S.W. Pennsylvania is Definitely “Fractured” Among Other Places, Part 4

by Duane Nichols on March 7, 2021

Families with children are caught up in these sacrifice zones

Fractured: Buffered from fracking but still battling pollution

Article by Kristina Marusic, Reporter, Environmental Health News, March 1, 2021

This is part 4 of our 4-part series, “Fractured,” an investigation of fracking chemicals in the air, water, and people of western Pennsylvania.

WESTMORELAND COUNTY, Pa.—On a balmy evening in September of 2019, eight women gathered around a conference table in a small office about 25 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. A statewide network of fracking and conventional wells, pipelines, and petrochemical plants is closing in on their communities.

As a mother of four and the outreach coordinator for the nonprofit organization hosting this event, Ann LeCuyer was comfortable telling people what to do. She’d spent the last four years helping the group, Protect PT (short for Protect Penn-Trafford), work to keep fracking out of the small municipalities of Penn Township, Trafford, and surrounding neighborhoods.

In that time, Ann and her boss, Protect PT co-founder and executive director Gillian Graber, had compiled thousands of documents detailing the oil and gas industry’s plans in the region. They’d invited all of the group’s several dozen members to their office to learn how to access them—but only women showed up. “This is pretty typical for us, actually” said Gillian, a middle-aged mom of two with chocolate-brown hair and a no-nonsense demeanor.

“I think it’s because we’re moms, so we have more at stake when it comes to our children and grandchildren,” she told Environmental Health News (EHN), noting that every member in attendance had kids and half also had grandkids. “My husband is on the board and we do have some very passionate male members. But it tends to be the women who consistently show up.”

The group chattered and laughed through the presentation until Ann pulled up a map of the planned route for the Mariner East 2 Pipeline, sending a brief hush through the room. “It’s so close to my house!” someone exclaimed. “Look, I’m in the blast zone and I didn’t even know until now.”

Mariner East 2 is one of three pipelines (along with Mariner East 1 and Mariner East 2X) being constructed to carry highly flammable natural gas liquids—liquid components of natural gas that have been separated out—350 miles from the Utica and Marcellus Shale plays in eastern Ohio, the northern panhandle of West Virginia, and across Pennsylvania to processing facilities at Philadelphia ports. From there, the end products will be carried overseas by ship for use in plastics production. (Ethane, a byproduct of fracking, is used to manufacture plastics.)

The project is orchestrated by Sunoco’s parent company Energy Transfer LP, which also owns the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. The Mariner East pipeline projects have been rife with accidents, spills, and controversy, in part because Pennsylvania doesn’t have a state agency that oversees the placement of such pipelines. The planned route runs across people’s yards and within a half mile of 23 public schools and 17 private schools, which worries residents due to the company’s safety record: Between 2002 and the end of 2017, Energy Transfer LP pipelines experienced a leak or an accident every 11 days on average.

Pipeline construction in Pennsylvania has already resulted in sinkholes, polluted waterways on public land, and an explosion in a town 35 miles west of Pittsburgh that destroyed a house. At least 25 other sites along the proposed pipeline route have been identified as being at risk for similar accidents. The Pennsylvania Utility Commission is fighting in court to keep its calculations on potential damage if such accidents occured secret, even though a recent investigation by Spotlight PA found many communities in the “blast zone”—the areas adjacent to the pipeline that could be engulfed in flames in the event of a pipeline explosion—lack adequate emergency response plans.

Gillian told the group that they planned to canvas in the blast zone nearby to inform residents they’d be at risk if the pipeline is completed. “Oh, we’re canvassing, ladies!” chirped the oldest of the group, a spry 81-year-old. “If we can stop the pipeline, we can stop the well pads. I’m getting my muckboots out!”

Gillian initially started Protect PT in 2015 because she wanted to stop a fracking well proposal about a quarter of a mile from her house in neighboring Penn Township. So far, her efforts have been successful—the well, which is owned by Apex Energy, received a permit from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in 2018, but has yet to be drilled in part because of Protect PT lawsuits.

But that fracking well victory is overshadowed by a vast industrial infrastructure in the state and the region that goes well beyond unconventional drilling.

In the summer of 2019, EHN collected air, water, and urine samples from five households in southwestern Pennsylvania, including Ann and Gillian’s families, and had them analyzed for chemicals associated with fracking. EHN included Ann and Gillian’s families because they live further away from fracking wells than the families we looked at in Washington County. However, despite their relative distance from fracking wells, we found they also faced above average levels of exposure to numerous chemicals associated with pollution from the oil and gas industry.

While Project PT and similar groups target new pipelines, or plastics plants, or fracking wells in court — or just the court of public opinion — it has become a game of whack-a-mole in a state where oil and gas production, infrastructure, and transportation are so ubiquitous.

“It’s just alarming to think that with all the stuff that we’re doing to be careful, we’re still being exposed to all these chemicals,” Gillian told EHN.


See also: Fractured: FAQs page, Douglas Fischer, February 25, 2021

“We found alarming exposures to likely fracking pollution. But that’s just the beginning of the story.”

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Annie Deely March 10, 2021 at 12:29 am

Natural gas can cause health problems that worsen COVID

Letter from Annie Deely, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 7, 2021

On Feb. 14, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published the letter “Natural Gas Provides Materials to Fight COVID-19,” by Kevin Sunday of the PA Chamber of Business and Industry. The letter shapes natural gas to be a “hero” in the fight against COVID-19. Mr. Sunday correctly links natural gas extraction to the production of single-use plastics, but he fails to acknowledge the environmental and human health degradation that comes along with resource extraction and plastic production.

Do single-use medical materials offset the respiratory illnesses linked to plastic production? Living near petrochemical cracker plants or gas drilling causes asthma, a pre-existing condition that exacerbates harmful symptoms of COVID-19. Fracking, a popular method of extracting natural gas, spews pollutants — such as volatile organic compounds benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and n-hexane — into air and water sources; long-term exposure to these chemicals is linked to birth defects, neurological problems, blood disorders and cancer.

Suggesting that natural gas is in any way “clean” is an industry tactic that attempts to justify unnecessary and unsustainable drilling to create single-use consumer products such as the plastic wrap on grocery store bananas. I would like to see Ben van Beurden, the CEO of Shell, build his mansion next to Shell’s petrochemical cracker in Beaver County to show how “clean” plastic production is.

While Mr. Sunday’s “unsung heroes” of the natural gas industry are patting themselves on the back, they are also putting the U.S.’s most vulnerable communities at risk by strategically placing their well pads, pipelines and processing facilities into Black, brown, Indigenous and poor communities. These populations — which the natural gas industry openly exploits — are also the most affected by COVID-19 due to racial and ethnic health disparities.

There is no question that PPE like masks, gowns, face shields and gloves are keeping front-line workers safe during a deadly pandemic. Do valuable medical materials have to be attached to the fossil fuel industry? There are innovative solutions to the health, waste and climate problems caused by natural gas extraction. Medical plastic can be made with hemp, algae or even mushrooms — and natural gas can be left in the ground.

>> ANNIE DEELY, Squirrel Hill

The writer is a community organizer for Protect Penn-Trafford.


EHN Staff March 12, 2021 at 4:15 pm


In “Fractured” we followed the stories of five families living in or near fracking country in southwestern Pennsylvania. All are coping to various degrees with unexplained illnesses, anxiety, depression, social strain.

Tests of their urine found biomarkers that suggested high levels of exposure to toxic compounds commonly used in fracking operations – ethylbenzene, styrene, toluene.

We found chemicals like benzene and butylcyclohexane in drinking water and air samples.

These five families are not alone. We asked readers and organizations to share their stories. Here’s how they reacted.

We want your story, too: Fill out our short three-question fracking survey, and we’ll be in touch.



SkyTruth Project March 26, 2021 at 7:47 pm

PA Permit Violation Issued to DIVERSIFIED PROD LLC in Center Twp, Indiana County
Description: Environmental Health & Safety violation issued on 3/18/2021 to DIVERSIFIED PROD LLC in Center Twp, Indiana county. SWMA 610(1) – UNLAWFUL CONDUCT – Person dumped or deposited, or permitted the dumping or depositing, of solid waste onto the surface of the ground or underground or into the waters of the Commonwealth, without a permit for the dumping of such solid wastes from DEP.
Incident Date/Time: 2021-03-18 00:00:00

PA Permit Violation Issued to DIVERSIFIED PROD LLC in Center Twp, Indiana County
Description: Environmental Health & Safety violation issued on 3/18/2021 to DIVERSIFIED PROD LLC in Center Twp, Indiana county. SWMA 302(A) – DISPOSAL, PROCESSING AND STORAGE OF RESIDUAL WASTE – Person disposed, processed, stored, or permitted the disposal, processing or storage of residual waste in a manner which is contrary to the rules and regulations of DEP or to any permit or to the terms or conditions of any permit or any order issued by DEP.
Incident Date/Time: 2021-03-18 00:00:00

PA Permit Violation Issued to DIVERSIFIED PROD LLC in Center Twp, Indiana County
Description: Environmental Health & Safety violation issued on 3/18/2021 to DIVERSIFIED PROD LLC in Center Twp, Indiana county. SWMA 301 – MANAGEMENT OF RESIDUAL WASTE – Person operated a residual waste processing or disposal facility without obtaining a permit for such facility from DEP. Person stored, transported, processed, or disposed of residual waste inconsistent with or unauthorized by the rules and regulations of DEP.
Incident Date/Time: 2021-03-18 00:00:00

PA Permit Violation Issued to DIVERSIFIED PROD LLC in Center Twp, Indiana County
Description: Environmental Health & Safety violation issued on 3/18/2021 to DIVERSIFIED PROD LLC in Center Twp, Indiana county. 78.57(a) – CONTROL, STORAGE AND DISPOSAL OF PRODUCTION FLUIDS – Operator failed to collect the brine and other fluids produced during operation, service and plugging of the well in a tank, pit or a series of pits or tanks, or other device approved by the Department or Operator discharged brine or other fluids on or into the ground or into waters of the Commonwealth.
Incident Date/Time: 2021-03-18 00:00:00

SkyTruth Project
P.O. Box 3283
Shepherdstown, WV 25443


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: