Pennsylvania Politics Continues to Trump Health and the Environment

 

 

by WALTER BRASCH

 

Politics continues to threaten the health and welfare of Pennsylvanians.

The latest is how the Republican-dominated legislature and Gov. Tom Corbett separated one of the wealthiest and more high-tech/industrial areas of the state from the rural areas.

Less than a week before the 2011–2012 fiscal year budget was scheduled to expire, June 30, the majority party slipped an amendment into the 2012–2013 proposed budget, (SB1263), to ban natural gas drilling in a portion of southeastern Pennsylvania for up to six years. The South Newark Basin includes portions of Bucks, Montgomery, and Berks counties, and could provide at least 360 billion cubic feet of natural gas, according to estimates by the United States Geologic Survey.

Only an e-mail blast by anti-fracking activist Iris Marie Bloom and a short AP story the day before the budget was passed alerted Pennsylvanians to the amendment that gives special consideration to the suburban areas of Philadelphia.

High volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, is a process that injects under heavy pressure as much as 10 million gallons of water, sand, gases, and chemicals, many of them known carcinogens, into a rock formation as much as 10,000 feet below the earth’s surface to open channels and force out natural gas and fossil fuels. However, numerous studies have concluded that the process of fracking to extract natural gas poses significant problems to the health of citizens and their environment.

In his first budget address, Corbett declared he wanted to “make Pennsylvania the hub of this [drilling] boom. Just as the oil com­pa­nies decided to headquarter in one of a dozen states with oil, let’s make Penn­syl­va­nia the Texas of the nat­ural gas boom.”

The push by Corbett and the Republicans in the Legislature that led to the enactment of the highly-controversial Act 13 to open gas drilling was possibly not only because they favor corporate development but because it was also payback for extensive campaign contributions by the natural gas industry. Corbett had taken more than $1.6 million in contributions from persons and PACs associated with the natural gas industry, according to data compiled by Common Cause.

Rep. Brian L. Ellis (R-Butler County, Pa.), sponsor of the House bill, received $23,300. Sen. Joseph B. Scarnati (R- Warren, Pa.), the senate president pro-tempore who sponsored the companion Senate bill (SB 1100), received $293,334, according to Marcellus Money. Rep. Dave Reed (R-Indiana, Pa.), chair of the majority policy committee, received $105,732; Rep. Mike Turzai (R-McCandless, Pa.), majority floor leader, received $79,100. Of the 20 Pennsylvania legislators who received the most money from the industry in the past decade, 16 are Republicans, according to Common Cause.

The Republican legislators who enthusiastically supported Act 13 but then created an amendment to exempt a part of the state, claim the amendment was needed to give time to better study the effects of fracking. “We basically said we didn’t know [the South Newark Basin] was there before when we did Act 13,” said State Sen. Charles T. McIhnnerey (R- Doylestown), sponsor of the amendment. However, the presence of natural gas in southeastern Pennsylvania wasn’t exactly a secret; energy companies had been active for several years in the region. McIhnnerey told phillyburbs.com, “We need to slow this down until we can do a study on it—see what’s there, see where it is, see how deep it is, study the impact, get the local supervisor’s [sic] thoughts on it.”

“Where was our study?” demanded State Rep. Jesse White (D-Washington County), who actively opposes Act 13 and has been trying to get responsibility on the part of the Industry and the state Legislature regarding drilling in the Marcellus and Utica shales. “We were here four months ago [when Act 13 was passed] under the guise of, we had to have uniformity, we had to have consistency, we needed to be fair,” said Rep. White, “and now, four months later, we’re saying, ‘Maybe, for whatever reason, we’re going to give a few people a pass.’”

Karen Feridun, founder of Berks Gas Truth, and one of the state’s more active opponents of fracking, says, “Studies are not being conducted before drilling begins anywhere else in the state . . . nor are studies being conducted on the potential impacts of the pipeline operations already coming here [to Berks County].”

 David Meiser, chair of the Bucks County Sierra Club, said the Legislature “should either exempt all counties from Act 13 and not just try to get special treatment from Sen. McIlhinney’s core area, or repeal the law entirely.”

Sen. McIhnnerey proudly noted the last-minute legislation “makes good on my promise that Act 13 was not intended to apply to Bucks County.”

By his own words, it is time for the Republican majority, so willing to expose rural Pennsylvania to the effects of fracking, to now honestly answer two significant questions.

The first question to the Republicans is, “Why do you support a state law that discriminates against the rural counties, while you support a special exemption that protects the health and welfare of the urban and suburban counties that have many of the state’s most powerful and wealthiest constituents, including the head of the Department of Environmental Protection and the lieutenant governor?”

The second question is, simply, “How much more money will it take to continue to buy your loyalty to corporations, the powerful, and the affluent?”

[Walter Brasch, recipient of the Pennsylvania Press Club’s lifetime achievement award, is a syndicated columnist, author of 17 books, former newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, and professor emeritus of mass communications. His current book is the critically-acclaimed novel Before the First Snow, which discusses health and welfare issues in energy exploration. His next book is about health, environment, and political corruption associated with the natural gas industry.]

  

 

Pennsylvania Politics Continues to Override Humane Actions

 

 

by WALTER BRASCH

 

A national animal welfare organization has filed ethics charges against a Pennsylvania district attorney.

SHARK (Showing Animals Respect and Kindness) charges Bucks County DA David Heckler with conflict-of-interest, favoritism, and failure to fulfill his professional responsibilities. The ethics charges were filed with the Disciplinary Board of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

SHARK, an Illinois-based charity, has been more active in Pennsylvania following a $1 million donation by Bob Barker to stop pigeon shoots. Pennsylvania is the only state that has open and regularly occurring pigeon shoots.

