- Not cool, DEP. Not cool.
Let me tell you why you should be offended by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
(And forgive me for starting with a bit of necessary background):
See, when I was at Patch, I broke a story about a local impoundment operated by Southpointe-based Marcellus Shale driller Range Resources in Cecil Township.
Local government officials there told me about a spate of issues they had with the Worstell impoundment in the wake of being notified by the DEP that Range wanted to make some major modifications there.
Then, when asked why many senior execs from Range and DEP met regarding the impoundment (information uncovered through a public records request on the frac pond) as evidenced by a sign in sheet for a meeting at the department’s regional headquarters, a local DEP spokesman told me it was regarding a leak there that had been repaired (and, of course, there was no further information for me on the matter).
Although Range and DEP told a competing news organization a short time later that there were no issues at the impoundment, and that there had not been a leak as much as a spill from a holding tank, the issue still put the frac pond in the spotlight locally.
Then Cecil Township officials asked the DEP (repeatedly) for a public meeting to get answers to questions and concerns with the Worstell Impoundment.
But the DEP – a public, tax-funded department? It refused.
Oh, they would meet with the supervisors.
Just not publicly. And with no additional visitors (such as local folks who lived near Worstell with specific questions). And with no recording devices – all behind closed doors.
Lemme tell you: My head almost exploded when I heard this was what the DEP had suggested.
Because this is how they tried to make it seem legit: They called the meeting a “conference,” after at one point saying there simply wasn’t enough space for many guests in the regional headquarters where the gathering was being held.
My opinion? Total BS.
And while I could not call the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association’s legal hotline to obtain an opinion on the legitimacy of this excuse (Patch sites are not eligible to be members), the Observer-Reporter’s Emily Petsko did.
Her story can be read here, but here’s what PNA said:
A conference typically involves some training that agency personnel receive from a state or federal authorities, according to Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. Melewsky said that while a conference is permitted to be private under the state Sunshine Act, there is no reason that it cannot be made public.
“What’s important is that they explain why they’re not having it publicly, and I think lack of space is not a good excuse,” Melewsky said. “I don’t think crowd size should be an issue. Public participation is a good thing. The fact that many people are interested is a positive, not a negative.”
Melewsky said that by law, a conference must not involve any deliberation of agency business.
Despite some public outcry, the meeting went on as planned.
When I was covering the issue, I couldn’t believe the audacity of the DEP. And, sometimes I pondered if members of the DEP were joking with each other about how they had gotten one over on all those concerned about the Worstell Impoundment with their flimsy technicality.
Then, state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, who was publicly outraged by this issue and others involving secret meetings, local officials and the drilling industry/cheerleaders, released some documents he uncovered from a state Right to Know request.
While there are some things in there that really make a person who reads the news nauseated, there is an email thread I found particularly disgusting.
And here, my friends, is why every Pennsylvanian should be offended by the DEP:
Despite major public outcry for more information on public safety and other issues regarding a frac pond, the DEP not only met behind closed doors in a most shady manner, but also snarked about it in internal emails.
In an email dated July 18, 2013, Alan Eichler (who is listed as the environmental program manager for the DEP’s Pittsburgh oil and gas division) wrote to DEP staff:
We should be thinking about potential questions that are going to be asked at the August 9 meeting…uh, I mean conference (it’s not a meeting).
All that email lacked was a proper emoticon, or maybe a “LOL” or even the elusive “LMMFAO!” to make it more juvenile.
Oh, but that’s just part of the fun stuff in the RTK documentation.
There was also a lengthy (and seemingly unsolicited) email from Range Resources spin doctor Matt Pitzarella to Petsko about how everything is just fine at Worstell.
…But why does the DEP have that email? Why would it be in the DEP’s Worstell file? Did Pitzarella blind CC a DEP spokesman on the matter? Was it meant to be talking points after that same DEP spokesman told me for publication that there was a “leak” at the site?
There was even an email with state Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, who has long been buddy-buddy with the Marcellus Shale folks. His suggestion? A pre-meeting so the whole thing didn’t turn into a “kangaroo court.”
Timmy, I thought you were elected to do the people’s work?
The coziness among the DEP and the industry/its cheerleaders is a little startling to me.
Because the DEP? Those are supposed to be the guys on our side – the guys with the public’s interest at heart.
I have long considered myself a student of the Sunshine Law, and those on boards I have covered during years of community reporting will attest: I am, perhaps, more aggressive about closed-doors meetings than most of my colleagues. I always insist that the board chairman in question do what he is supposed to: Announce, for the record, why the hell they are going into executive session.
Could be litigation. Could be personnel. Could be property acquisition. Could be there is a state conference that an organization such as the Pennsylvania School Boards Association is hosting and all the members of a local school board want to attend (totally cool, the Sunshine Law dictates).
One thing it never is: “Um, this subject has, like, caused us a LOT of bad publicity, and it would be awfully inconvenient for us to actually sit down and answer questions from, like, anyone who wants to ask one from the public. So, yeah. We’re gonna just go ahead and meet – call it a conference. Also, no recording devices. No big.”
But that’s pretty much what the state Department of Environmental Protection did.
Editor’s Note: To access the Right to Know files released by White, click here. Also, if you’d like to tell Alan Eichler how you feel about his email, he can be reached by calling 412 442-4024. -amanda