By Dawn Heinbach, Editor
In this final section, Feridun discusses the moratorium on new drilling in Pennsylvania state forests, COP21, the Bernville Compressor station accident, and the future of Berks Gas Truth.
Featured Image: More than 250 protesters marched to Governor Tom Wolf’s inauguration, Jan. 20, 2015, where they chanted “Ban Fracking Now” during the ceremony.
All photos courtesy of Karen Feridun, Berks Gas Truth.
NDE: What happened with the drilling in state parks?
KF: Rendell actually put a moratorium on his own practice of allowing state forests—not state parks—to be fracked. He was leasing land like crazy until he was advised that he had leased everything that wasn’t so sensitive that it would be completely brutalized if he kept going. So he put a moratorium on his own policy. Then Corbett took over. He wanted to level the playing field. Nothing is off limits to him; he’d frack his grandmother’s grave. He lifted that moratorium and included that the state could begin leasing land in state parks for the first time.
NDE: So as of today, they are allowed to do that?
KF: No, because one of the first things Wolf did when he took office was to undo what Corbett had done. At the time, Corbett was claiming that they had figured out how to not drill “in” the state lands but drill “under” using hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. They would not be putting any more holes in the parks, but they would be drilling under the subsurface. It was nonsense because subsurface disruptions and drilling activities near sensitive areas are impactful in their own right. How they were proposing to do it never made any sense, but it was supposed to be their nod to environmentalists – they weren’t going to drill in sensitive areas but under them.
Wolf undid that, but again, it only stops future permitting. There are some beautiful parts of our state forests that are subject to being drilled. It’s starting to hurt tourism. People come to this state to enjoy those spaces. The tourism brochures that the state printed mention the fact that you might see a well, referring to fracking like a “tourist site.”
NDE: They should be leading the fight against it.
KF: John Quigley says that one of the goals of the Pipeline Infrastructure Task Force is to build public acceptance of fracking and pipelines. At a time when the rest of the world is trying to figure out how to get off of fossil fuels, they’re figuring out how to enable an industry to build thousands of miles of more pipelines which will only carry gas, which means that many more fracked wells.
NDE: If the goal of the Infrastructure Task Force is to gain public acceptance, that’s just public relations and is not based on any facts. They are going to do it and they will find a way to make people believe that it’s safe.
KF: His job should be to say “no.” His job is to protect the people of Pennsylvania and to protect our natural resources. Even if they want to allow it, then regulate the hell out of it. I would still disagree—they shouldn’t be doing it at all—but I would have a little bit more respect for him if he was trying to do it as well as he possibly could. But that’s not what you’re talking about when you’re trying to enable [the gas industry], letting them write their own recommendations. And then they argue about their own recommendations because the wording is still too strong for them.
NDE: Tell me about Paris and COP21.
KF: COP stands for Council of Parties. It’s a UN-driven meeting on climate. They always name the protocol or agreement that comes out of the meeting for the city where it occurred, as in the Kyoto Protocol that is probably one of the better known ones. They’ve been holding these meetings for 21 years. One of the reasons we wanted a huge presence in Paris is because it is so clear that time is running out. Around Christmas, we saw blizzards next to tornadoes and recently had a record blizzard on the east coast. The last two years are the hottest on record for the planet. Climate change is moving a lot faster than they predicted. The goal was always to avoid the 2 degree mark in terms of the planetary temperature increase. And the 1-degree increase, where we already are, has proven to be worse than they ever thought it would be. In order to save island nations that are already going underwater, 1.5 is the cut-off point. You can’t go to 2. And it’s hard to know if we even have time left to avoid the 1.5 degree mark.
It was really important to have people from all fossil fuel fights, but especially from fracking. Last September, I helped organize the climate march in New York. We had 400,000 people there. It was not very clear that fracking was going to be a presence. We made it visible because we had signs throughout the march. The march was organized by contingents – for example, indigenous people, youth, faith leaders, etc. The Fracking contingent was near the back and that has to do with this sort-of green on green war. There are some who think that we should be off of coal and relying more on fracked gas because at least then we are off of coal. Our point of view is that you can eliminate both. We cite Mark Jacobson from Stanford University who has written all about this for “The Solutions Project” and how we can get the entire country and the entire world to get off of fossil fuels by 2050. You have to have to political will to do it so you’re not just trading in one bad thing for another.
NDE: I hear a lot of people pushing to return to coal, but that doesn’t make any sense.
KF: In Tom Wolf’s acceptance speech, he said, “We don’t just have natural gas. We’ve got coal!” That was Katie McGinty talking. She had run for governor against Wolf, and had had to return a huge donation from the company that was responsible for the coal ash spill in West Virginia. She was taking money from the coal industry and yet she likes to tout that she used to work for Al Gore and the DEP. She’s not green at all. When she dropped out of the race, she became Wolf’s campaign chief.
NDE: I’m disappointed in the DEP because that’s an organization that we should be able to like and support, and yet they do things that are not protecting the environment.