The conflict-of-interest charges date from 2010 when Heckler refused to allow Johnna Seeton, a humane officer, to have an attorney and then blocked her from filing summary citations of animal cruelty against the Philadelphia Gun Club of Bensalem, Pa. “I showed him the evidence, and that’s the last I heard from him,” says Seeton. But it wasn’t the last of the case. “The next thing I know is that I read in the paper that Mr. Heckler had brokered a deal with the gun club,” she says. That deal was for the club to pay court costs and make a $200 donation to the Bucks County SPCA. Seeton was never consulted. Heckler, however, prior to working out a deal had gone to the media to denounce Seeton’s citations as nothing more than “hot air.”

The deal was worked out with Sean Corr, attorney for the PGC. Corr, says Steve Hindi of SHARK, “was one of the biggest individual donors to the Bucks County Republican Committee [which had] heavily funded Heckler’s election campaign.” Heckler had been a state representative and senator and then a judge of the Bucks County Common Pleas Court. Corr, who was shooting pigeons at the PGC in December 2009, was convicted of harassment for shoving a camera into Hindi’s face; Hindi was not on PGC property at the time of the incident, according to the Doylestown Intelligencer. Corr is currently a part-time solicitor for the county.

On April 30 of this year, Seeton filed five summary citations of animal cruelty against the PGC for violations during pigeon shoots on March 17 and 31. State law gives DAs the discretion to deny the presence of attorneys for plaintiffs. However, Heckler’s actions are the only time any DA denied Seeton, a humane officer since 1998, the right to have an attorney. Seeton says that a private attorney representing the Pennsylvania Legislature Animal Network (PLAN) would incur no public costs. As was the case in 2010, Heckler refused to tell Seeton the reason for his denial of legal representation.

“There is a reasonableness standard that a DA in denying attorney representation will have a bona fide reason to do so,” says Elissa Katz, an attorney and president of Humane PA PAC, “but in this case there appears to be no reasonable basis for denying representation.” The PGC, however, could be represented by an attorney in the court of District Magistrate Leonard Brown. Heckler’s action “places the parties on an unfair playing field from the beginning,” says Katz.

Heckler numerous times stated that although he isn’t a pigeon shooter, he is reluctant to pursue charges against pigeon shooting because it isn’t a crime in Pennsylvania. Tom Logan, a Bucks County assistant district attorney, says the reason the DA’s office is denying Seeton legal representation is because “a review of the law [indicates] it is not a crime. If it’s not a crime, we don’t want to turn it into a crime.”

However in Bensalem Twp., where the PGC is located, pigeon shooting is illegal. In May 2002, the township determined that “live pigeon shoots do, in fact, violate the Pennsylvania Animal Cruelty Statue . . . as well as Township Ordinance No. 71,” and issued a cease and desist order. The PGC briefly suspended the shoots. Karel Minor, executive director of the Humane Society of Berks County, says pigeon shoots, contrary to public perception and political gesturing, are already illegal. The shoots, says Minor, aren’t protected “under any statute, law or code.” Further, he says, “Because they aren’t exempt from animal cruelty law, they are subject to them by definition.” 

However, the problem is enforcement. “As long as DAs aren’t allowing humane society police officers to enforce existing law, the legislature is going to have to stop avoiding the issue and clarify that this practice is illegal,” says Heidi Prescott, senior vice-president for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Leaders of the state legislature, cowered by a heavy NRA lobbying campaign that irrationally equates an end of the cruelty of pigeon shooting with a violation of Second Amendment rights, have numerous times blocked legislation from a full vote. The only time the bill was voted on as a free-standing bill was in the 1980s. Several attempts to amend it have been made over the past 20 years, the closest vote taking place in 1994, when the House voted 99–93 in favor of an amendment to ban pigeon shoots, but fell short of the 102 votes needed for passage.

Most of the 20–25 pigeon shoots are in suburban Philadelphia, specifically Bucks and Berks counties, with a combined population of more than one million. Individual shoots are also held in Dauphin and Northumberland counties. The Hegins pigeon shoot in Schuylkill County was finally cancelled in 2000 after the state Supreme Court ruled that animal cruelty charges could be filed against the organizers. That shoot, begun in 1935, had attracted national attention during its last 12 years when animal rights protestors tried to rescue wounded birds and used several tactics as they confronted shooters and their supporters, including large numbers of skinheads and fringe groups from the extreme right.

Pigeon shoot organizers put as many as 5,000 birds, often scared and undernourished, into small cages and then release them about 30 yards in front of pretend-hunters with 12-gauge shotguns. Most of the birds are hit by the shot within five to 10 feet of the cages, with many shot while standing on the ground. About three-fourths of all birds are wounded, not killed outright, says Prescott. If shot within the gun club’s property, trapper boys, often in their teens will take the birds, wring their necks, snip their heads off, or stuff them alive into barrels to suffocate. If the birds survive long enough to fly outside the gun club’s property, most will die lingering and painful deaths; at the PGC, many will fall into the Delaware River and slowly drown as they struggle to swim to shore, says Prescott.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission doesn’t call pigeon shoots a sport nor does the International Olympic Committee, which banned it after the 1900 Olympics. Most hunters and sportsmen oppose pigeon shoots because they aren’t considered to be fair chase hunting.

SHARK also claims Heckler repeatedly refused to file charges against the PGC for actions that specifically violate Pennsylvania law. It claims Heckler refused to file charges against PGC members for deliberately firing shotgun shells at protesters in boats on the Delaware River. The PGC had initially filed requests with the Coast Guard to establish temporary exclusion zones on the river during pigeon shoots, but withdrew the requests. SHARK believes the reason is because the PGC didn’t wish to file an environmental impact statement that would reveal more than a century of shotgun shells and dead pigeons polluting the river.

The SHARK petition also claims that in two separate incidents PGC members recklessly drove their vehicles at female protestors. Both actions were captured on videotape. In one case, the local police and the DA’s office refused to press charges. In the second incident, a PGC member who is an attorney yelled sexist obscenities at a Marianne Bessey, an animal rights activist, “as he recklessly drove his SUV past her.” Later, in media interviews, the PGC member acknowledged his actions. However, when Bessey, an attorney, tried to file a private complaint for disorderly conduct and harassment, Heckler denied it. Bessey says Heckler claimed there was “insufficient evidence” and that her complaint lacked “prosecutorial merit.”

