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Pa. study finds toxic air near abandoned wells

Plus, when the smoke gets in your skies.

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Your Postmasters: Colin Deppen & Tanisha Thomas

Thursday, June 8, 2023
Groundbreaking study, name change, second bill, vehicle fees, 300 waiting, Kids for Cash, and when the smoke gets in your skies. 

Abandoned oil and gas wells could be exposing nearby Pennsylvania residents to high levels of cancer-causing chemicals, a new first-of-its-kind study found. 

Researchers from ACS Omega, a scientific peer-reviewed journal, found cancer-causing benzene, other toxic gases, and climate-warming methane leaking from 48 abandoned wells in the western part of the commonwealth. An estimated 93% are close to buildings and homes — nearly a quarter of them being a football field’s length away.

There are an estimated 3.2 million abandoned wells in the United States. Officials estimate there are roughly 200,000 in Pennsylvania, though an analysis of methane emissions found the number could be as high as 750,000

Read Inside Climate News’ full report: Abandoned oil and gas wells emit carcinogens and other harmful pollutants, study shows.

THE CONTEXT: A recent report from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found well operators here routinely fail to plug wells, as required, before abandoning them.

The state House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee advanced a bill in May to reverse a decision that limited a state regulatory board’s power to raise bond prices on conventional drillers, a means of ensuring funds are available for the state to plug defunct wells if a driller fails to.

Pennsylvania is also set to receive as much as $400 million in federal funding over the next decade to help in the effort, but some advocates question whether it’s enough as more wells are newly abandoned.

State Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware), chair of his chamber’s environmental committee, likened it to “a game of whack-a-mole.”

Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro said his administration would ask for the highest amount of federal funding the state is able to receive.

“Let’s plug the wells, improve our air quality, and strengthen our communities,” Shapiro said.

Read more: Federal money won’t be enough to solve Pa.’s abandoned oil and gas well problem, advocates say.


"Here we are again fighting for our rights as victims and survivors of childhood sexual abuse who have been waiting many, many years for the opportunity for justice, to find out the truth, to hold our perpetrators accountable..."

State Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks) at a rally calling on lawmakers to provide legal relief for survivors of childhood sex abuse as hopes fade

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A hazy sunrise in Chester County, via Starr B. Canadian wildfires blanketed Pennsylvania in smoke this week. More below on what to expect today. Have a photo you'd like to share with the whole state? Send it to us by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.

Smoke blanketing a field of trees.
Today's top news story in Pennsylvania.PA BRIEFS: The Department of Environmental Protection is one step closer to becoming the Department of Environmental Services (an attempt to soften the brand); Joe Khan, a former federal prosecutor who led sweeping corruption investigations in Allentown and Reading, is the second Democrat to declare a bid for state attorney general; and there's a key bill on the move in a long-running effort to shore up Pennsylvania's deficit-ridden Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement.

Today's second top news story in Pennsylvania.SHAPIRO'S DESK: Months into his first term, a second bill is on its way to Gov. Josh Shapiro's desk. This one would require insurers to conduct a cybersecurity risk assessment, develop cybersecurity protocols, and report breaches to the Pennsylvania Insurance Department. A cyberattack hit the second-largest insurer in Massachusetts in April. Experts say the stakes are high.

Today's third top news story in Pennsylvania.EV FEES: The Capital-Star reports a state Senate panel has advanced legislation creating a new fee for electric vehicle owners. The bill would eliminate the alternative fuels tax on electric vehicles and replace it with a $290 annual flat fee — or $24.17 monthly — for noncommercial EV drivers. The fee would be paid upon vehicle registration and at every renewal. The bill is headed to the full Senate.

Today's fourth top news story in Pennsylvania.SMOKY SKIES: Smoke from Canadian wildfires blanketed Pennsylvania on Wednesday — prompting a slew of air quality warnings — and is set to return today, only this time in greater concentrations to the west. The New York Times (paywall) said forecast models showed that a denser smoke layer could reach into western Pennsylvania and cities like Pittsburgh today.

Today's fifth top news story in Pennsylvania.CYS BACKLOG: State officials say over 300 children in Blair County — victims of abuse or neglect — are waiting for help from the county's Children Youth and Family Services agency, some with claims dating back to October. A worker shortage is being blamed. WTAJ reports the state could step in, adding that even if the state takes over the agency, there’s no sign it has an answer either
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OUT OF OFFICE: Pittsburgh journalist and mom Meg St-Esprit's summer email signoff has gone viral. It reads: "Please note I may be slower to respond to email in the months of June, July, and August due to the United States' inability to provide affordable childcare for working mothers."

KIDS FOR CASH: The latest series from the American Scandal podcast is a four-parter on Luzerne County's Kids for Cash scandal in which two now-former Pennsylvania judges orchestrated a scheme to send children to for-profit jails in exchange for lucrative kickbacks.  

'FIGHTER'S HEAVEN': There's a new state historical marker at the site of Muhammad Ali's training facility in Schuylkill CountyFighter's Heaven is open to visitors every weekend throughout the summer.

STAMP SHOW: A display of 11 million stamps collected by school children for a Holocaust memorial is up at the American Philatelic Society museum in Bellefonte. An open house is set for Sunday.

MARVEL MURAL: Another tribute mural to late comic book legend Steve Ditko — co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange — has gone up in his hometown of Johnstown, the Tribune-Democrat reports.

Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag. Answers submitted by 5:30 p.m. on issue date will be counted.

Yesterday's answer: Apocryphal

Congrats to our daily winners: Craig W., Barbara F., Don H., Susan N.-Z., Susan D., Elaine C., Stacy S., Kim C., Jon W., Karen W., John F., Vicki U., Wendy A., Eddy Z., Judith D., Dennis M., Kimberly D., Craig E., Kathy C., Johnny C., David W., Dianne K., Dan A., William Z., James B., Tom M., Doug W., and Daniel S.
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