Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Field Notes: Ryerson Outing

Last weekend, the Pennsylvania Sierra Club held its first event as part of the Forest Watch Campaign. Working with the Allegheny Group and the Center for Coalfield Justice, we brought a group of urban Pittsburgh residents and community members from Southwestern Pennsylvania to Ryerson Station State Park. There, we held two hikes and a workshop on bringing together different groups fighting natural gas, longwall, and climate issues.

Southwestern Pennsylvania is under attack from coal and gas extraction on all fronts and Ryerson, a 1,164-acre state park found in Greene County, is no exception. The park was home to Duke Lake, a reservoir lake and cornerstone of the surrounding community. Ten years ago, Duke Lake was drained due to the cracks forming in the dam. The Department of Environmental Protection later determined longwall mining at CONSOL’s nearby Bailey Mine to be at fault. We chose to have our outing at Ryerson to highlight these past injustices and to learn how to support the current work being done by the community members in the area.

We started the day with a bird-watching hike through Polly Hollow led by a DCNR employee. The park is home to a variety of birds, both residents and visitors, and more than 120 species of birds have been documented in the park. While we didn’t see many birds on our hike, we certainly heard a few, including the Orchard Oriole. Participants also shared knowledge on different plants and mushroom varieties we saw along the trail.

A little later in the morning, the rest of our outings participants began to trickle in. The main hike took place along the Iron Bridge Trail. This path follows some of the North Fork of Dunkard fork, a little feeder stream, and what used to be Duke Lake. Here, we stopped to talk about some of the hydrology at Ryerson and wetlands in particular. Members of our group highlighted the important role that wetlands play in regulating streamflow and maintaining water quality.

After our hike, we broke for lunch back at the Iron Bridge where we had a workshop on balancing the complex relationships between communities, extraction, and activism. Our participants broke into small discussion groups to tackle the question, “if you could end all coal mining immediately, would you?” The groups spent a while deliberating and came back with some thoughtful responses. As a group made up of local residents and urban allies, everyone had a different approach and relationship to the issues in the region.

While most people had an immediate response, the effects of their initial decisions became clear through discussion. Some participants talked about the need to stave off future climate disasters but others talked about the immediate harm to local communities forced into a coal-based mono economy. Other people brought up the need for a slow and just economic transition parallel to backing away from a carbon-based economy. Regardless of their decision, it became clear that we don’t win unless everybody wins and many people questioned whether they were the ones to make that call in the first place.

After our workshop, we caravaned to a few locations in Greene County to see the impacts of the coal and gas industry. We stopped by a gas compressor station adjacent to the park, a coal refuse disposal area which is a valley filled in with toxic coal waste, and the largest coal preparation facility in the county that processes over 20 million tons of coal a year.

Veronica Coptis and Eva Westheimer from the Center for Coalfield Justice shared some background on the current threats to the park. Currently the beautiful streams left in Ryerson Station State Park are under imminent threat from ongoing longwall mining that is predicted to destroy them. With the recent news that Duke Lake cannot be restored because of ongoing ground movement from mining subsidence, these streams are vital to renewing and improving Ryerson State Park.

There is still work to be done to save Ryerson State Park. To get involved and learn more about these efforts, please contact Veronica at the Center for Coalfield Justice. To learn more about CCJ’s work with Ryerson, click here. To get involved with the Forest Watch Campaign or to plan an outing in your area, contact me.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Sierra Club Responds to DEP Draft Final Rulemaking for Oil and Gas Operations

August 12, 2015

Joanne Kilgour, Director, Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter, 412-965-9973, joanne.kilgour@sierraclub.org
Thomas Au, Conservation Chair, Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter, 717-234-7445

Sierra Club Responds to DEP Draft Final Rulemaking for Oil and Gas Operations

Governor Wolf has promised to ensure that Pennsylvania’s government would be open and transparent  and to regulate oil and gas drilling activities to ensure that operations would be conducted safely. Today, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and DEP Secretary Quigley followed through on the promise of openness and transparency, and announced some of the changes to how it will regulate oil and gas activities.

The Pennsylvania Sierra Club thanks DEP for the thorough and meaningful public participation process that led to this draft final rule, and applauds the administration for taking steps to limit fracking pits and impoundments. “Waste impoundments are a significant pollution threat and create dangerous conditions for public health and the environment,”  Chapter Director Joanne Kilgour stated. “We support provisions that prevent operators from using open pits for storage of dangerous substances, including wastewater, drill cuttings, and substances (like gels and cement) that return to the surface after fracking.  Many spills, leaks, and incidents involving pits have occurred which have contaminated water, soil, and air.”  The regulations will require containment of regulated substances, but does not totally ban open impoundments.

However, the Sierra Club remains concerned that the administration will not keep oil and gas operations at least one mile from schools and playgrounds and will not follow through to regulate noise pollution. The draft final regulations only require drilling activities to be a mere 200 feet from schools and playgrounds.  Schools, playgrounds, medical facilities, and nursing homes are public resources which should be protected from hazardous industrial activities, and in the interest of transparency we will seek a full explanation from DEP for its decision to establish such a small setback.  “Our children and those in need of medical attention require protection from oil and gas operations and  such a small protected area will not be sufficiently protective of their health. We will continue to seek additional protections for schools, playgrounds, and medical facilities.” stated Ms. Kilgour.

“Regulations to protect the public are long overdue”  stated Thomas Au, Conservation Chair for the Pennsylvania Sierra Club. “The degradation of our air, water, and health have been a fact of life since the drilling boom began several years ago. Pennsylvania is long past the time of continued debate on whether oil and gas activities impact health. Instead, there is an urgent need to face realities on the ground and fix critical problems, such as failures to immediately notify public officials of spills and leaks.”

The Sierra Club will continue to work with the administration to adopt oil and gas regulations that are fully protective of the public, and looks forward to the inclusion of public health in future regulatory packages. DEP has received significant input from both the public and the regulated community on these changes, and DEP must be empowered to move quickly to finalize these regulations.