Heckler also refused to file charges against an individual who, SHARK claims, assaulted Hindi and brandished a pistol, threatening him for protesting. According to the petition, Robert Olsen, operations manager of Carlton Pools, owned by Joseph Solana who holds live pigeon shoots on his property, twice drove his SUV directly at a vehicle driven by Hindi on the company’s parking lot. The third time, according to the petition, on a public street, Olsen “grabbed at and assaulted” SHARK investigator Janet Enoch. When Hindi tried to intervene, Olsen pointed a loaded pistol at Hindi, swore at him, and ordered him to “get down on the ground,” according to the complaint. Although the assault was videotaped, Heckler filed only two charges—reckless driving and fighting. In contrast, according to SHARK, Heckler prosecuted a resident who “pulled a handgun on a snow plow operator who had just buried his car in the snow.” That charge led to a three month jail term.

Pigeon shoots, like cockfighting and dog fighting, “are contests scored by hurting and killing live animals while gambling on the outcome, representing the worst of humanity,” says Prescott.  

Although Pennsylvania legislators, police, and DAs may publically say how much they detest animal cruelty, they have shown their cowardice to do what is right by their failure to prosecute cruelty charges against pigeon shoots.

            [Walter Brasch, an award-winning syndicated columnist, has shot at many clay pigeons but never at a live pigeon. He attended his first pigeon shoot as a reporter more than 20 years ago, and has been writing about the cruelty of pigeons shoots since then. He is the author of 17 books; his latest is the critically-acclaimed novel Before the First Snow.]

 

 

Collateral Damage in the Marcellus Shale

 

by Walter Brasch

 

There’s nothing to suggest that in his 51 years Kevin June should be a leader.

Not from his high school where he dropped out after his freshman year.

Not from his job, where he worked as an auto body technician for more than 35 years.

Both of his marriages ended in divorce, but did produce two children, a 31-year-old son and a 28-year-old daughter.

June readily admits that for most of his life, beginning about 14 when he began drinking heavily, he was a drunk. Always beer. Almost always to excess. But, he will quickly tell you how many weeks he has been sober. It’s now 56, he says proudly.

In October 2008 he was in an auto accident, when he swerved to miss a deer and hit an oak tree head on. That’s when he learned MRIs showed he had been suffering from degenerative arthritis. Between the accident and the arthritis, he was off work for three months. Then, in May 2009, he was laid off when the company moved.

The pain is now so severe that after about 10 minutes, he has to sit.

Unable to work, surviving on disability income that brings him $1,300 a month, just $392.50 above the poverty line, he lives in the 12-acre Riverdale Mobile Home Village, along the Susquehanna River near Jersey Shore in north-central Pennsylvania. The village has a large green area where families can picnic, relax, or play games, sharing the space with geese and all kinds of animals.

For most of the six years June lived in the village, he kept to himself—chatting with neighbors now and then, but nothing that would ever suggest he’d be a leader. The last time he led anything was almost two decades earlier when he was president of a 4-wheel club.

On Feb. 18, the residents found out their landlord had sold the park, only after reading a story in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette. The landlord, who the residents say did what he could to make their village safe and attractive, later came to each of the 37 families. He told the families he sold the park and they would have two months to leave. It was abrupt. Business-like. “We knew he was planning to sell,” says June, “but we all thought it would be to someone who would allow us to stay.”

Four days after the residents were ordered to move, certified letters made it official. The owner sold the park to Aqua PVR, a division of Aqua America, headquartered in Bryn Mawr. Sale price was $550,000. It may have been a bargain—land and industrial parks that have been vacant for years are going for premium sales prices as the natural gas boom in the Marcellus Shale consumes a large part of Pennsylvania and four surrounding states.

Aqua had received permission from the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) to withdraw three million gallons of water a day from the Susquehanna; the 37 families of the mobile home village would just be in the way. The company intends to build a pump station and create a pipe system to provide water to natural gas companies that use hydraulic fracturing, the preferred method to extract natural gas from as deep as 10,000 feet beneath the earth. The process, known as fracking, requires a mixture of sand, chemicals, many of them toxins, and anywhere from one to nine million gallons of water per well, injected into the earth at high pressure. Jersey Shore sits in a northeastern part of the Marcellus Shale, which is believed to hold about 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Aqua isn’t the only company planning to take water in the area. Anadarko E & P Co. and Range Resources-Appalachia have each applied to withdraw up to three million gallons a day from the Susquehanna. While the Delaware River Basic Commission, and the states of New York and Maryland, have imposed moratoriums upon the use of fracking until full health and environmental impacts can be assessed, Pennsylvania and the SRBC have been handing out permits by the gross.

Most residents had only a vague knowledge of fracking and what it is doing to the earth. “They have a lot more knowledge now,” says June, as politically aware as any environmentalist.

Aqua had originally ordered the residents to leave by May 1, but then extended it to the end of the month. It dangled a $2,500 relocation allowance in its eviction.

However, the cost to move a trailer to another park is $6,000–$11,000, plus extra for skirting, sheds, and any handicap-accessible external ramps. But, most trailers can’t be moved. “These are older trailers,” says June. His is a 12-by-70, built in 1974, with a tin roof and tin siding (“tin-on-tin”); like others, it isn’t sturdy enough to survive a move. But even if it did, there would be no place to put it. The parks want the newer trailers, but most parks are full.

So, the residents began looking in the classified ads for rentals. Because the natural gas companies are bringing in thousands of employees to frack the land, there is a shortage of apartments, most with inflated prices to take advantage of the well-paid roustabouts, drivers, and technicians who moved into the area, and spend their money on local businesses eager to improve their own profits. During the past two years, rents have doubled and tripled. “None of us can pay a thousand or more a month,” says June. The current mobile home owners paid $200 a month for their lot.  

Not long after he was served his own eviction notice, June had a dream. Some might call it a nightmare; some might see it as he did, a religious experience. “It was Jesus coming to me, telling me I had to do something,” he says.

June is constantly on the move, going from trailer to trailer to help the families who were abruptly evicted. Whatever their needs, Kevin June tries to provide it, constantly on the phone, running up phone bills he knows he can’t afford but does so anyhow because the lives of his neighbors matter.

There’s Betty and William Whyne. Betty, 82, began working as a waitress at the age of 13 and now, in retirement, makes artificial Christmas trees. She has a cancerous tumor in the same place where a breast was removed in 1991. William, 72, who was an electrician, carpenter, and plumber before he retired after a heart attack, goes to a dialysis center three times a week, four hours each time. They brought their 12-wide 1965 Fleetwoood trailer to the village shortly after the 1972 flood. Like the other residents, they can’t afford to move; they can’t find adequate housing. “We’ve looked at everything in about a 30 mile radius,” they say. They earn $1,478 a month from retirement, only $252.17 above the federal poverty line. One son is in New Jersey; one is in Texas, and the Whynes don’t want to leave the area; they shouldn’t have to.

There’s April and Eric Daniels. She’s a stay-at-home mom for their two children; he’s a truck driver whose hours have been reduced. Their 14-by-70 trailer is valued at $13,200; she and her husband were in the process of remodeling it, had already paid $5,000 for improvements, and were about to start building a second bathroom. April Daniels had grown up living in a series of foster houses, “so I know what it’s like to move around, but this was my first home, and it’s harder for me to leave.” Their trailer provides a good home, but can’t be moved. “We’re pretty much on the verge of just tearing down the trailer and living in a camper,” she says. They don’t know what will happen. They do know that because of what they see as Aqua’s insensitivity, they will lose a lot of money no matter what they do.

Doris Fravel, 82, a widow on a fixed income of $1,326 a month, has lived in the village 38 years. She’s proud of her 1974 12-wide trailer with the tin roof. “I painted it every year,” she says. In June, she paid $3,580 for a new air conditioner; she recently paid $3,000 for new insulated skirting. The trailer has new carpeting. Unlike most of the residents, she found housing—a $450 a month efficiency. But it’s far smaller than her current home. So she’s sold or given away most of what she owns. She may have a buyer for the trailer, and will take $2,500 for it, considerably less than it’s worth. “I can’t do anything else,” she says. “I just can’t move my furnishings into the new apartment,” she says.  Like the other residents, she has family who are helping, but there’s only so much help any family can provide. “I never knew I would ever have to leave,” she says, but she does want to “see one of those gas men come to my door—and I’d like to punch him in the shoulder.”

Not only are there few lots available and apartments are too expensive, but most residents don’t qualify for a house mortgage; and there are waiting lists for senior citizen and low-income housing. The stories are the same.

No one from Aqua has been in touch with any resident. But, the company did hire a local real estate agency. The agency claims it has made extraordinary efforts to help the residents find other housing. The residents disagree. April Daniels says “some of the Realtors have gotten real nasty with the people in the park—they just don’t understand that we are all in a hardship, so we get mad and frustrated and take it out on them.” But there really isn’t much anyone can do. The natural gas boom has made affordable housing as obsolete as the anthracite coal that once drove the region’s energy economy.

The residents, with limited incomes, have lived good lives; they are good people. They paid their rents and fees on time; they kept up the appearances of their trailers and the land around it. They worked their jobs; they survived. Until they were evicted

And now it’s up to the residents to try to survive. They have become closer; they listen to each other; they hug each other; and, the tough men aren’t afraid to let others see them cry. “The pain in this park is almost too much at times,” says June.

If something goes wrong, the residents have to fix it; Kevin June is the one they call. If he can’t fix a problem, he finds someone who can. In this trailer park, as in most communities, there is a lot of talent—“we help each other,” says June. His job is to make sure the residents survive. I’ve had the Holy Spirit running through my veins a long time, but it’s running real deep right now,” he says.

A half-dozen families have already moved, but most say they will stay and fight what they see as a politically-based corporate takeover.

During the week Aqua PVR issued eviction notices, its parent company issued a news release, boasting that its revenue for 2011 was $712 million, a 4.2 percent increase from the year before; its net income was $143.1 million, up 15.4 percent from the previous year. But, for some reason, the company just couldn’t find enough money to give the residents a fair moving settlement. “They just expect us to throw our homes into the street and live in tents,” says June.

“I went to see a state representative to ask what he could do to help,” he says, “but his secretary just coldly told me there was nothing that could be done because whoever owns a property can do with it what he wants to do.” He never saw the state representative.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania—armed with an industry-favorable law recently rammed through by the Republican-controlled legislature and eagerly signed by a first-term Republican governor who received more than $1.6 million in campaign contributions from the energy industry—has decided that fracking the earth, threatening health and the environment, is far better for business than taking care of the people.

Kevin June and 36 families are just collateral damage.

[Tax-deductible donations may be made to the Riverdale Fund, c/o Sovereign Bank, 222 Allegheny St., Jersey Shore, Pa. 17740; 570-398-1540. Dr. Brasch is an award-winning syndicated columnist and author of 17 books. His current book is Before the First Snow, available in hardcover and ebook editions from Greeley & Stone, Publishers; amazon; and other book stores.]

 

 

The Late Great Commonwealth: Catching Up to the Republican Primary

                                                     by WALTER BRASCH

                                                               

It’s the beginning of April, and that means I have just finished celebrating New Year’s Eve, and will soon begin shopping for Valentine’s gifts. In a month or two, I may even get around to toasting St. Patrick.

It’s not procrastination, it’s just that I’m a Pennsylvanian, and the state encourages me to be behind the times. At one time, Pennsylvania was first in just about everything-—and then Ben Franklin died. Since then, we’ve been first in ridiculous license plate slogans.

When other states, including those settled by Puritans, got rid of their “blue laws,” Pennsylvania still bans the sale of cars on Sundays. By archaic practices, it still allows municipal governments and school districts to raise taxes and create more buildings without giving the people the right of a vote, common in most states. It is also the only state that still taxes people for income, property, and their occupation. Forty-nine other states believe pigeon shoots are animal cruelty; we proudly proclaim our state as the last bastion of the right to “bear arms and blast birds.” And, we don’t allow Independents to vote in our primaries.