KF: There are people there would like nothing more than to do their jobs, so my criticisms are not an indictment of everybody there. It’s just the leadership. There are plenty of slack-jawed bureaucrats who are just too lazy or who are pro-fracking. One of the people on the Pipeline Infrastructure Task Force is Alyssa Harris. I met her when she was deputy at the DEP; she was the community outreach person. She told us when we met with her: “I’m your contact. I’m the person you should reach out to when things are going on in your community.” Now, she works for UGI and PennEast Pipeline.
I had a meeting with her in Reading near the end of her tenure at the DEP about the Berks Natural Gas power plant and the compressor station problem we had during Hurricane Sandy – there was a massive blow-down in Berks that they never even told anybody about. I asked her, “Alyssa, why is it that you never knocked on any doors after that blow-down or you never issued a press release?”
She said, “Because we didn’t.”
It took months of me fighting DEP to get them to investigate it—and they did a good job of investigating—but it never made the press until nine months later when Ford Turner at the Reading Eagle published his investigative report. I was mentioning it on every TV show I was on, but they always cut that part of my interview. It never made it on the air, not for conspiratorial reasons but because it just wasn’t why I was being interviewed.
Cindy Boyer and Susan Fiori have a show on WEEU for their store, Nature’s Garden. They called me the day the report was published and asked me to go on their radio show and talk about what happened.
NDE: So what did happen with this blow-down?
KF: It’s called the Bernville Compressor Station. It sits on the Texas Eastern Pipeline, the major pipeline that runs through Berks County, and it’s been around for a long time. There’s one in Bechtelsville, also. That location is notorious because in the 80s, they had extant PCBs because they were actually using the waste that was laden with PCBs to spray the grounds as a weed killer. So it got in everything. They had to monitor for a few years.
During Hurricane Sandy there was a blow-down at the Bernville station in which a valve failed to reengage. So methane and VOCs were released into the air.
NDE: How did you find out about this?
KF: The neighbors were jolted out of their beds by what sounded like a freight train. The people closest to the station smelled mercaptan—the chemical they add to the gas so you can smell it if something goes wrong—so they figured it was the compressor station. But people two miles away just heard the noise, and had no idea what had happened.
A woman called me and said, “We can’t get the press to come out, we can’t get any information from the company or the DEP. We’re desperate.”
I called DEP and spoke to the emergency worker who took the call the night of the blow-down. The gas company did report it, but he said that he didn’t send anybody out because they had a lot of calls that night. They were following all the proper procedures, so their next step was to report it to the air quality office in Reading. I talked with Will Bortz there and told him that the neighbors were really worried about this and didn’t have any information. He said that if the neighbors are worried, they should probably investigate it. Bortz told me that the only reason they hadn’t investigated it is because the company reported .41 tons of VOCs and three quarters of a million cubic feet of natural gas were released due to the blow-down. In those instances, the air quality office doesn’t usually do anything to the company because that is the same amount released during a normal venting. For compressor stations, part of doing business is releasing bad stuff into the air to clean out the system. So if the accident matches the amount that would be released during venting, they aren’t in violation of anything. The company still has to report an accident, though.
Two weeks later, Will Bortz called me back and he was furious.
“It wasn’t .41 tons [of VOCs released], it was 61 tons,” Bortz said. “And it wasn’t three quarters of a million, it was 174 million cubic feet of natural gas.”
He said they issued an operating violation to cite the company and the company has some number of days to respond, and then the DEP makes its determination. Bortz said that he can’t issue a permit violation because there are no maximum allowable levels of emissions listed in the permit, so there’s nothing to exceed.
We can’t rely on the government to help us. We have to do it ourselves.— Karen Feridun
NDE: Why are there no upper limits?
KF: Because that’s the way our permits are written. They don’t mandate a maximum amount. Even though Will Bortz could tell me that the amount released during the accident was more than the Bernville station releases in one year, that’s not written in the permit, so there are no repercussions.
NDE: Why did the Bernville station report it as being the same as what is normally released?
KF: How they measure the gas is by the pressure in the pipeline. When the pressure drops, they know that gas was released somewhere. They can calculate these measurements very quickly, and as long as the DEP doesn’t ask them to check again after reviewing the data, that’s where it stops. When the DEP went there and did their own evaluation, they found out that it was so much higher than what the station reported. That’s why Will Bortz was angry – because the gas company should have self-policed and done a second reading.
The woman who called me to ask for help called me again after two weeks. The reason she had stopped calling was because she got sick with a respiratory illness. I told her to talk to her doctor because it could be because of the blow-down. At least she should get it documented.
What happens with the DEP and these gas companies is simple: If you always get away with it, why would you police yourself any better? They will never attempt to get that second set of numbers after an accident.
Another part of that meeting I had with Alyssa Harris and the DEP was about the Berks Hollow Natural Gas Power Plant. There are things called BACT standards – Best Available Control Technology standards — that companies must comply with, which means that a company that wants to build a power plant needs to provide down-to-the-serial-number level information on all the equipment that they want to use. This allows the DEP to do evaluations that tell them if it will be efficient, if the equipment will release too many emissions, etc. The company didn’t do that. The application they submitted just said that they would use really good equipment; no specifics at all. The Clean Air Council had advised me going into that meeting that we should be demanding that they adhere to the BACT standards. When I brought this up at the meeting, the DEP representatives just laughed. They said, “We approve these all the time without that.” But it’s against the law. That’s the DEP’s version of policing themselves. They laughed at my suggestion that they would do better than that. It’s written in the law and we could sue them for not requiring it. It’s because they get away with it. How many law suits can you file? How many environmental attorneys can we even find to constantly file all these law suits?
