In 1793, as blood began to flow in earnest in the French Revolution, royalists made plans to provide a refuge in America for Queen Marie Antoinette, one of the most evil monarchs who ever lived.
They found land inside an oxbow formation of the Susquehanna River and it came to be known as French Azilum, a variation on the French word for asylum, and construction on a settlement began. Marie Antoinette never made it. Her head was lopped off that year in Paris, and nobody ever deserved a date with a guillotine more.
I have been to just about every corner of every county in Pennsylvania, and there is no place more beautiful than that oxbow, when viewed from the Marie Antoinette Overlook along Route 6 in Bradford County.
French Azilum, in what's now Asylum Township, was in the news this past week when Democratic candidate for governor John Hanger, formerly the head of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, stopped there to blast Gov. Tom Corbett's coddling of gas well drillers.
Generally, I avoid writing about politics. I wait until the two-party monopoly puts this or that scoundrel in office, and then I concern myself with what he or she says or does. This time, I could not contain myself when I heard the political pitch.
On Wednesday, Hanger made a ballyhooed visit to the property of 80-year-old Max Chilson, who, a campaign release said, "has been unable to drink his water for three years due to contamination about which he is in dispute with gas drillers."
Another release expressed outrage over a DEP claim that a driller was not responsible. "This situation is becoming all too familiar in the gas field. Property owners who are having serious problems as a result of drilling cannot get help from the gas driller or the DEP. … Human decency demands drinking water for this life-long resident of Bradford County."
The Daily Review newspaper of Towanda, in its account of Hanger's visit, reported that Chilson said "his well water began turning black in May of 2011, on the same day a natural gas well located approximately 1,200 feet away was drilled." The story said a drilling company installed a filter, but he still cannot drink his water and DEP has not tested it in about a year.
"I'm calling on the DEP to come out and test [Chilson's] water," the Review quoted Hanger as saying. "As governor, I would like to create a new office that would professionally and independently investigate citizen complaints about gas drilling."
That was not exactly the tune Hanger was singing when he was DEP secretary.
As I reported at the time, Hanger seemed very friendly to the gas-drilling industry after elements of that industry gave his boss, then-Gov. Ed Rendell, more than $84,000 in "political campaign contributions."
(I've been far harsher in my criticism of Gov. Tom Corbett, who accepted millions in such money and has given the gas drillers everything they want, including making Pennsylvania the only state that does not have a severance tax on gas extractions.)
At one point, I discussed Hanger's appearance in the anti-drilling film "Gaslands" (which I panned), in a scene eerily similar to the French Azilum situation. Hanger, then at DEP, was offered water from a well in a gas-drilling area but refused to drink it. That, I suggested, did not boost confidence in his claims drilling was safe.
Around that time, an Associated Press story quoted Hanger as saying DEP regulations on gas drilling were adequate to protect water supplies. "The drinking water at the tap in Pennsylvania is safe. It has not been contaminated by drilling," he said.
Hanger promptly wrote a response published by The Morning Call, saying he was "appalled" by the AP's "sensational premise" that state water wasn't protected. "Here's the reality: Every drop of tap water that was publicly treated is required to meet the safe drinking water standard."
I called Hanger's campaign office to ask about all that, and about an episode that came to light right after he left office in 2011.
When forced to testify in a legal dispute, DEP lab personnel admitted they had been ordered to withhold information on contaminants they found when testing the drinking water near gas-drilling sites.
Hanger told me that DEP's regulation of gas drilling was weak when he took office. "That's what I walked into," he said, and he greatly strengthened it, more than doubling the number of inspectors and adding other tough steps to keep drillers in line.
He said he learned of the lab situation only after he left office. "It continued without my knowledge … [and] that was a mistake," he said of the lab's withholding of information on contaminants.
"I've got a very, very strong record when it comes to regulating this industry," he said.
Actually, I agree with that last statement, in the context of comparing what happened under Hanger's DEP years with what's happening now. Hanger was more devoted to protecting our water than is anyone in the Corbett administration, by a mile.
However, the irony of his visit to Bradford County, and the comments he made there, remain. If he had been that passionate about protecting water when he was DEP secretary — and if he had taken a swig of that water he was offered in "Gaslands" — I'd feel better about him now.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays