Editor’s note: This article was supported by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership. It is the third in a series on pollution and misinformation in greater Pittsburgh from a consortium of outlets including The Allegheny Front, Ambridge Connection, The Incline, Mon Valley Independent, Pittsburgh City Paper, Pittsburgh Independent and PUP. Read the first in the series in the Pittsburgh Independent, the second in Ambridge Connection, and watch for more. 

For years, southwestern Pennsylvania communities have installed low-cost air pollution monitors to help quantify the impact of oil and gas development residents could plainly see, smell and hear.

Increasingly, they have the federal government as a partner willing to fund their vigilance.

In November, with money from COVID-19 relief funds and the climate and health law known as the Inflation Reduction Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded nearly $2 million to southwestern Pennsylvania projects for community-led air pollution monitoring. Several of the projects are designed to monitor shale gas-related pollution.

Now, the EPA is preparing to unleash more funds in an effort to find and cut down on releases of the powerful greenhouse gas methane and other air pollution from the web of equipment used to get oil and gas from underground to end users.

The Inflation Reduction Act granted the EPA $1.5 billion to measure and reduce methane emissions from oil and gas operations, including $850 million to cut pollution across the sector and $700 million to curb leaks from small, low-producing wells.

The agency has broad discretion for how to use the funds over the next six years, including providing grants for methane monitoring, deploying equipment, supporting new leak-detection technology, plugging wells and mitigating health effects from oil and gas-related air pollution in low-income and disadvantaged communities.

Separately, the EPA is proposing to enlist the help of groups outside of industry and regulators — such as environmental nonprofits and universities — to use sophisticated methane detection tools mounted on drones, planes and satellites to find the biggest leaks across the natural gas supply chain, or so-called “super emitters.”

Studies show that a small number of super-emitting sources “are responsible for as much as half of the methane emissions from oil and natural gas operations, along with significant amounts of smog-forming [volatile organic compounds] and toxic air pollutants that are of concern in many communities,” the EPA said when it proposed the rule in November.

Final guidelines for both programs are expected to be published this year.

Southwestern Pennsylvania community and environmental groups that stand to benefit from the funding say it marks a turning point in the government’s acknowledgement of the power of community-led monitoring.

“We’re at a pivotal time right now,” said Shannon Smith, executive director of the Johnstown-based FracTracker Alliance. She envisions future academic papers will pinpoint this as a moment when a flood of federal investment changed the entire environmental nonprofit sector.

But the groups caution that the funding’s value will be diminished if it increases awareness without reducing pollution. The “million-dollar question,” Smith said, is whether all the data will be used to influence change.

“How tragic would that be if all this investment and all this effort goes into it and the data continues to just fall on deaf ears?”

Protect PT (Penn-Trafford) co-founder and executive director Gillian Graber and environmental scientist Yvonne Sorovacu survey the property of a Trafford resident who volunteered to participate in an air pollution and noise monitoring project before placing the monitoring devices, Wednesday, April 5, 2023. The resident lives less than a quarter of a mile from a fracking well pad on First Street that is not yet in operation. (Alexandra Wimley/Union Progress)

‘Become the experts’

Community groups started using monitoring technology because they wanted to be their own sentinels — and to be taken seriously when they documented risks.

Relatively affordable technology can detect levels of soot and chemicals in the air that have been linked to both acute and long-term health effects, including lung irritation, asthma, heart disease and premature death.

Not long after neighbors concerned about encroaching oil and gas infrastructure formed Protect PT (Penn-Trafford) in 2014, the Harrison City-based nonprofit partnered with the Environmental Health Project to begin air monitoring.

“One of the things that we really quickly figured out was that the air emissions could be really impactful to us, and that is a potential harm to having these types of facilities near homes,” said Gillian Graber, Protect PT’s executive director and one of its founders.

But without baseline data on the community’s air quality, it would be hard to detect changes and easy for the industry to deflect their concerns, she said.

“That’s why we felt like it was really important to start monitoring now, before the stuff happened near our homes.”

They soon had so many sites they wanted to monitor that they risked burdening their partners, Graber said, so they committed to “become the experts.” Protect PT got its own monitors to measure for particle pollution and volatile organic compounds and learned to install them while remaining partnered with the Peters Township-based Environmental Health Project to analyze data, understand results and produce reports.

Now, Protect PT is the lead applicant on a $366,000 EPA grant for air monitoring, with a focus on an oil and gas wastewater disposal well in Plum and the Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill in Rostraver, which accepts shale drilling waste.

The grant is part of $53 million that the EPA hailed in November as the largest investment in community air monitoring in the agency’s history.

EPA Mid-Atlantic Regional Administrator Adam Ortiz said the funding “will finally give communities, some who for years have been overburdened by polluted air and other environmental insults, the data and information needed to better understand their local air quality and have a voice for real change.”

Monitoring can help residents make immediate decisions, such as whether it’s a safe day to be out raking leaves. It can also be used as evidence to push long-term goals, like strengthening environmental rules.

One of the grants, a $430,000 award to FracTracker and several partners, will expand monitoring in Robinson and Smith townships in Washington County with the specific aim of building the case that regulators should require a cumulative assessment of the air quality impacts of mushrooming oil and gas infrastructure instead of considering each element piece by piece.

Part of the grant will go toward the purchase of a drone-mounted gas-imaging camera that can, according to FracTracker, assess a three-dimensional distribution of methane and more than 200 hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants.

In some ways, it’s a very refined and expensive bullhorn for conveying communities’ concerns to regulators in a language they respect.

Smith said FracTracker is largely serving as a pass-through entity on the grants for smaller grassroots groups to “help these residents get access to the tools they need to quantify these impacts in a way that decision-makers are more likely to hear.”

