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State environmental regulator cancels public hearings due to COVID-19

In this file photo, Mariner East 2 pipeline construction crews work in the backyards of homes on Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township, Chester County, on May 2, 2018 after sinkholes opened in the area. That caused one of the ME2 project's many delays. (Marie Cusick / WITF)

In this file photo, Mariner East 2 pipeline construction crews work in the backyards of homes on Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township, Chester County, on May 2, 2018 after sinkholes opened in the area. That caused one of the ME2 project's many delays. (Marie Cusick / WITF)

This story originally appeared on StateImpact Pennsylvania.

The state Department of Environmental Protection canceled seven public hearings — some that were scheduled for earlier in March, and some set for the next few weeks — to help limit the spread of the new coronavirus.

The hearings were to address construction on the Mariner East 2 pipeline in southeastern Pennsylvania, proposed standards for cleaning up harmful chemicals known as PFAS, and two draft Air Quality Plan Approvals to Sunoco Partners for the Marcus Hook Industrial Complex in Delaware County.

Neil Shader, DEP communications director, said they decided to cancel and not postpone because it’s unclear when the COVID-19 pandemic will be brought under control.

On Wednesday, he said the department hadn’t looked into what would be needed to hold virtual public hearings, but said public comment periods are still open, and people can submit their comments online or through the mail.

“Comments that we receive in public hearings are treated just the same as comments that are received through other means,” Shader said.

While public comment is generally required by law for DEP procedures, public hearings are only required in certain cases, such as air quality regulations.

On Friday, DEP announced a virtual hearing for a change to the state’s implementation plan under the federal Clean Air Act — an example of a required hearing. The revision certifies that enforceable measures in DEP permits address EPA requirements.

That hearing is scheduled for April 28 at 1 p.m. DEP said if no one has signed up to testify by 12 p.m. on April 24, the hearing will be canceled.

Comments, suggestions, support, or objections regarding the draft Air Quality Plan Approvals for the Marcus Hook Industrial Complex must be received by April 12 at 11:59 p.m. The first draft approval would group emissions from previously approved plans with one new plan. The second would allow installation of new equipment to upgrade, chill, store and move ethane, a byproduct of natural gas.

Comments on proposed rulemaking that would establish groundwater and soil cleanup standards for PFAS at contaminated properties must be received by April 30 at 11:59 p.m. The rule would set limits for the concentration of three PFAS chemicals in soil and groundwater, according to Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. In groundwater, that’s 70 parts per trillion. Limits for soil will be calculated using EPA data.

The proposal was included as a recommendation by the PFAS Action Team, established by Gov. Tom Wolf through an executive order. PFAS are manmade chemicals that don’t break down in the environment or the human body. They can be found in common items like cookware and carpets, as well as firefighting foams.

Input on proposed modifications to three sections of the Mariner East 2 pipeline project in parts of Chester and Delaware counties must be received by May 8 at 11:59 p.m. The pipeline builder wants to switch from a horizontal drilling method to an open trench style. It’s also requesting a change in the pipeline’s route to avoid potential growth on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

David Hess, who was DEP Secretary from 2001-03, said people shouldn’t be concerned that their written comments will be lost.

During his time as a  regulatory coordinator at the department, he said, “One of my jobs was to help sift through all those comments, organize them, make sure that each comment was responded to, and we didn’t miss any, particularly on regulations. That’s a standard way of operating for the department.”

In a letter, the environmental advocacy group Delaware Riverkeeper Network called on state regulators in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware to suspend decision-making and extend public comment periods during the pandemic.

It argued canceling public hearings excludes people who don’t have internet access.

Shader said that while a hearing can help draw attention to an issue, people are welcome to raise awareness on their own.

“I would encourage people to share links to our eComment and links to the email addresses to submit comments if it’s something that they are interested and passionate about,” he said.

Hess said with the unprecedented situation of the coronavirus pandemic, and considering the technology available, he thinks the department will need to rely on tools other than in-person hearings to collect public comment.

The hearings on cleanup regulations for PFAs were scheduled for 6 p.m. on March 17 in Harrisburg, March 18 in Pittsburgh, and March 25 in Warminster.

A hearing on the draft Air Quality Plan Approvals had been planned for 6 p.m. on April 2 in Marcus Hook.

The hearings on construction changes for the Mariner East 2 pipeline were slated for 6 p.m. on April 14 in Media, April 15 in Exton, and April 16 in West Chester.

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