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Communities fear health, environmental harms as they await more info on hydrogen hub projects

by Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA |

Community members at a March meeting in Philadelphia about the planned MACH2 hydrogen hub.
Courtesy of Zulene Mayfield

HARRISBURG — The federal government and private developers are collecting public feedback on two major hydrogen production networks that will be partly located in Pennsylvania as part of a multibillion-dollar Biden administration effort to cut carbon pollution and fight climate change.

But affected communities and environmental advocates feel left out of the planning for these massive projects and worry that promises of clean energy and good jobs gloss over serious health risks. Spotlight PA interviews with a dozen stakeholders and a review of feedback from public meetings overwhelmingly show concern, rather than enthusiasm.

Zulene Mayfield sees history repeating. She heads Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living, a group formed over two decades ago to oppose waste disposal facilities linked to high levels of air pollution and illnesses including cancer.

“Historically, Black and brown communities have suffered under all of these ‘good’ new proposals,” Mayfield told Spotlight PA.

As part of the Mid-Atlantic Clean Hydrogen Hub, also called MACH2, pipelines, hydrogen production plants, and hydrogen storage facilities are planned in and around Chester, though details on environmental and health impacts aren’t yet available.

Mayfield feels the proposal offers little benefit to the predominantly Black Delaware County city, in which a third of people live under the poverty line. “It’s certainly not for our residents,” she said of the planned facility.

Hydrogen is a clean-burning fuel central to a federal effort to make industries that produce large amounts of carbon emissions, like cementmaking and steelmaking, greener. But generating hydrogen can also release climate-warming gasses, depending on how it's produced.

Last fall, the Biden administration announced plans to invest $1.6 billion into building two hydrogen hubs partially located in Pennsylvania. Hubs are sprawling networks of infrastructure used to produce, store, and transport hydrogen and its byproducts.

The federal Department of Energy, which oversees the effort, began holding information sessions in October 2023. It has hosted three public meetings on MACH2, and developers are slated to host two sessions over the next month.

Mayfield said the meetings so far haven’t convinced her that community concerns will be taken seriously. She pointed to a March session that MACH2 developers hosted at the Steamfitters Local 420 union hall in Philadelphia. It was attended by Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro, union members, and fossil fuel executives.

Mayfield found the location and time to be exclusionary. “This meeting was not accessible via public transportation, we had to rent a bus, [it] was held at 8 o’clock on Monday morning,” she said.

The developers have since reached out to Mayfield, who told Spotlight PA she is apprehensive but eager to learn more about the project.

Other people who live around planned hub projects also say they’re still waiting for detailed proposals from developers.

Marcia Dinkins, who heads the anti-pollution Black Appalachian Coalition, has followed the Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub, or ARCH2, since it was announced last fall.

The Department of Energy has kept in touch with her, she said, but hasn’t shared details about the hub itself. Dinkins said what she learned at DOE meetings was “very vague.”

“As a community, we don’t know anything and that’s one of the biggest concerns,” she said.

Developers have shared general project locations and the broad strokes of what they plan to build. In a change, MACH2 recently released a more detailed document that lists more specific project plans.

But they haven’t divulged critical details about how the hub will affect the environment and people’s health.

The developers say they don’t want to mislead communities by releasing unfinished project details that could change. But Mayfield and others fear that by the time developers share this information, things will be set in stone.

“At what point in the process do you engage the community? Mayfield said. “At what point in the process do you start any community education?”

Wanted: More info

The Biden administration has greenlit both MACH2, which will be located in Delaware and parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania; and ARCH2, which will be located in Ohio, Western Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

The teams behind both hubs include executives from natural gas companies such as EQT and PBF Energy, government officials, and research organizations such as Batelle.

The current plan puts roughly 15 of MACH2’s 25 projects in southeast Pennsylvania. These include facilities that will produce hydrogen using steam methane reformation, nuclear energy, and renewable energy sources such as solar.

The plans also include a facility that will store carbon emissions underground and at least 50 miles of new pipelines, half of which will span through Marcus Hook borough in Delaware County and Philadelphia, according to a document MACH2 released May 15. Other planned projects include an aviation fuel production plant and an initiative that would use hydrogen to power buses and other municipal vehicles in Philadelphia.

Pa. Gov. Josh Shapiro at a hydrogen hub meeting.
Commonwealth Media Services
Gov. Josh Shapiro at a March informational session about the MACH2 hydrogen hub in Philadelphia.

Three of ARCH2’s 15 projects are slated to be in Pennsylvania. One planned for rural Clinton County, north of State College, is expected to produce blue hydrogen, which uses natural gas but aims to minimize emissions by catching then storing them underground, a process known as carbon capture. That project, headed by KeyState Energy, is expected to produce other chemicals, like ammonia, and to include an injection well for carbon storage.

The other two projects, targeted for Fayette County, will be related, according to a DOE presentation. One will use natural gas “to produce low-carbon aviation fuel.” Then, “excess hydrogen” from that project would be liquified in the other facility for use in the trucking industry. EQT and Air Liquide, an industrial gas supplier, head those projects.

Completing these hydrogen hubs is expected to take around a decade, and the DOE has broken the process into several phases.

At the moment, developers are hashing out community benefits plans, which are agreements that outline how they plan to accommodate and contribute to affected locales. The DOE and developers have so far maintained similar public meeting schedules for both Pennsylvania hubs, sometimes hosting them in concert with outside groups.

Developers have wide latitude to decide what details they make public. They were not required to publish their initial applications to DOE, which included project timelines, data on projected environmental and health impacts, and estimated costs.

