This story is part of the WHYY News Climate Desk, bringing you news and solutions for our changing region.
From the Poconos to the Jersey Shore to the mouth of the Delaware Bay, what do you want to know about climate change? What would you like us to cover? Get in touch.
The Philadelphia Liquefied Natural Gas Export Task Force faced a torrent of opposition toward siting a facility in Chester, Delaware County, at its third public meeting on Tuesday morning in the city. The group has been holding a series of public meetings to examine the feasibility of an LNG export terminal.
But the bipartisan task force, which along with lawmakers includes representatives from the gas industry, the building trades union, Philadelphia Gas Works, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the Department of Community and Economic Development, seemed unprepared to face an audience of residents and environmental activists, who stood behind a unified message.
“This is a community you ought not even try to think of coming in,” said Zulene Mayfield, founder of Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL). “We will not allow this environmental genocide.”
The task force plans to issue a final report along with recommendations to guide the Pennsylvania General Assembly in November and one possible location is Chester.
The growth of LNG export facilities across the United States has drawn criticism from climate activists who say it will boost natural gas production and greenhouse gas emissions. The highly flammable gas is also a safety concern for those who would end up as neighbors to these facilities.
More than 150 people, many from communities along the Delaware River, packed into Widener University’s Lathem Hall to hear testimony from four speakers: Carl Marrara, executive director of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, Neil Chatterjee, former chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Chester City Councilmember Stefan Roots, and Mayfield.
Marrara presented findings from a study that analyzed the economic impact an LNG export terminal would have on Delaware County, using Dominion Energy’s Cove Point facility in Lusby, Maryland as the model.
“LNG is a fuel source that the world is craving and which has drastically lowered worldwide emissions in the past two decades, as more and more power facilities and manufacturing plants are transitioning from coal and oil to a cleaner, more efficient natural gas,” Marrara said.
While natural gas generates less greenhouse gasses at the power plant level, climate scientists say natural gas use needs to be phased out in order to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels.
Assuming a four-year construction period, Marrara projected the terminal’s construction would “support a total of 28,249 direct, indirect and induced jobs.” He said the ongoing operations of the plant would directly support 514 positions.
In closing, Marrara said Pennsylvania should streamline the permitting process and present a friendlier face to business.
When it was her turn to speak before the task force and the audience, Mayfield proposed a question:
“If this is such an economical plus for communities, why aren’t members, task force legislators fighting tooth and nail to have that economic development in their communities? Why would you deny your communities all of this wealth?”
Mayfield eventually proposed the question again, directly mentioning task force chair State Rep. Martina White (R-Phila.) by name and the political contributions she has received from Steamfitters Local Union 420. “Zulene, I just want to ask you to please do not impugn the motives of the task force members here,” White said.
James Snell, business manager for the union, serves on the task force.
Chester, once a booming industrial and manufacturing hub, is staring down the barrel of municipal bankruptcy. From the huge incinerator to the wastewater treatment plant, the predominantly Black city has been a magnet for polluting industries, making it an environmental justice community.
City residents suffer from poor health outcomes.
“Many were able to build their wealth off of Chester’s economy,” Mayfield said. “Wealth is still being built in Chester. Now only, it is at the price and a cost of our health, our homes being devalued, and our quality of life being diminished.”
Chester Councilmember Stefan Roots, who recently won the Democratic primary for mayor, said public health has already been compromised.
“What we don’t want is to have to breathe a new batch of particulate matter — nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfuric acids, and naturally occurring radioactive materials from the LNG plant, because our residents are sick,” Roots said. “We exceed in every measurable health disparity asthma, birth defects, COPD, infant mortality, heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and a shorter life expectancy.”
He said Chester doesn’t have a single primary care doctor left in the city to treat residents.
“We would really love to believe that you are guided by the same moral imperatives that we are and that we share the same sense of responsibility for the health and welfare of the Chester community. But by proposing to locate an LNG export facility in Chester, proves to us that you are not,” Roots said.
In the process of cooling the methane, LNG facilities emit toxic air pollutants formaldehyde and cancer-causing benzene.
In a statement issued Monday afternoon, Delaware County Councilmember Kevin Madden criticized the LNG task force for excluding members of county government.
Madden called it “disappointing” that the group was evaluating a site in Chester.
“Given the history of placing environmentally damaging projects in Chester, [it is] imperative there be full transparency about any proposals and significant public input. There is no suitable and viable site in Chester for an LNG terminal,” he wrote.
A proposal for a massive LNG facility and export terminal in the city of Chester has been quietly shopped around to current and former elected officials across the region — behind closed doors.
The first public hearing of the state LNG task force drew criticism and scrutiny for blocking community input.
State Rep. Joe Hohenstein (D-Phila.), a member of the task force who represents Philadelphia’s River Wards, said this will likely be the last public hearing.
“Being honest about the fact that this wasn’t simply Philadelphia proper, but actually the entire southeast region that was being examined for this and also making sure that the task force itself had greater and more equal representation would have gone a long way to making the full process more clear,” Hohenstein told WHYY News.
He said the task force should have been charged with evaluating all forms of energy for the future of Pennsylvania, especially renewable sources.
“We need to recognize that for our energy future, the way forward is not with fossil fuels. And I will recognize that natural gas is cleaner burning than other fossil fuels — but it’s still a fossil fuel. It still puts out too much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere to be used as a long-term solution,” he said.
Rep. White the task force has abided by all rules pertaining to public access and that members have been transparent about the work they are doing.
“Obviously, when you’re faced with a community that has been impoverished for a very long period of time and as we’ve heard today, disadvantage when it comes to other projects in the past, it’s very upsetting to hear those remarks, but important so that we can pursue the work that we have, which is to ensure that the task force continues its work and finds out the information that we need in order to make this Commonwealth a better place to live and work,” White said.
Chatterjee, a former FERC commissioner, told the task force that the process of evaluating applications for LNG facilities is long and rigorous.
“Overall counting pre-filing, the FERC review process takes three years or more and costs tens of millions of dollars. It is not inexpensive and it is not without its rigor. Even after the first process is completed, there can be court challenges,” Chatterjee said.
Chatterjee currently serves on the advisory board of Penn America Energy — which is behind a proposal to bring the LNG export terminal to Chester.
Get daily updates from WHYY News!