Thursday, 12 Dec 2002

HARRISBURG, Penn.

Yesterday started rather inauspiciously. I fell right on my butt trying to get to work in yet another ice storm. It’s gonna be a long winter.

But my day wasn’t nearly as bad as that of some of the folks at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. If it weren’t for bad press, they wouldn’t have had any at all.

The largest newspaper in the state, the Philadelphia Inquirer, reported that the news director of that city’s NPR affiliate had resigned due to an unethical reporting arrangement with GreenWorks, an environmental group funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Under the arrangement, the state provided about $466,000 for the project, which covered the salaries of two reporters and a researcher and related expenses. A former staff member, who blew the whistle on the deal, said she was steered away from controversial environmental issues like oil drilling in Allegheny National Forest and was asked to air positive pieces about small projects that had received DEP funding. Journalism experts had said that the arrangement between the station and the state appeared to present a conflict of interest. And while so far the only people to suffer for this behavior are the radio station personnel, this certainly doesn’t put DEP’s reputation in a great light.

Meanwhile, the second-largest newspaper in the state, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, delivered a second black eye to DEP. With a state grand jury investigating the possibility of criminal activity in the permitting or operation of the Quecreek Mine — the site of this summer’s near-disaster when nine coal miners were trapped and nearly drowned by a flood from a previously closed mine — the FBI has begun an investigation into the DEP’s district mining office, where the Quecreek permit was approved. One of the mining engineers in that office states that he warned the district director that the entire mapping system there was inaccurate and unreliable more than a year before the Quecreek accident. That same director has now ordered all staff not to talk about the matter to anyone, even one another, but rather funnel all information through him. The whistleblower views this order as an attempt to intimidate him. Dave Hess, DEP secretary, who is required to resign when the new governor takes office Jan. 21, called the director’s order “indelicate,” and said it was intended to direct information to the “right people guiding the department’s investigation.”

And the Quecreek case, while high profile, is just the tip of the iceberg in DEP’s failure to protect Pennsylvanians from the damage done by mining. Acid mine pollution destroys our streams throughout the state, and coal refuse piles and underground mines continue to wreak havoc around the state. Yet DEP has failed to require companies to post bonds sufficient to clean up the mess, with more than $1 billion in un-funded cleanups. One of the most egregious examples is the damage being left behind by LTV. LTV has been in an out of bankruptcy for 15 years, yet it has only reserved $2.1 million for treating the damage caused by its coal refuse piles and mines. So the taxpayers will be left footing the bill, while the environment and public health suffers.

Given all this, you won’t be surprised to learn that Pennsylvania occupies national leadership in the pollution hall of shame. We are number one in the problem of combined sewer overflows, where raw sewage is dumped into streams, rivers, and wells when rain hits; we are home to the two largest mercury polluters in the nation; our rain is 100 times more acidic than clean rain; we produce more of the gases that cause global warming than 83 countries; and we have the nation’s fifth highest rate of sprawl.

So that’s why we are hoping for a fresh start in January, when the new governor takes office. But not all of our work deals with the government. And tomorrow I’ll talk about how we are working with some new coalition partners — and using new approaches — to take the fight for the environment to every Pennsylvanian.