They also had to submit community benefits plans. The department said it would publish a summary of the plans after choosing developers, but so far it has not done so.

Residents and other stakeholders say they want more information about the exact locations of hub facilities, and expected emissions and habitat disruptions. Two U.S. House Democrats and the Natural Resources Defense Council are pushing the DOE to publish data on how much the facilities will emit throughout their operation.

During public hearings and listening sessions hosted by the DOE, and in interviews with Spotlight PA, developers said they have good reasons to be tight-lipped.

“You see a lot of people promising things that never came to fruition,” said Shawn Bennett, a representative of ARCH2, at an October DOE hearing. “And for people who have lived there and continue to live there, the last thing you want to do is give them too much hope for something that may not happen.”

Representatives from MACH2 said many of the details community members are asking for, like the exact location of projects, will be finalized and shared publicly during the next phase, which DOE expects will begin this summer.

ARCH2 declined to comment on the community benefits process, referring Spotlight PA to an FAQ.

Manny Citron, a MACH2 official and former chief of staff for Philadelphia’s Department of Labor, said the tension between developers and residents is expected. “It’s a feature of the structure of all the moving parts. And no one’s wrong for being concerned that they haven’t had the chance to speak more with us.”

Health concerns

Most of the community and environmental advocates who spoke with Spotlight PA fear that by the time they have enough detail to understand the scope of the projects, it will be too late for the hubs to incorporate community feedback or make substantive changes.

Underlying that fear is an even deeper one about the health, safety, and environmental effects of the hubs.

The southwestern and north-central areas of Pennsylvania that are expected to host ARCH2 facilities are on the Marcellus Shale. Over the past two decades, the region has been at the center of Pennsylvania’s hydraulic fracturing boom.

Fracking, as the practice is more commonly known, is the process of injecting water into the ground to create cracks in the Earth’s surface to extract oil and gas.

Living near fracking pads or oil fields can cause headaches and nausea. It has also been linked to increased rates of cancer and asthma in children, birth defects, and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

Those risks are top of mind for residents in the vicinity of the two ARCH2 facilities, which are expected to produce hydrogen using natural gas.

Veronica Coptis is one of them. She lives in Carmichael, about a 30-minute drive from La Belle, a Fayette County community that an early DOE announcement identified as a primary ARCH2 project site. Coptis, a community organizer and advisor at environmental advocacy group Taproot Earth, first learned about the project through her job.

Coptis worries about the future of air and water quality in her neighborhood. Materials from the DOE indicate one project will use carbon capture, while another nearby site won’t.

According to an air monitor on her property, the area already has hazardous levels of pollution.

“I have two kids that are under the age of 10 and [am] really concerned about any health impacts that could happen from an increase,” Coptis said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s public or private money, it matters that there’s a facility that impacts my health and property value.”

In western Pennsylvania, at least one ARCH2 project — likely located in Clinton County — will include subsurface carbon dioxide storage.

Under this system, carbon dioxide emissions from hydrogen produced with natural gas are captured and then stored underground. There are just over a dozen carbon injection wells in the country, but none in Pennsylvania.

Environmental advocates want to know who will monitor these wells given that the carbon will be underground for centuries.

“Once you get it into the injection well, the question is if it’s going to stay there,” said Rob Altenburg, senior director for energy and climate at PennFuture, a statewide environmental advocacy organization. “At some point, the people doing the storage no longer are responsible.”

Both hubs are expected to use new pipelines or retrofitted natural gas ones to transport hydrogen or liquified carbon dioxide. That’s a particularly big deal for the Philadelphia region.

In recent years, residents in the densely populated area have seen serious recurring problems with a pipeline that transports natural gas liquids.

Advocates also note the hubs’ pipelines will be connected to relatively new and untested industries.

Alison Steele, executive director of the Environmental Health Project, said that makes it hard to know what questions residents need to ask to guarantee their safety.

She cited a carbon dioxide pipeline leak in Mississippi that caused dozens of people to be hospitalized and hundreds evacuated. Emergency responders there struggled to aid people because their vehicles’ combustion engines couldn’t start without oxygen.

“We don't know enough about the technology to be able to say that it is safe,” Steele said. “But what we do know about some of the components that we've seen in use in the field, it's a pretty safe assumption to say that communities around this infrastructure will be at increased health risk.”

Citron, the MACH2 official, noted that the hub developers have to abide by the National Environmental Policy Act, which mandates the DOE assess the environmental impacts of any proposed project before authorizing it.

The hub projects also must follow the federal Justice40 Initiative, which requires 40% of the economic benefits of the hubs go toward historically marginalized and disadvantaged communities. This can include investments in clean transit or affordable housing.

Katie Blume, legislative director for Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, said some environmentalists question how DOE will enforce the initiative and what criteria it will use.

“We need to demand the utmost transparency from these companies, and we need help from our elected officials,” she said.

Echoing that call, John Detwiler, a member of the community advocacy group North Braddock Residents For Our Future, which formed in response to the fracking boom, said he wants more information.

He doesn’t blame the lack of concrete detail on developers. He pins it on the DOE, which he said “is acting as if they don’t have the right to disclose any information.”

Specifically, he doesn’t understand why the federal government didn’t mandate higher levels of disclosure considering the billions of dollars up for grabs and the size of the planned projects.

“Nobody’s gonna want to slow down to bring new parties in the room,” Detwiler said of the developers’ motivations. “It’s not that they’re being malicious. It’s just nobody would want to do this if they don’t have to.”

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that Manny Citron no longer works for the city of Philadelphia. It has also been updated to correct an editing error about his current title.

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