Iowa, with anomalies known as a straw poll and a caucus, is the first major battleground in presidential races, having usurped New Hampshire, which thought having the official primary was a birthright dating to when granite first showed up in the state. Nevertheless, whether Iowa or New Hampshire, Americans understand that the people need something to break them out of their Winter funk when snow covers what will eventually become cornfields in Iowa and the ski lifts of New Hampshire will no longer be inoperable because of blizzards.

With nothing else to do in January, the media schussed into the Hawkeye State—just as soon as they could find enough chauffeurs to drive them to wherever Iowa is. With megawatt lights and dimly-lit minds, they infiltrated the state so that the voters not only had their own individualized politicians, they also had their own puppy-dog reporters prancing brightly behind them to the coffee shop, factory, and bathroom.

Surrounded by the media who smugly said they were only telling the public what they needed to know to defend and preserve democracy—and millions in advertising revenue—the candidates played to the press, attacking each other rather than attacking the issues. In neatly-packaged seven-second sound bites, politicians and the media sliced, diced, and crunched the campaign to fit onto a 21-inch screen.

Because of an inner need to believe they matter, the media predict who will win the nomination, changing their predictions as quickly as a fashionista changes shoes. For what seemed to be decades, the ink-stained bandwagon has pulled voters and campaign dollars, and left Pennsylvania voters waiting at the altar for candidates who don’t care anymore, abandoned by the media who have found other “stories of the week.”

For all practical purposes, the Pennsylvania primaries, with large slates of uncontested local and state races, is about as useless as a Department of Ethnic Studies at Bob Jones University. By the time the 2000 primary rolled into Pennsylvania, Al Gore and George W. Bush each had 65 percent of the delegate vote needed for their parties’ nomination. In 2004, Bush and John Kerry had already locked up the nominations. In 2008, Pennsylvania became a pivotal state for the Democrats for the first time since 1976, with Hillary Clinton defeating Barack Obama before losing the nomination by June. For the Republicans, it was “business as usual,” with John McCain having already sewn up the nomination.

A Republican needs 1,144 delegate votes to get the nomination. Mitt Romney, America’s best runner-up, has 568; two-term senator Rick Santorum, recovering from a blistering loss to a moderate Democrat in Pennsylvania’s 2006 Senate campaign, has 273; Ron Paul, who may or may not be a Republican, has 50. Newt Gingrich has 135 delegates; however, this week he announced he downsized his staff and campaign, and is layin’ low—except, of course, for the times he can get free TV time to lambaste Romney and Santorum who are engaged in a vicious personal battle that has bubbled out of the TV ad cauldron.

The April 3 primaries will add a maximum of 98 delegates. And that brings Super Northeast Tuesday, April 24. The Republican leftovers and their never-ending TV ads will blitz Pennsylvania, which might even become relevant.

Even if Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Rhode Island—and Pennsylvania with 72 of the 231 delegate votes—go for Romney, it won’t be enough to get him the nomination. However, it will be enough to cause major financial backers to pull their support for Santorum and what’s left of the Gingrich campaign, leaving Romney to flip-flop into the Republican nomination convention, Aug. 27, in Tampa, Fla.—which seems to be the Republicans’ destiny.

[Dr. Brasch has covered political campaigns for more than three decades. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed fast-paced mystery Before the First Snow, available at amazon.com and his publisher, Greeley & Stone.]Within the next week, another nine states voted.

 

 

FRACKING: Corruption a Part of Pennsylvania’s Heritage

 

by WALTER BRASCH

 

(part 3 of 3)

           

The history of energy exploration, mining, and delivery is best understood in a range from benevolent exploitation to worker and public oppression. A company comes into an area, leases land in rural and agricultural areas for mineral rights, increases employment, usually in a depressed economy, strips the land of its resources, creates health problems for its workers and those in the immediate area, and then leaves.

It makes no difference if it’s timber, oil, or coal. In the 1970s and 1980s, the nuclear energy industry promised well-paying jobs, clean energy, and a safe health and work environment. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima Daiichi, and thousands of violations issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, have shown that even with strict operating guidelines, nuclear energy isn’t as clean and safe as claimed. Like all other energy industries, nuclear power isn’t infinite. Most plants have a 40–50 year life cycle. After that, the plant becomes so radioactive hot that it must be sealed.

In the early 21st century, the natural gas industry follows the model of the other energy corporations, and uses the same rhetoric. James M. Taylor, senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, claims on the Institute’s website, “The newfound abundance of domestic gas reserves promises unprecedented energy prosperity and security.”

The energy policy during the eight years of the George W. Bush–Dick Cheney administration was to give favored status to the industry, often at the expense of the environment. In addition to negating Bill Clinton’s strong support for the Kyoto Protocol, signed by 191 countries, to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, former oil company executives Bush and Cheney pushed to open significant federal land, including the 19 million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), to drilling that would disrupt the ecological balance in one of the nation’s most pristine areas.

A study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), published in 2004 concluded that fracking was of little or no risk to human health. However, Wes Wilson, a 30-year EPA environmental engineer, in a letter to members of Congress and the EPA inspector general, called that study “scientifically unsound,” and questioned the bias of the panel, noting that five of the seven members had significant ties to the industry. “EPA’s failure to regulate [fracking] appears to be improper under the Safe Water Drinking Act and may result in danger to public health and safety.”

The following year, the Energy Policy Act of 2005—on a 249–183 vote in the House and an 85–12 vote in the Senate—exempted the oil and natural gas industry from the Safe Water Drinking Act. That exemption applied to the “construction of new well pads and the accompanying new roads and pipelines.” The National Defense Resource Council noted that the EPA interpreted the exemption “as allowing unlimited discharges of sediment into the nation’s streams, even where those discharges contribute to a violation of state water quality standards.” The exemption became known derisively as the Halliburton Loophole, named for one of the nation’s major energy companies, of which Cheney, whose promotion of Big Business and opposition to environmental policies is well-documented, had once been the CEO.

Bills introduced in the U.S. House (H.R. 2766) and U.S. Senate (S. 1215) in June 2009 to give federal regulatory oversight under the Safe Water Drinking Act to hydraulic fracturing languished. New bills (H.R. 1084 and S. 587), introduced in March 2011 in the 112th Congress, are also expected to die without a vote.

The natural gas industry has a long history of effective lobbying at the state and national level. America’s Natural Gas Alliance has four former Congressmen as lobbyists, according to research by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). Through various political action committees (PACs), the industry has contributed about $238.7 million in campaign contributions, about three-fourths of it to Republican candidates, since 1990, according to the CRP. For the 2008 election, the gas and oil industry contributed $27.4 million, including contributions from individuals, PACs, and soft money, according to CRP data. Total contributions for the current election cycle, as of mid-March, are $20.6 million, with almost 90 percent of it going to Republicans.

At the federal level, the top recipients of oil and gas contributions during the current election cycle, according to the CRP, are former presidential hopeful Gov. Rick Perry of Texas ($833,674), Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst of Texas ($650,850), presidential hopeful Mitt Romney ($597,950), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ($264,700), and Sen. John Barasso of Wyoming ($225,400), a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Every one of the top 20 recipients is a Republican.

Barack Obama, although significantly more environmental friendly than his predecessor, had opened up off-shore drilling just prior to the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast in April 2010. He has repeatedly spoken against the heavy use and dependence upon fossil fuels, and sees the expanded use of natural gas as a transition fuel to expanded use of wind and solar energy. Nevertheless, he has still received funding from the natural gas industry. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he received $920,922 from the oil and gas industry, according to data compiled by the CRP. His opponent, Sen. John McCain, according to CRP, accepted $2,543,154.

In contrast, the 1.4 million member Sierra Club, since August 2010, has refused to accept any donations from the natural gas industry. The Sierra Club, which has actively opposed the development of coal as an energy source, had received $27 million since 2007 from Chesapeake Energy. By 2010, “our view of natural gas [and fracking] had changed [and we] stopped the funding relationship between the Club and the gas industry, and all fossil fuel companies or executives,” says Michael Brune, Sierra’s executive director.

 

Mixed into Pennsylvania’s energy production is not only a symbiotic relationship of business and government, but a history of corruption and influence-peddling. Between 1859, when an economical method to drill for oil was developed near Titusville, Pa., and 1933, the beginning of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” Pennsylvania, under almost continual Republican administration, was among the nation’s most corrupt states. The robber barons of the timber, oil, coal, steel, and transportation industries essentially bought their right to be unregulated. In addition to widespread bribery, the energy industries, especially coal, assured the election of preferred candidates by giving pre-marked ballots to workers, many of whom didn’t read English.

In a letter to the editor of The New York Times in March 2011, John Wilmer, a former attorney for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), explained that “Pennsylvania’s shameful legacy of corruption and mismanagement caused 2,500 miles of streams to be totally dead from acid mine drainage; left many miles of scarred landscape; enriched the coal barons; and impoverished the local citizens.” His words serve as a warning about what is happening in the natural gas fields.

Pennsylvania’s new law that regulates and gives favorable treatment to the natural gas industry was initiated and passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly and signed by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. The House voted 101–90 for passage; the Senate voted, 31–19. Both votes were mostly along party lines.

In addition to forbidding physicians and health care professionals from disclosing what the industry believes are “trade secrets” in what it uses in fracking that may cause air and water pollution, there are other industry-favorable provisions. The new law guts local governments’ rights of zoning and long-term planning, doesn’t allow for local health and environmental regulation, forbids municipalities to appeal state decisions about well permits, and provides subsidies to the natural gas industry and payments for out-of-state workers to get housing but provides for no incentives or tax credits to companies to hire Pennsylvania workers. It also requires companies to provide fresh water, which can be bottled water, to areas in which they contaminate the water supply, but doesn’t require the companies to clean up the pollution or even to track transportation and deposit of contaminated wastewater. The law allows companies to place wells 300 feet from houses, streams and wetlands. The law also allows compressor stations to be placed 750 feet from houses, and gives natural gas companies authority to operate these stations continuously at up to 60 decibels, the equivalent of continuous conversation in restaurants. The noise level and constant artificial lighting has adverse effects upon wildlife. As a result of all the concessions, the natural gas industry is given special considerations not given any other business or industry in Pennsylvania.

Each well is expected to generate about $16 million during its lifetime, which can be as few as ten years, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center (PBPC). The effective tax and impact fee is about 2 percent. Corbett had originally wanted no tax or impact fees placed upon natural gas drilling; as public discontent increased, he suggested a 1 percent tax, which was in the original House bill. In contrast, other states that allow natural gas fracking have tax rates as high as 7.5 percent of market value (Texas) and 25–50 percent of net income (Alaska). The Pennsylvania rate can vary, based upon the price of natural gas and inflation, but will still be among the five lowest of the 32 states that allow natural gas drilling. Over the lifetime of a well, Pennsylvania will collect about $190,000–$350,000, while West Virginia will collect about $993,700, Texas will collect about $878,500, and Arkansas will collect about $555,700, according to PBPC data and analyses.

State Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat from suburban Philadelphia, says he opposed the bill because, “At a time when we are closing our schools and eliminating vital human services, to leave billions on the table as a gift to industry that is already going to be making billions is obscene.” State Rep. Mark Cohen, a Democrat from Philadelphia, like most of the Democrats in the General Assembly, agrees. The legislation, he says, “produces far too little revenue for local communities, gives the local communities local taxing power which most of them do not want, because it pits one community against the other, and gives no revenue at all to other areas of the state.”