Nathan Deron, an environmental data scientist at the Environmental Health Project, which is a sub-grantee on four of the regional monitoring projects awarded funding by the EPA, said one of the benefits will be access to new, more expensive monitoring technology that will add detail to what they’ve been able to track through the tools they have now.

“The accuracy and quality assurance that you can get from the monitors that groups like ours can afford is not going to be high enough for a regulator to say, we’re going to take enforcement action or revisit a permit because of this data,” he said.

“When that’s the goal of a community,” he said, “that can be a little tricky and frustrating.”

A big change

The super-emitter program, in its draft design, would enable a quicker route to fixes.

Through it, EPA-credentialed third parties would be authorized to find large oil and gas leaks (those emitting 100 kilograms of methane per hour or more), notify operators and trigger requirements for them to investigate and correct problems.

That last part — the tie to direct action — is new.

“Requiring operators to respond meaningfully to information that is brought by third parties is a big change, and it’s powerful,” said Deron.

“By and large, even if done with great monitoring technologies and fantastic quality assurance and quality control by a third party right now, the operator can basically say, your data is incorrect and inaccurate, and we’re not going to do anything about it.”

The super-emitter program would likely require more money and expertise than most community and environmental groups could marshal on their own.

An example of the target technology is the airplane-mounted sensors the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection used in May 2021 to detect plumes of methane from oil and gas sites, coal mines and landfills across the state, in a research collaboration with Carbon Mapper and the U.S. Climate Alliance.

Those flights detected 63 different oil and gas sources that were leaking methane at a rate larger than the super-emitter standard of 100 kilograms per hour.

Mark Hammond, director of DEP’s Bureau of Air Quality, indicated to an advisory board in March that the agency would love to do more remote monitoring if it had access to more funding.

“If anybody’s got a million dollars laying around and wants to fund a project, I’ve got one for you,” he said.

Still, advocates see an obvious opportunity for the EPA’s super-emitter program, which is unfunded, to be combined with grants through the Inflation Reduction Act’s methane reduction program to enable communities to become partners in sophisticated monitoring projects.

“You don’t need to be the organization that puts the satellite up if you’re interested in looking at satellite data to find these super emitters,” Deron said

A coalition of more than a dozen national and state environmental groups, led by the Clean Air Task Force, called on the EPA to make community monitoring a priority initiative of the methane reduction funds by supporting at least two monitoring programs.

One would create a grant program to equip communities with resources to participate in the super-emitter program by enabling them to work with a certified monitor or get the training to become one. That way, communities most affected by oil and gas development would benefit from pollution reductions that come when major nearby leaks are quickly identified and fixed.

Another grant program proposed by the environmental groups would allow for more direct community involvement by funding programs and tools that community groups commonly use and that don’t require advanced technical training.

“It is vital that EPA help to ensure community-supported monitoring efforts produce actionable data,” the groups wrote. For example, lower-cost community monitors could serve as a screening tool, with the EPA responding with more precise equipment when the monitors show repeated or concerning emissions spikes.

A Diversified Energy well in Boyce Park with a severe equipment failure in July 2022. It was quickly fixed following a community member calling the Diversified emergency line and Earthworks filing a complaint with the Department of Environmental Protection. A notice of violation was not issued. (Images courtesy of Earthworks, combined by Jennifer Kundrach/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

‘There are no consequences

“We would like to see a true process that holds operators accountable when evidence is submitted,” said Melissa Ostroff, Pennsylvania policy and field advocate for the environmental nonprofit Earthworks.

Ostroff is a certified thermographer — she is trained to use Earthworks’ roughly $100,000 optical gas-imaging camera with a telephoto lens to document otherwise invisible leaks coming from wells, compressor stations, tanks and pipelines across the state. The same technology is used by regulators and the industry for their own inspections.

She has found the state Department of Environmental Protection relatively responsive when she reports the leaking oil and gas equipment she documents: Of 32 complaints Earthworks filed with Pennsylvania regulators last year, 27 prompted a regulator to inspect a site. (During the same year, none of the 85 complaints Earthworks filed with New Mexico state regulators prompted a regulator’s inspection, according to the nonprofit’s tally.)

Her observations have prompted repairs, which operators often seem to be able to make pretty quickly and easily, she said.

But the malfunctions rarely get recorded as violations of the state’s environmental rules and laws, let alone result in fines or penalties.

“It’s not even a slap on the wrist,” she said. “It’s a problem when the industry continues to allow equipment to get in a state of disrepair and there are no consequences.”

Local environmental groups’ enthusiasm for a new funding source is tempered by regret that governments with vastly more resources are counting on communities to fill in the gaps.

“Certainly empowering communities to understand what’s going on around them is good,” Deron said. “But the burden of understanding the impacts of an industry like the oil and gas industry shouldn’t necessarily be falling to the communities that are impacted by it.

“We would hope that the government would be able to provide those protections without that burden on the community.”

Ostroff said enabling communities to gather more powerful evidence of pollution is ultimately not “the large solution that we would need to protect public health.”

“It’s helpful to have that data,” she said, “but it’s not a game-changer on its own without the sorts of policy changes that would keep these sites from even ending up so close or literally in someone’s backyard.”

A Diversified Energy well site with a serious leak due to poorly maintained equipment in state gamelands in Armstrong County. It was quickly fixed after Earthworks filed a complaint with the state Department of Environmental Protection, but the operator did not receive a notice of violation. (Images courtesy of Earthworks, combined by Jennifer Kundrach/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Laura writes about energy and more for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike.

Laura Legere

Laura writes about energy and more for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike.