional natural gas development can see increased levels of PAHs."</p> <p>A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau told EHN the organization hasn't yet had time to fully review the study, but noted that "animal health is among the top priorities for Pennsylvania farmers, and scientific research plays a critical role in helping farmers develop practices to best care for their animals and understand factors that may affect their animals' health."</p> <p>Mullen said she believes the study adds to the growing body of literature linking fracking to problems with human fetal development. </p> <p>"Horses are often sentinels of health risks to humans," she said. "Right now we can only speculate that what we saw in these foals also translates to human health risk, but the implications are certainly worrisome."</p>
PITTSBURGH—Allegheny County, which encompasses Pittsburgh, is among the 10 percent of U.S. counties that have both high relative density of major air pollution sources and high relative rates of COVID-19 deaths, according to a new report.
Highlighted counties are those that are in the top quartile for both the number of facilities designated by EPA as having high priority violations of the Clean Air Act per square mile and the rate of COVID-19 deaths per capita. (Credit: NRDC)<p>Air pollution exposure has long been linked to higher death rates among those with other cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses.</p> <p>Of the nation's 3,141 total counties (or county equivalents), the report places Allegheny County among 310 counties that meet two criteria: they're included in the top 25 percent of all U.S. counties for COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people, and they're in the highest percentile for density of major air pollution sources relative to population size. </p> <p>Facilities considered "major pollution sources" under the Clean Air Act include sites that either emit 100 tons or more of any air pollutant, emit 10 or more tons of a single hazardous air pollutant that causes cancer or other serious health problems, or emit 25 tons per year of two or more hazardous air pollutants. </p>
Highlighted counties are those in the top quartile for both the number of facilities in chronic violation of the Clean Air Act per square mile and the rate of COVID-19 deaths per capita. (Credit: NRDC)<p>To date, Allegheny County, which has a population of 1.2 million, has <a href="https://www.alleghenycounty.us/Health-Department/Resources/COVID-19/COVID-19.aspx" target="_blank">counted</a> 1,289 cases and 94 deaths from COVID-19. This means that 7.3 percent of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the county have died from the disease. At the national level, the death rate for positive COVID-19 cases is around <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/17/us/coronavirus-death-rate.html" target="_blank">4.3 percent</a>—though all of these numbers are in constant flux as testing capabilities expand.</p> <p>"The patterns of COVID-19 deaths are likely not accidental," Kristi Pullen Fedinick, director of Science and Data for NRDC and lead author of the analysis, said in a statement. "Though where you live should not impact how long you live, we see far too often that health disparities are linked to structural racism and economic inequality."</p> <p>The report also places Allegheny County among the U.S. counties with both the highest relative COVID-19 death rates and the highest density of facilities in chronic violation of the Clean Air Act, and among the counties with both the highest relative COVID-19 death rates and the highest density of facilities that have been identified as having "High Priority Violations" of the Clean Air Act by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). </p> <p>Allegheny County is one of 130 counties that's in the highest percentile for both relative rates of COVID-19 deaths and relative density of facilities in chronic violation of the Clean Air Act, according to the report. Being in "chronic violation" of the Clean Air Act means three consecutive years of violations between 2017 and 2019. </p> <p>Allegheny County is also one of 179 counties that's in the highest percentile for both relative rates of COVID-19 deaths and relative density of facilities EPA has identified as having committed "high priority violations" of the Clean Air Act between 2017 and 2019. "High priority violations" are violations so egregious they indicate a need to step up enforcement, with the potential for federal intervention. </p>
Highlighted counties are those in the top quartile for both the number of major facilities per square mile and the rate of COVID-19 deaths per capita. (Credit: NRDC)<p>The report comes on the heels of the American Lung Association's annual State of the Air report, which ranked the Pittsburgh region the <a href="https://kdkaradio.radio.com/articles/report-pittsburghs-air-quality-still-among-worst-in-country" target="_blank">8th worst in the country</a> for particulate matter pollution. Earlier studies have also placed Allegheny County in the <a href="https://www.ehn.org/cancer-in-pittsburgh-pollution-hampers-prevention-progress-2628074364.html" target="_self">top 2 percent</a> for cancer risk from air pollution nationwide.</p><p>While the region has seen <a href="https://www.yorkdispatch.com/story/news/coronavirus/2020/04/22/coronavirus-shutdown-lowers-air-pollution-almost-overnight-scientists-say/5144707002/" target="_blank">a dip in air pollution during rush hour</a> amidst lockdown, an estimated 58 percent of Pittsburgh's air pollution comes from industrial sources, according to the EPA's National Emissions Inventory. Just 10 industrial facilities are responsible for more than 70 percent of the region's industrial air pollution, according to <a href="http://toxicten.org/" target="_blank">a report</a> from environmental advocacy group PennEnvironment, and many of them—including U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works and Edgar Thomson Plants, Universal Stainless and Alloy Products, ATI Flatrolled Products, and the Cheswick Power Plant—are exempt from the state's coronavirus business closure requirements.</p><p>Meanwhile, the EPA <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/27/trump-pollution-laws-epa-allows-companies-pollute-without-penalty-during-coronavirus" target="_blank">announced</a> at the end of March that it will allow companies to break pollution laws without penalties during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, prompting widespread concern among public health experts. A coalition of environmental advocacy groups, including NRDC, have <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/epa-guidance/in-brief-green-groups-sue-epa-over-new-covid-19-pollution-guidance-idUSL1N2C41ZH" target="_blank">sued the agency</a> in response.</p><p>"Instead of easing the pain of people, this administration is focused on easing the pain of polluters," Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of NRDC, said in a statement. "There is no excuse for giving polluters a free pass while loved ones all over this country are dying."</p><p>The Allegheny County Health Department, which oversees local air quality locally, has <a href="https://patch.com/pennsylvania/pittsburgh/achd-air-pollution-enforcement-not-impacted-epa-policy" target="_blank">promised</a> that it will continue enforcing clean air standards in the Pittsburgh region as usual. The Department did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the NRDC report.</p>
Methane emissions are vastly undercounted at the state and national level because we're missing accidental leaks from oil and gas wells, according to a new study.
Marcellus Shale rig and gas well operation in Jackson Township, Pennsylvania. (Credit: WCN 24/7/flickr)<p> Ingraffea noted that their calculations are likely on the low end of true methane emissions from oil and gas well leaks in Pennsylvania. </p><p> There are around 132,000 operating oil and gas wells in the state, but fewer than half of those reported data on methane leaks to the PA DEP as required. Of the some 60,000 wells that submitted reports, about half of those didn't actually include any data, citing various reasons they couldn't take measurements on methane leaks (like inability to access the well site). The study also only looked at data from wells that are actively producing—it didn't account for methane leaks from abandoned wells or wells that were still being actively drilled or fracked (and not yet producing). </p><p> Shader said that the wells missing data are conventional wells, not fracking wells, and include things like home-use wells and wells from small operators. "DEP often receives data from these operators on paper, and it must be entered manually, which can cause delays in making the data available electronically," he said, "however, DEP has and will continue to take enforcement actions against operators that do not comply with the reporting requirements." </p><p> The Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association (PIOGA) declined to comment on whether the industry is working to resolve these issues with reporting. </p><iframe src="https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/methane-emissions-by-sector-gg-coe" style="width: 100%; height: 600px; border: 0px none;"></iframe><p> The researchers also noted some major issues with the reliability of the data. For example, some wells that reported large quantities of methane leaks for several years in a row would suddenly report none after being purchased by a different operator the following year. One likely reason for this is a lack of consistency in testing techniques, Ingraffea said. Operators aren't all required to use the same testing equipment or methods. </p><p> "Not only is much of the data unreliable," he said, "but I will go on record as saying that some of the data being reported to the state is downright fraudulent." </p><p> There's also no minimum reporting requirement, so some operators would note that the emissions were too low to report, but the researchers have no way of knowing what threshold they used to determine that. All of these factors likely mean the reported emissions the researchers analyzed are underestimates. </p><p> Ingraffea said there should be a requirement to measure and report on methane leaks in a consistent manner and "super emitters" should be targeted and required to fix leaking equipment. </p><p> "Most wells aren't leaking," he said. "If they're operating correctly, they shouldn't leak. Maybe just 10 percent of all unconventional wells are leaking, for example, but they're not all leaking the same amount, either. Some leak just a little, and some, the super emitters, leak like sieves. DEP should require those to be fixed." </p><p> Many of those super emitters are coalbed methane wells, most of which are located in the Southwestern part of the state where a majority of the state's fracking also occurs. </p><p> "DEP is also concerned with these 'super emitters,' Shader said, "and is exploring ways to identify them, as well as being interested in suggestions for identifying them." </p><p> He added that DEP is aware that methane leaks are also a problem at abandoned wells (which were not looked at as part of the Cornell study), but that the agency "has very few resources to devote to plugging," and hopes initiatives like <a href="https://www.governor.pa.gov/newsroom/governor-wolf-restore-pennsylvania-is-still-the-only-comprehensive-plan-to-address-community-infrastructure-needs/" target="_blank">Governor Wolf's Restore PA initiative</a>, which would provide funding for critical state infrastructure including plugging abandoned wells, will help address the leaks. </p>
Rally and testimonies regarding the EPA hearing on methane emissions in Pittsburgh in 2015. (Credit: Mark Dixon/flickr)
(Credit: Mark Dixon/flickr)
Credit: Mark Dixon/flickr)
Asthma attacks decreased significantly among residents near coal-fired power plants after the plants shut down or upgraded their emission controls, according to a new study.
As the US turns the page on a skeptical and openly hostile administration, environmental science and journalism face continued obstacles—but there is some optimism.
"There needs to be more intentionality around working with communities that are experiencing environmental inequities."
The Gulf of Mexico is littered with tens of thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells, and toothless regulation leaves climate warming gas emissions unchecked.