The new law is generally believed to be “payback” by Corbett and the Republican legislators for campaign contributions. The industry contributed about $7.2 million to Pennsylvania candidates and their PACs between 2000 and the end of 2010, including $860,825 to the Republican party and $129,100 to the Democratic party, according to data compiled by Common Cause. In addition, the natural gas industry contributed about $1.6 million to Corbett’s political campaigns during the past 10 years, about $1.1 million of that for his campaign for governor, according to Common Cause. Rep. Brian L. Ellis (R-Butler County), sponsor of the House bill, received $23,300. Sen. Joseph B. Scarnati (R- Warren, Pa.), the senate president pro-tempore who sponsored the companion Senate bill (SB 1100), received $293,334. Of the 20 Pennsylvania legislators who received the most money from the industry since 2001, 16 are Republicans, according to Common Cause.

Rep. H. William DeWeese (D-Waynesburg, Pa.), received $58,750, the most of the four Democrats. DeWeese, first elected in 1976, had been Speaker of the House and Democratic leader.

It’s possible that the significant campaign contributions didn’t influence Pennsylvania’s politicians to rush to embrace the natural gas industry and its controversial use of hydraulic fracking. It’s possible that these politicians had always believed in fracking, and the natural gas industry was merely contributing to the campaigns of those who believed as they do. However, with the heavy amount of money spent by the natural gas lobby and, apparently, willingly accepted by certain politicians, there is no way to know how they might have voted had no money or lobbying occurred.

Tom Corbett’s first major political appointment after his election in November 2010 was to name C. Alan Walker, an energy company executive, to head the Department of Community and Economic Development. The Pennsylvania Progressive identified Walker as “an ardent anti-environmentalist and someone who hates regulation of his industry.” A ProPublica investigation revealed that Walker had given $184,000 to Corbett’s political campaign.

Shortly after taking office, Corbett repealed environmental assessments of gas wells in state parks. The result could be as many as 2,200 well pads on almost 90 percent of all public lands, according to Nature Conservancy of Pennsylvania.

Corbett’s public announcements in March 2011, two months after his inauguration, established the direction for gas drilling in Pennsylvania.

In his first budget address, Corbett boldly declared he wanted to “make Penn­syl­va­nia the hub of this [drilling] boom. Just as the oil com­pa­nies decided to head­quar­ter in one of a dozen states with oil, let’s make Penn­syl­va­nia the Texas of the nat­ural gas boom. I’m deter­mined that Penn­syl­va­nia not lose this moment.” Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley would later boast, “The Marcellus [Shale] is revitalizing our main streets in downtowns.”

Within the budget bill, Corbett authorized Walker to “expedite any permit or action pending in any agency where the creation of jobs may be impacted.” This unprecedented reach apparently applied to all energy industries. That same month, Corbett created an Advisory Commission, loaded with persons from business and industry. Not one member was from the health professions; of the seven state agencies represented, not one member was from the Department of Health. 

Between 2007 and the end of 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued 1,435 violations to natural gas companies; 952 of those violations related to potential harm to the environment. In March, Michael Krancer, the new DEP secretary, also a political appointee, took personal control over his department’s issuance of any violations. By Krancer’s decree, every inspector could no longer cite any well owner in the Marcellus Shale development without first getting the approval of Krancer and his executive deputy secretary.

“It’s an extraordinary directive [that] represents a break from how business has been done” and politicizes the process, John Hanger told ProPublica. Hanger, DEP secretary under the Ed Rendell administration, said the new rules “will cause the public to lose confidence entirely in the inspection process.” He told the Scranton Times-Tribune the new policy was the equivalent of every trooper having to get permission from the state police commissioner before issuing a traffic citation.  Because the new policy is so unusual and broad “it’s impossible for something like this to be issued without the direction and knowledge of the governor’s office,” said Hanger. Corbett denied he was responsible for the decision. Five weeks after the Krancer decision was leaked to the media, and following a strong negative response from the public, environmental groups, and the state’s media, the DEP rescinded the policy—which Krancer claimed was only a three-month “pilot program.”

“When state agencies say they will ‘regulate’ or ‘monitor’ hydraulic fracturing to reduce known threats, we should not accept this as a guarantee of any kind,” says Eileen Fay, an animal rights/environmental writer. Fay argues that because of legislative corruption, it is a responsibility of citizens to protect their own health and environment by “putting pressure on our legislators.”

In February 2012, Corbett proudly signed Act 13, a merger of the House and Senate bills.

HB 1950 had initially included a provision to provide up to $2 million a year in funding to the Department of Health for “collecting and disseminating information, preparing and conducting  health care provider outreach and education and investigating health related complaints and other uses associated with unconventional natural gas production activity.” That provision, strongly supported by numerous public health and environmental groups, was deleted in the final bill.

The Pennsylvania Constitution (Article I, section 27) declares: “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”

However, unlike New York state, which placed a moratorium on well permits while it is evaluating the health and environmental risks, Pennsylvania has rushed to embrace the natural gas industry and its use of fracking, apparently disregarding its own Constitution. The Susquehanna River Basin Commission has routinely approved requests from drillers to remove millions of gallons of water each day from the river, although the commissioners have not requested any health impact statements or undertaken a complete cumulative impact study, according to Iris Marie Bloom, an environmental writer and activist. Because of the nature of the Marcellus Shale deposit in Pennsylvania, as opposed to neighboring states, natural gas companies have to transport the wastewater to other states for re-use or disposal or take it to sewage treatment plants. The plants then discharge the treated wastewater into the state’s rivers. However, present methods can’t remove the salt and some other chemicals and radioactive elements. Currently, about 11 million gallons of wastewater a day are taken from the Susquehanna for fracking operations; about three times that amount is anticipated when fracking reaches its peak in the state, according to Paul Swartz, Commission executive director. In contrast, the Delaware River Basic Commission has put a moratorium on taking water from that river until studies have been completed.

Pennsylvania is “handing out permits almost like popcorn in a theater,” says Diane Siegmund, a psychologist from Towanda. Between Jan. 1, 2005 and March 2, 2012, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued 10,232 permits, and denied only 36 requests.

Siegmund is frustrated by what she sees not only as state government’s acceptance of fracking but of numerous local governments in the Marcellus Shale region from speaking out on behalf of the preservation of health and the environment. When she went to the Bradford County commissioners with stacks of research about problems with fracking, “all they did was to thank me and claim it’s not their problem.” She says residents are beginning to believe that local governments are operating in collusion with the energy companies.

But it isn’t just governments. The issue of fracking has divided towns like Dimock, Pa. In November 2009, 15 residents sued Cabot Oil and Gas, charging that the company contaminated their drinking water. Tests conducted by the DEP during the last years of the Ed Rendell administration had revealed there was higher than expected methane gas in 18 water wells that provided drinking water to 13 homes near the drills. The build-up of methane gas had also led to well explosions and DEP warnings to citizens to keep their windows open. Among the provisions of a consent order, the state required Cabot to provide fresh water to families whose water had been affected by the excess methane gas. Cabot denied its fracking operation was responsible for the elevated levels. On Nov. 30, 2011, after the DEP, now under the Tom Corbett administration, declared the water to be safe to drink, Cabot stopped delivering water.

And then something strange happened. The town of Binghamton, N.Y., about 35 miles north, said it would provide a tanker of fresh water. However, the supervisors of Dimock Twp., supported by most of the 140 residents who attended the meeting, most of them with some economic ties to the natural gas industry, refused the offer. According to reporting in the Scranton Times-Tribune, when Binghamton mayor Matthew T. Ryan asked “Why not let people help?” he was rebuffed by one of the township’s three supervisors who snapped, “Why should we haul them water? They got themselves into this. You keep your nose in Binghamton.”

In January 2012, after declaring that the water “contains levels of contaminants that pose a health concern,” the EPA decided it would bring water to residents in Dimock. The response by Cabot was that the EPA was wasting taxpayer money in its investigation of Cabot environmental and health practices. The response by Pennsylvania’s DEP was almost as inflammatory as the water in the taps. Michael Krancer, DEP’s head, not only disagreed with the EPA findings, he called the agency’s knowledge of fracking to be “rudimentary.”

In mid-March, following preliminary tests on several of the wells serving Dimock residents, the EPA found that the water “did not show levels of contamination that could present a health concern.” However, it acknowledged arsenic, some metals, and potentially explosive methane gas remained in the water. A ProPublica investigation revealed that four of the five water samples it obtained showed methane levels exceeding Pennsylvania standards.

“We are deeply troubled by Region 3’s rush to judge the science before testing is even complete, and by their apparent disregard for established standards of drinking water safety,” said Claire Sandberg, executive director of Water Defense. She questioned why EPA Region 3’s handling of the Dimock case differed from how other EPA regional offices handled similar cases in Texas and Wyoming when it didn’t release the information until all testing was completed. Dr. Ron Bishop, professor of biochemistry at SUNY/Oneonta, told ProPublica, “Any suggestion that water from these wells is safe for domestic use would be preliminary or inappropriate.”

The extraction of natural gas has also led to the development of other industries—and the exploitation of the people. In Jersey Shore, Pa., about 20 miles west of Williamsport, Aqua PVR bought a 37-unit mobile home village, with plans to build a water withdrawal plant to provide up to three million gallons a day to the natural gas industry. The day the purchase was completed on Feb. 23, 2012, Aqua told the residents their leases were terminated “immediately,” according to reporting in the Sun-Gazette. The company gave residents until May 1 to leave. To sweeten what may be seen as a callous corporate action, Aqua said it would give $2,500 to each resident who moved by April 1, and $1,500 if they moved by May 1. However, as the Sun-Gazette reported, the cost to move each mobile home ranged from $5,000 to $12,000. Many of the residents lived in the village more than a decade; one was there 38 years. The newspaper reported that most trailer parks in the area were already at maximum occupancy, and others would not accept the older trailers.

“Residents are afraid to speak up,” says Diane Siegmund, who points out there is “a lot of fear” among the residents, those whose lives are being uprooted, those whose health is being compromised, and those whose economic benefits may be compromised if fracking operations are reduced.

“As long as the powers can keep the people isolated and fragmented,” says Siegmund, “the momentum for change can never be gained.” The experience in Dimock and Jersey Shore is seen throughout the Marcellus Shale region.

It’s not unreasonable to expect people who are unemployed or underemployed to grasp for anything to help themselves and their families, nor is it unreasonable to expect that persons—roustabouts, clerks, truck drivers, helicopter pilots, among several hundred thousand in dozens of job classifications—will take better paid jobs, even if it often means 60 hour work weeks under hazardous conditions. It’s also not unreasonable to expect that families living in agricultural and rural areas, who are struggling to survive, will snap at the lure of several thousand dollars to lease mineral rights and some of their land to an energy company, which will also pay royalties. But what is unreasonable is that government allows corporations to flourish at the expense of the people and their environment.

The Sierra Club urges that the country needs “to leapfrog over gas whenever possible in favor of truly clean energy. Instead of rushing to see how quickly we can extract natural gas, we should be focusing on how to be sure we are using less—and safeguarding our health and environment in the meantime.”

Christopher Portier, director of the National Center for Environmental Health, calls for more research studies that “include all the ways people can be exposed [to health hazards], such as through air, water, soil, plants and animals.”

In November 2011, the Advisory Board of the U.S. Department of Energy concluded: “The public deserves assurance that the full economic, environmental and energy security benefits of shale gas development will be realized without sacrificing public health, environmental protection and safety.”

When the history of natural gas exploration in Pennsylvania is finally written, the story will be that it was a cheaper, cleaner energy source, and that it temporarily helped some people in rural areas, and brought some well-paying jobs into the state. But history will probably also record that the lure of immediate gratification led Pennsylvania’s politicians to willingly accept political donations that led them to sacrifice their citizens’ health and the state’s environment.

 [Assisting on this series, in addition to those quoted within the articles, were Rosemary R. Brasch, Eileen Fay, and Dr. Wendy Lynne Lee. Dr. Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist. His current book is Before the First Snow, a critically-acclaimed novel that looks at what happens when government and energy companies form a symbiotic relationship, using ‘cheaper, cleaner’ fuel and the lure of jobs in a depressed economy but at the expense of significant health and environmental impact. The book is available at amazon.com and from the publisher, Greeley & Stone.]

 

 

 

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