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Public aids crackdown on gas plant in Chartiers

| Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, 11:33 p.m.
The MarkWest Energy Partners LP's Houston Plant is seen in Chartiers Township, Thursday, August 16, 2012. The plant separates liquid gases from the natural gas culled from around Western PA. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
submitted
State regulators are likely to fine MarkWest Energy Partners LP based on photo evidence they received from citizens complaining about the company's processing plant in Chartiers, Washington County. While these are not the photos submitted to the state, they are a few of the many photos that people from around the area have circulated in emails about repeated incidents of black smoke spewing from the plant.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
MarkWest Energy Partners' Houston Plant in Chartiers Township separates liquid gases from natural gas culled from across Western Pennsylvania. MarkWest will become a subsidiary of a Marathon Petroleum Corp.-controlled pipeline company under a deal announced Monday, July 13, 2015.
File photo of part of the MarkWest Houston 1, 2, and 3 Complex in Washington County. The plant processes natural gas coming from nearby Marcellus wells.
HEIDI MURRIN/MHM MARKWEST 0304 5/Part of the MarkWest Houston 1, 2, and 3 Complex in Washington County Thursday, March 3, 2011. (Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review)
HEIDI MURRIN/MHM MARKWEST 0304 6/Part of the MarkWest Houston 1, 2, and 3, Complex in Washington County Thursday, March 3, 2011. (Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review)

Residents have complained for years about thick black smoke and possible pollution coming from the MarkWest gas plant in Chartiers. But the state Department of Environmental Protection said it couldn't take action because it had no evidence.

On Tuesday, the department said it had the goods.

Someone snapped pictures of a plume of black smoke coming from the plant on July 14 and 15 and sent them to regulators.

The DEP said Tuesday that the deluge of photos sent directly to its workers last month will likely lead to the first state environmental fine against the plant, owned by MarkWest Energy Partners LP. The pictures provided the evidence the agency needed that the plant was violating state environmental regulations, DEP spokesman John Poister said.

“We can't be everywhere, so we appreciate the help we can get when something like this is going on,” Poister said. “The air quality people ... responded to complaints, and when we got documentation to back up those complaints, we acted on it.”

Air pollution can be hard to prove when inspectors don't get to see it. The closest inspectors are stationed a 45-minute drive from the plant, which is in the heart of the region's gas drilling, Poister said. That means documents from citizens can play a key role in helping to prove environmental violations, he added.

A MarkWest spokesman, reached by text, said he was not aware of DEP's recent interaction with the company on the plant.

The DEP is the latest enforcement agency to benefit from the proliferation of smartphones and digital cameras. The devices have helped citizens around the world document crime and pursue justice, including photos that famously helped lead to the capture of the Boston Marathon bombers, videos that helped convict a California transit policeman who shot a man, and video that chronicled the Tasing of a student protester at the University of Florida.

Citizens have to be careful how they use it, said Joe Osborne, legal director at Group Against Smog and Pollution in Garfield. Sending mass documentation of unjustified complaints can overwhelm regulatory agencies that are already dealing with budget cuts and heavy workloads, he said.

But air pollution that comes from a flare can basically only be proved by trained inspectors witnessing the events, he added. In those situations, visual documentation from citizens can help a small staff of regulators be more impactful.

“This is always a problem. Even if staffing was better or funding was better, there's a finite number of inspectors covering a wide geographic area,” Osborne said. “If we can target the right kinds of environmental problems and the best way that people can use technology to address those problems, I think that's something that we could look into.”

This case was particularly clear-cut, Poister said. The plant — which processes ethane, propane and butane out of the natural gas extracted from the Marcellus shale — is not supposed to emit any black smoke, a sign of air pollution. So when inspectors saw photos with black smoke, which witnesses claimed they could see from miles away, the state had the evidence it needed to assess violations against MarkWest, Poister said.

The company had 15 days to submit an action plan for stopping the incidents. It did, but the state wants the company to speed up the fixes it proposed in that plan, Poister said. The plan is not public because of the ongoing negotiations, Poister said, adding that he didn't know when they might reach an agreement.

He declined to say who sent the photos to the agency.

Residents and activists have been circulating photographs through email, claiming they show similar pollution from the plant dating back to at least 2009. The company has denied past pollution problems, saying previous incidents were part of safety measures designed to expel gas from the plant when necessary. The flare burns it off so most of the harmful chemicals get burned off on their way out.

Several residents interviewed by the Tribune-Review on Tuesday said they had not sent their photos to the agency after an incident in July when the company had problems installing a new piece of equipment. Some said the agency had ignored previous requests and, while they cheered recent developments, said the agency should have acted sooner.

“Why does it take so long to get someone's attention with this?” said Mark Bastien, who lives less than two miles from the plant and can see emissions from his backyard. “We're just so frustrated anymore because this has been going on for four or five years. We don't know what we're breathing out there.”

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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