It wasn't the Big Story on Action News or anything like that, but state environmental officials declared a Code Orange alert for air pollution in Philadelphia today. People who are susceptible to air pollution -- kids with asthma, for example -- are advised to stay indoors, which is no fun in the waning days of summer vacation. There's even tips for things average citizens can do to help keep the ozone level down -- carpool, or avoiding gassing up your car at night.
Or, here's a crazy idea: Those same state officials could impose tougher regulations on Pennsylvania's natural gas industry -- a.k.a., fracking -- which experts say is the fastest growing source of ozone pollution in the state, even here in Philadelphia, far from the drilling rigs.
Yeah. Good luck with that.
Despite modern pollution controls and de-industrialization, air pollution remains an under-the-radar public health crisis in Pennsylvania. Earlier this month, the American Thoracic Society and New York University reported that -- just in the city of Philadelphia -- 126 early deaths and 284 hospitalizations can be blamed on excess air pollution. That dovetails with a new report by the Clean Air Task Force that looked strictly at air pollution related to fracking in the state and projected that by the summer of 2025, ozone pollution caused by oil and gas drilling will lead to 30,000 childhood asthma attacks just in Philadelphia.
There's about 100,000 sites in Pennsylvania linked to the natural gas industry -- from drilling pads to compressors -- and too many of them are leaking too many fumes as they operate. The state's own data shows that air pollution from fracking increases every year, including 2015. That includes volatile organic compounds (VOCs) -- 30,000 tons in Pennsylvania by 2025, according to the CATF report -- that contribute to the ozone crisis, as well as methane, a greenhouse gas that is significantly linked to climate change. And if fracking in the northern and western reaches of Pennsylvania is exacerbating kids' asthma in Philly, you can imagine what it's like to live near a rig.
In yet another report issued this month, by researchers from Johns Hopkins University looking at large numbers of heath records from rural Pennsylvania, living near fracking sites is associated with much higher rates of migraine headaches, as well as fatigue and sinusitis. None of this comes as a huge surprise. Pennsylvania didn't have tough pollution rules in place when the fracking boom unexpectedly took off here in the mid-to-late 2000s, and the rules that were on the books weren't well enforced.
Says who? For one, the man who was governor during those years, Ed Rendell. “I made a mistake in the rush to get the economic part of fracking delivered to Pennsylvania,” Rendell said last month at a forum during the Democratic convention here. “We didn’t regulate well construction and …. frack water as well as we should." He also claims that bad regulations were improved as he was leaving office in 2010 -- despite evidence that effective anti-pollution measures are still on the drawing board six years later.
So we have mounting scientific evidence that fracking is a public health crisis in Pennsylvania, and now the confessions of the state's former governor. What's more, our next-door neighbors in New York -- a market long coveted by the fracking industry -- have taken radical steps to keep residents safe from oil-and-gas pollution, primarily through a ban on drilling (City and State had a good take-of-two-states piece on the different paths taken by New York and Pennsylvania.)
And yet Harrisburg is treading water, and in some cases backpedaling, on protecting its citizens.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. In 2014, a brand new approach to fracking was at the core of Gov. Wolf's election victory, swimming uphill against a Republican tsunami in the rest of the nation. He promised a severance tax on fracking -- something that's done in every other major oil-and-gas production state -- would help solve the school funding crisis, and that new regs and a new attitude in the state Department of Environmental Protection would stop those rigs from spewing assorted gunk into the air or water.
But in 2015, it was Wolf who got an education. The millions of dollars that energy executives have donated to Pennsylvania's top lawmakers over the last decade, and the industry's well-oiled lobbyists made it clear that nothing -- not even the education of school kids -- was as important in Harrisburg as protecting the profits of Big Gas. Pennsylvania is -- and always will be -- the only state with no severance tax.
And so in 2016, in order to get a budget passed (which didn't even really happen the year before) and to get that warm-and-fuzzy bipartisanship that voters claim they crave, Wolf made a U-turn. His hard-charging pro-environmental DEP chief was forced out at the first opportunity. What was supposed to be the largest fine for fracking pollution in Pennsylvania history was undone. To get some new oil-and-gas regulations through the Legislature, Wolf was forced to exempt conventional gas drillers from the new rules. And yet lawmakers are still threatening to scrap other pro-environmental measures, such as new rules to prevent methane leaks from drilling sites.
What's happened in Pennsylvania is more proof that bipartisanship may be highly overrated. Too many lawmakers are too inclined to look out for their donors or parochial interests to care much if kids in Southwest Philly are finding it hard to breathe these days. And Wolf -- who showed in his campaign and in his early days in office that his heart is in the right place -- won't get back on track unless the public applies some pressure on the governor's mansion. But a lot of unhappy fracking neighbors and parents with asthma-stricken kids have already been speaking out, and most of Harrisburg doesn't want to listen. In Pennsylvania, a public health crisis is no biggie, apparently.
So hopefully the parents of today's toddlers in Philadelphia are stocking up on video games for 2025, when their kids will be spending even more of their summer vacation indoors.
Unless they move to New York by then.