October newsletter

A Closer Look at Representative Tim O’Neal’s Response Letter on HB 1106 and HB 1107

Many of you are aware that our state representatives have introduced several bills that will alter how our state government will review and administer oil and gas permit applications that today are submitted to the Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”).  Two of those bills, House Bill (“HB”) 1106, which would reform the permitting process, and 1107, which would create an independent commission to deal solely with the DEP permit process, recently have been passed by the House Committee and will be voted upon on the House floor in the coming days. 

In response to the House Committee’s vote, many of you took the time to send a letter to your House Representatives that express your concerns about these bills. One of these representatives, Mr. Tim O’Neal, who represents part of Washington County, took the time to reply to your concerns. This article will review his comments and provide clarity to what HB 1106 and 1107 brings to the Commonwealth. 

In his letter, Mr. O’Neal begins with a brief explanation of HB 1106. He states that this bill “establishes new processes and timelines for environmental permits that aim to make the approval process more time-efficient, reliable for developers, and streamlined.” This is true. HB 1106 will expedite the permit approval process by giving the DEP thirty days to review the permit for approval. If the department fails to give a reply to the applicant in this time, the application is approved by default, no matter if it is complete, in compliance with state or federal regulations, or could harm surrounding landowners. Thus, it is faster for industry to get what they want, even if it is at the cost of our health and safety or to the detriment of our property. 

Mr. O’Neal continues to share that HB 1106 “does not increase the likelihood of deficient permits from being issued rather increase the likelihood of good permits being approved.” This sounds respectable; however, Mr. O’Neal provides no authority to this assertion, nor does the language of HB 1106. As stated above, HB 1106 shortens the time frame the department has from 45 days to 30 days to review an application. HB 1106 does not provide a means to weed out “good” or “bad” permits, nor does it create any other permit review process to ensure only “good” permits are approved. What it does do is significantly reduce the time allowed to review a submitted permit. HB 1106 places no new guidelines, test, or precautionary measures on the applicant. If under a more stringent deadline, the time one has to look into safety measures is also decreased. It is concerning that Mr. O’Neal believes that HB 1106 promises that only “good” permits will be issued when industry has failed to follow protocol many times in the past by submitting incomplete applications time after time. Looking at the facts, it is both irrational and irresponsible to be so confident that HB 1106 will provide the Commonwealth with adequate protection.  

Next, Mr. O’Neal explains part of the current permitting process. He correctly states that the department and the applicant will meet and review the application. He then adds, “[t]his bill simply removes the need for DEP to be the middleman that delays the process.” This is completely wrong. HB 1106 does not remove the department from the permitting process. It is disconcerting that Mr. O’Neal, a sponsor of HB 1106, could be so wrong about what the bill actually does. Additionally, the department receives countless incomplete applications from industry. When this happens, the department acts as a tutor to help the applicant correctly fill out their application. By doing so, the DEP accomplishes two goals: it ensures that the permit application is in compliance and it also speeds up the process of permitting. Otherwise, the applicant is left on their own to figure out what they did wrong in the first place. If you consider a teacher who helps the applicant comply with the DEP, state, and federal regulations and speeds up the process a “middleman,” so be it. But remember that this “middleman” has a fiduciary duty to ensure that our health, safety, and property are protected. Therefore, Mr. O’Neal’s statement is misleading, ill-informed, and wrong. 

The response letter then moves on to speak about HB 1107. His description of HB 1107, that the bill would transfer the permitting duties of the department to a new Permitting Commission, is correct. Additionally, his five points that describe the age restriction, that at least two members of the Commission are to be engineers, and the relationship between the Commission and elected offices of the Commonwealth is also correct.  However, what Mr. O’Neal fails to address are the concerns that his constituents brought to his attention. 

We shared with Mr. O’Neal that we are concerned that HB 1107 will jeopardize our communities, our natural resources, and our health, due in part to the fact that HB 1107 removes the DEP from the permitting process and replaces the agency with a politically appointed five-person panel. It is clear under HB 1107 that the Commission will have at least two engineers on board. What is not answered is what is the vetting process on how these engineers are chosen. Again, this Commission is politically appointed by politicians who are not experts in the environmental field. That is why we have the DEP in the first place. The DEP is a state agency that vets our environmental experts, the very ones who make decisions on what is safe for us here in the Commonwealth. Lastly, we shared that we thought that as our representative, Mr. O’Neal would help create jobs, not find ways to fire DEP employees all over the state. 

