Tucked into the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania are rural communities once home to generational farmland – Smith Township among them. The blessings of prime open spaces once reserved for farming took an unexpected turn in the late 2000’s when companies introducing shale gas development – including fracking – set their sights on those same large land parcels.
Among those questioning the risks to their community were residents who live near a proposed pair of gas processing facilities called cryogenic fractionation plants, which use extreme cold to separate natural gas into methane, ethane, propane, and other fuels and liquids.
Throughout a series of public hearings in 2016, several members of the Duran family and other residents living along Creek and Point Pleasant Roads in Smith Township urged their local leaders to deny permits for the two proposed cryogenic plants: ETC Northeast Pipeline LLC Revolution (a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners) and MarkWest Harmon Creek.
But despite the protests, both the proposed plants were built -- one on either side of the Durans’ hay field, literally surrounding their families with shale gas infrastructure, transforming their generational farm in ways their parents and grandparents could have never conceived.
Members of the Duran family said they are angry at the company and state officials who allowed the two cryogenic gas plants to be built so close to their homes. “These plants and their pollution have forever changed our lives,” Kasey Duran notes. “We worry for our health, especially for our children.”
In total, Pennsylvania has issued Clean Air Act permits for at least 29 large gas and petrochemical infrastructure projects like this since 2012. Fifteen of these projects, with the potential to emit up to 1.9 million tons of greenhouse gases per year, are already operating, including Energy Transfer’s Revolution cryogenic fractionation Plant in Smith Township. Overall, Pennsylvania’s natural gas production has grown forty-fold since 2010.
Last year, the Durans and others in Smith Township were alarmed to see flaring and billowing black smoke coming from the stack at the Revolution cryogenic plant. The worst of it was documented by family members on March 14, 2021.
Another visual example of the impact of the rapidly growing industry on the farmland in Smith Township can be seen in the Google images below, which show (first) the undeveloped farmland near the Duran farm and then the heavily expanded shale gas infrastructure all around them.
An hour away, in Beaver County, the concerns of Western Pennsylvania residents about the surge of oil and gas development were realized in the early morning hours of September 10, 2018. While most were still asleep, residents of Ivy Lane in Beaver County were shaken awake by an explosion of a pipeline owned by ETC Revolution just yards from their homes. ‘It lit this whole valley up,’ Chief Kramer told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “People looked out their window and thought the sun was up.’”
The blast destroyed one home, vehicles, and garages, and brought down six high-tension electric towers near the neighborhood. Over two dozen residents were evacuated. “It felt like the earth shook,” resident Karen Gdula said.
Authorities later determined that the cause of the 2018 pipeline explosion was a landslide behind Ivy Lane, likely caused due to heavy rains in the area. As a result, the pipeline and the Revolution cryogenic plant were closed as county, state and federal officials further investigated. Repairs to the pipeline were not authorized to begin until over two years after the explosion, late in September 2020. DEP required hillside stabilization before granting the company permission to repair the ruptured portion of pipe.
But in March of 2021, the Revolution pipeline was back in service and, in just a few short days, residents in Smith Township experienced problems with the ETC Revolution plant again.
Residents continued to report chronic flaring and pollution to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), including soot and microscopic particulate matter that settles on nearby homes. Since then, the state has taken enforcement action to address some of the pollution problems at ETC Revolution cryogenic fractionation plant but flaring continues.
On August 5, 2022, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced criminal charges against Energy Transfer for damages caused by their Revolution pipeline – the same one that exploded in Beaver County in 2018 – as well as their Mariner East 2 pipeline that traverses much of the state. And in February of 2022 the Attorney General reported separate grand jury findings that Energy Transfer “repeatedly ignored environmental protocols” that resulted in “failures that contributed to the landslide that caused the gas line explosion in September 2018.” The company was charged with second-degree misdemeanors and fined $1 million as part of a settlement with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.
Energy Transfer and MarkWest plan to expand the Revolution and Harmon Creek cryogenic plants – doubling their size and operations. Although both companies had received permits to expand, the DEP recently issued notices that the permits are no longer valid because the companies did not meet the construction timelines required by the federal Clean Air Act. The companies will have to secure permits from the state if they continue to pursue an expansion, which means the public will have an opportunity to advocate for stronger public health and environmental protections.
Although there is a temporary halt to the proposed expansion of the two cryogenic plants, MarkWest Harmon Creek has submitted an application for expansion while ETC Revolution is likely to seek a new construction permit. Residents living near these facilities, like so many in communities throughout western Pennsylvania, remain concerned that the state and local officials are not considering the cumulative public health and environmental impacts from the massive petrochemical buildout driven by shale gas development. Families like the Durans continue to ask, “Who determines when there is too much industry near us? When is enough, enough?”
These questions echo across western Pennsylvania, where the shale gas boom has transformed once-quiet agricultural communities. Oil and gas companies have approached landowners and local government officials with promises of jobs and money if their highly industrialized operations are granted permits to allow well pads and their supporting infrastructure to be constructed on lands previously reserved for agricultural uses.
While some landowners have reaped financial benefits for allowing shale gas development, including well pads, pipelines and processing plants on their land, others have been left with serious questions and concerns particularly about health risks.
Since the Marcellus shale gas boom took off in western Pennsylvania over ten years ago, the Commonwealth has emerged as the second largest producer in the United States. Pennsylvania has leapfrogging ahead of Alaska and Louisiana, long known for their gas production, and is closing fast on the number one producer, Texas (see table below.) Production in Pennsylvania has grown more than 40 percent since 2017, and the entire Appalachian region is predicted to continue its increase in gas extraction through the middle of this century.
Unbridled natural gas production has triggered an expansive, massive, and continuing physical infrastructure buildout that includes gas wells and drilling sites, pipelines, compressor stations, pigging operations, as well as various other facilities such as liquified natural gas (LNG) plants and ethylene crackers designed to unleash a flood of newly manufactured plastics across the region. The impact of the buildout over time is obvious in parts of the country like Texas and Louisiana, where skylines and waterways are lined with vast stretches of petrochemical plants and refineries, and the landscape is scarred with pipeline routes. Pennsylvania is on the brink of a similar fate.