Public aids crackdown on gas plant in Chartiers
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Black Friday chaos dwindles thanks to earlier deals, online sales
- As historic breakup nears, Alcoa works to redefine its ‘advantage’
- Make green home upgrades pay off
- Asian bug threatens oranges in Florida
- Older workers try to cut back on hours at job
- Paying pals digitally catches on
- Program lets public service workers be forgiven for student debt
- Batteries key to alternative energy’s success
- Travelers contend with increase in ground delays
- Fuel cell standoff slows car technology’s rise in popularity
- Stop neighbors from stealing your Internet