About 500 people showed up Wednesday for a hearing held by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection on the planned expansion of a natural gas compression station in Smith Township. Residents filled the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall on Run Street to capacity in order to provide testimony as part of the permit approval process for the MarkWest facility.
“I know that if this many of you would come out and miss the Penguins game, that this issue must be important to you,” said Robert McHale, MarkWest public relations director.
Representatives from MarkWest opened the meeting with a short presentation explaining the planned alteration to the plant.
Nathan Wheldon, environmental manager for MarkWest, said the company planned to expand the site’s capability from two engines to as many as 10 in order to meet demand. He highlighted the various safety features of the plant, including daily inspections, regular equipment checks, maintenance and technological improvements like flash and gas detectors.
Wheldon assured the crowd the plant would be built to meet the industry’s highest technological standards.
“If these detectors see anything out of order, the plant will shut down before anything else happens,” Wheldon said.
The public meeting was announced after MarkWest’s application for the expansion caused the DEP to receive a number of public comments. Following the presentation by Wheldon and McHale, members of the public were asked to speak. A court reporter was present to record the testimony as part of the official record.
Although DEP and MarkWest representatives were not permitted to answer residents’ comments or questions directly, DEP officials said they would answer in writing as part of a “comment and response document” made available on Pennsylvania Bulletin, the commonwealth’s outlet for public information.
Members of the audience were split, with a slightly larger portion of the presenters in favor of the gas industry.
Veronica Coptis, community organizer for the Center for Coalfield Justice in Washington, said many of the emission levels laid out in the permit application would be harmful to residents.
“The Smith compressor would be one of the largest in the county,” Coptis said. The planned expansion “produced an increased risk for formaldehyde exposure … We’re opposed to emissions of these known carcinogens.
“The voices of the citizens of Washington County should be considered above industry interests.”
Alex Paris, of Avella, was one of the many residents in favor of the natural gas industry. He drew a contrast with previous oil and coal exploitation.
“In this area, we’ve been heavily affected by coal,” Paris said. “Now, we have a chance to do it the right way because of new technology.”
State Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, also said the impact of Marcellus Shale exploration was good for the area.
“Natural gas is having a positive environmental impact,” Solobay said, pointing to a federal study that claimed air pollution had decreased between 2005 and 2011. “This trend can only improve air quality, not only in our region, but in the country as a whole.”
Attorney John Smith, solicitor for Robinson Township, shared a petition signed by 20 residents of that municipality voicing air quality concerns.
“Many of the people (of Robinson Township) live in low-lying areas,” Smith said. “Many of these chemicals tend to lay in low levels.”
Smith said similar compression stations elsewhere in the country have utilized electric engines instead of the 1,980-horsepower, natural-gas-burning engines the Smith compressor would employ. He said the electric engines had less of an air quality impact because they emitted fewer pollutants. In addition to formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds were also singled out as especially harmful.
“These are known cancer-causing agents that can affect these individuals,” Smith said.