I would love to see the companies be more ethical, but these companies exist to make money, and so everything that they try to do right takes away from the bottom line for them. It has to be the role of government to make them do right.
NDE: It has to be somebody else doing the policing because otherwise it’s conflict of interest.
KF: Look at nuclear power. Regardless of what you think of nuclear, it’s an incredibly sophisticated technology on the front end, and on the back end, they basically put spent fuel rods in a pool because the back end is where they lose money. Just like spilled fracking waste or poorly capped wells. It all costs money for them to do something better, or to do something right, if there is such a thing.
NDE: What I don’t understand is why the people in charge of the companies don’t want to do it right. How can it be that everyone is motivated only by money?
KF: I happen to have my own theory about that; I’ve thought about this. Work isn’t just work anymore. “Work” is divided into a million things. There’s no one company that does “the thing.” The whole world is made up of suppliers and contractors, and so nobody owns the process anymore. If there is one company that is doing fracking—from mining frac sand to capping the well—if there was one company in charge of all of it, and that person running that business was an ethical person who tried to do it as well as he could, then it could be done as safely or as well as is humanly possible. But business is so reliant on the next guy down the line coming in with the right price for that part of the job, or not wanting to pay more for that part of the job. It’s so broken down into a million components that it’s hard for any one person to do it right. It throws off the whole system. That’s why we need to have some outside force that’s regulating all of it, making sure that standards are met—even if I don’t consider them sufficient, at least there would be standards that everybody has to follow. That’s what regulations and laws are supposed to do, but they’re often insufficient and even the best ones are only as good as their enforcement.
NDE: What do you see for the future of Berks Gas Truth?
KF: It’s hard to know what’s going to happen. It’s possible that we will become a 501(c)(3). I’ve always been on the fence about that. We were part of an effort called Pennsylvania Voters Against Fracking during the gubernatorial primary, and we bird-dogged candidates during the primaries and had them sign a pledge to stop fracking. The only person who signed it was Brad Koplinski, so we supported his run for Lieutenant Governor. But at least we know that we made it a campaign issue. I’d still like to hold off on 501(c)(3) status as long as possible so that I can be political and can say what I need to, especially in this coming campaign season when climate change has to be an issue.
I’ve gotten heavily involved with Pennsylvanians Against Fracking, a statewide coalition Berks Gas Truth co-founded. What we’re doing at Pennsylvanians Against Fracking and also Americans Against Fracking is planning a massive march, rally, conference and maybe even a concert, in Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention’s (DNC) convention in July. So we have big plans for this year.
Increasingly I’ve been working at the state, national, and international level, including the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal on Fracking, a human rights approach to the issues. Our team is made up of activists, experts, and legal scholars from the U.S. U.K., and Australia.
NDE: It sounds like you have a lot on your plate.
KF: What has happened in the past year is that every time I think that I cannot possibly get busier, I do. I used to be the head of the planning commission at Kutztown and I was part of MAREA (Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Association) that did the energy festival in Kempton. I have dropped every other thing I’ve ever done to do this full time. After I got back from Paris the next day turned out to be a really big day. The Senate had passed an amendment to the fiscal code bill that provides for all the procedures by which the budget gets spent. It took $12 million away from renewable energy programs and diverted it to a pipeline infrastructure incentive program. It took away the revisions to the state’s oil and gas regulations for conventional drilling. It eliminated another type of clean energy fund and more. So we had to fight this. And that’s the way it goes; things are constantly thrown at us because they’re always coming up with some new ridiculously bad idea. We try to get ahead of the game and drive the narrative, but we always need to be reacting to things that are happening.
NDE: One last thing. You researched this topic on your own and became the founder of Berks Gas Truth. You are the go-to person for anything fracking-related. Why you?
KF: I actually suffered from major depression and went through a rough few years. I couldn’t function. I worked really hard on regaining my life. When I moved to Kutztown, I thought, “I’m going to just put my toe into the water and see if I can still do anything.” So I very cautiously volunteered for the Obama campaign in a limited capacity. Before long I was the head of the volunteer group in Northern Berks. I discovered that I was good at stuff, better than I had thought I could be. That gave me some confidence.
From there I was invited to be the President of the Kutztown Area Democratic Club and became a county committee person for the party.
Then I met Darree Sicher and started helping her with the sludge issue. It just turned out that I had an ability to do these things, and I followed that.
So anybody who has the desire to do something, even beyond learning about a specific issue like I did with fracking, whatever you want to do in life – just do it. Put your toe in the water, give it a shot; it could turn out to be better than you ever dreamed.
Karen Feridun has a Bachelor’s degree from Kutztown University in Political Science with a concentration in History. She also holds a Master’s degree in Library Science. She lives in Kutztown with her two cats, Momma and MooMoo.