For anti-gas drilling state lawmaker, DEP action is no joke

Opportunities to bash state legislators are all too few, so it was delightful to see the story about an apparent "gotcha" moment concerning one from western Pennsylvania.

An Associated Press story, published by The Morning Call on Thursday, said state Rep. Jesse White, D-Washington County, took an adversarial stance against the gas drilling industry last year after he was turned down when he tried to wangle a free ride to the 2011 Super Bowl from a drilling company. White said the disclosure was an attempt to "smear" him, a typical response for a politician caught in an embarrassing situation, and his bid for a plane ride was just a joke.

As much as I'd love to jump on the White-bashing bandwagon, I'm afraid there are signs he may be right.

First, the story said White sent an email request to a Texas drilling company, Range Resources, asking about "travel arrangements" to the Super Bowl, played in Texas and featuring the Pittsburgh Steelers, his favorite team. "If the Range plane was heading down, any chance we could stowaway in the cargo hold?" he asked.

Was that a joke? From what I know about Pennsylvania politicians, none of them would seriously request travel in a cargo hold. When they accept favors from the special interests they so lovingly accommodate, it's first-class or nothing.

More significantly, Thursday's story did not include key details on the background of the White-Range Resources squabble, as revealed in various other news accounts.

Last September, after some residents of Washington County complained about the contamination of their water, Pennsylvania's oxymoronic Department of Environmental Protection contacted one of them, Loren Kiskadden, to reveal its findings.

The contamination was not from a nearby Range Resources drilling site, the DEP determined. It must be the result of faulty construction of Kiskadden's well.

Not long after that, Gov. Tom Corbett signed legislation to provide meager "impact fees" on the drilling industry instead of the meaningful "severance taxes" imposed by all other gas-producing states. The measure also prohibited local municipalities from regulating gas drilling the way they can regulate everything else.

This came after lavish "political campaign contributions" from the gas drilling industry, including Range Resources, and including around $1 million just for Corbett.

Anyway, Loren and Grace Kiskadden and a couple of other families living within a mile of a Range Resources drilling site had contaminated water, so they sued the company last May, and that's where things took a nasty turn for the DEP-Range Resources alliance.

The lawsuit claimed Range Resources knew in 2010 that its operation was contaminating groundwater, and on Sept. 26 of this year, a DEP official, Taru Upadhyay of the Bureau of Laboratories, was required to testify under oath. She revealed that her lab tested for substances in water samples but withheld disclosures about many of them at the direction of DEP's Office of Oil and Gas Management.

Substances not reported to homeowners included lithium, cobalt, copper, nickel, zinc and titanium, some of which can cause cancer, it was reported in various news accounts, even in The New York Times.

That resulted in Rep. White demanding, a couple of weeks ago, that DEP be investigated for "alleged misconduct and fraud." (The people affected by the contaminated water live near his district.) "This is beyond outrageous," he said.

That sort of dressing-down, I suppose, did not sit well with the DEP-Range Resources alliance, and pretty soon somebody dredged up White's old email letter and waved it around as proof of his perfidy.

Meanwhile, another alliance, of 14 environmental groups, sent the governor a letter asking him to reverse a policy he established to take decisions about water contamination out of the hands of DEP scientists (such as Upadhyay) and put them in the hands of top bureaucrats.

That policy, the environmentalists' letter said, "would delay warning the public of water pollution from oil and gas development ... [and] DEP geologists and water quality specialists who are uniquely qualified to make water contamination decisions cannot help but be chilled by the knowledge that their superiors will be second-guessing their scientific determinations. The clear message being sent to these scientists is that the fewer notifications they send up for approval, the better."

I called the DEP press office to ask about all this, but no one got back to me.

One of those 14 environmental organizations, however, is Lehigh Valley Gas Truth, headed by Julie Edgar of Bethlehem, and I was able to get in touch with her.

"Even when water is being contaminated, people are not being notified when they live downstream," Edgar said. Thus far, she noted, there is a moratorium on gas drilling in the Delaware River watershed, although that could change in coming weeks.

"But they are drilling the hell out of the Susquehanna River Basin," she said, noting concerns there that stream water already is polluted enough to affect the health of fish.

Rep. White's quip about getting a ride in a plane's cargo hold may have been a joke, but the rest of this episode is not very funny.

paul.carpenter@mcall.com 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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