Since Mr. O’Neal, who again is a sponsor of HB 1107, is hesitant to share the fine details of what HB 1107 really does, we would be happy to state the facts. HB 1107 will remove every position in the department that is involved with the oil and gas permitting process: That is, all the DEP’s engineers, hydrologists, geologists, biologists and the like will lose their job. Those with years of experience in the department will then be replaced by five people, three of which need no qualifications whatsoever other than being over the age of 25. The other two simply need to be “licensed engineers”; no certain field or fields of engineers are specified. HB 1107 does provide that the politicians hiring the Commission are to favor the applicants from DEP, but nothing in the bill requires them to actually hire them. In other words, HB 1107 removes all of the dozens, possibly even hundreds of people, with direct expertise in their field and replaces them with five outsiders, who are politically appointed, by politicians who receive direct funding from the oil and gas industry, to fulfill the requirements that the entire permitting team within the DEP is currently doing. 

Sadly, our representatives claim that they are doing what they can to create jobs. However, HB 1107 does not represent this sentiment. HB 1107 removes good union jobs from Pennsylvanians who are already established here in our Commonwealth. Since 2003, more than 40% of DEP’s fund has been cut. Due to these cuts, over 700 of the department’s staff has been lost. Why would Mr. O’Neal support and sponsor a bill that would only continue this trend, a trend that puts the Commonwealth’s health, safety, and natural resources in jeopardy? It almost looks like Mr. O’Neal prefers the out-of-state industry shareholders over his constituents. 

We must concede that we are lucky to have a state representative who took the time to get back to his constituents, as many representatives have not. It is this open dialogue that keeps the democratic process alive. However, we are discouraged that Mr. O’Neal failed to actually address our concerns on the matters that we shared with him. It is also discouraging to see that Mr. O’Neal was wrong on many aspects of the bills that he is actively sponsoring. We welcome Mr. O’Neal to reach out again to his constituents. We hope that when he does, he will take the time to address the actual concerns brought to his attention, and that if he does, he will not simply bring speaking points to the conversation. We also encourage him to vote no on both of these bills, as the harms to our communities are heightened by their language. Lastly, we encourage all of our elected officials to read any and all proposed bills in their entirety to ensure they are making the right decision for the state and those who live here. 

You can still send a letter to your legislator by clicking below:

Party in the Park Celebrated 25 Years of Advocacy

The Center for Coalfield Justice would like to send a huge thank you to our supporters for attending our Annual Fall Fundraiser: A Party in the Park this past weekend. It was a fun opportunity to celebrate 25 years of service to our community, and we were so excited to have over 100 people in attendance! 

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We enjoyed a night of great music from LocaL, a roaring fire, and good conversation under the harvest moon. 

The Mexican food, local wine and beer, and hot cocoa bar were all delicious. 

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Local artisans and businesses provided a wonderful variety of silent auction items, including Westerwald Pottery, Painting with a Twist, Little Blue Pedal Car, Staley Tree Service, Deep Creek Cellars Winery, Voodoo Brewery, a book and signed art print from Gina Glover, homemade pies, handmade nursery quilts, a beautiful honey basket from Hillberry Apiary, and many other items. We are so grateful for all of our local sponsors! All proceeds will support the hard work being done by all of the CCJ staff to help us advocate for, protect and preserve our communities. 

From all of the CCJ staff (and Gizmo), a sincere thank you for coming out to celebrate with us, and we hope to see you soon!

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Appalachia Receives $44.4 Million Dollar Grant to Diversify from Coal

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On Tuesday, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) announced a $44.4 million investment package to “expand and diversify the economy in Appalachia’s coal-impacted communities.” The project consists of 54 awards given across Appalachia through the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) Initiative. Nine of these projects are in Pennsylvania and will focus on promoting entrepreneurial activity, increasing rural broadband coverage, and accommodating/attracting new business development.

The Appalachian Regional Commission is a federal-state economic development agency created in 1965 to “to innovate, partner, and invest to build community capacity and strengthen economic growth in Appalachia to help the Region achieve socioeconomic parity with the nation.” The ARC helps to coordinate federal, state, and local initiatives in Appalachia to spur development. In their 2016-2020 Strategic Plan, ARC’s goals include: creating economic opportunities, developing a ready workforce, investing in critical infrastructure, leveraging natural and cultural assets, and bolstering leadership and community capacity. The POWER Initiative specifically focuses on regions that have been affected by job losses in the coal and related industries.

Source: ARC

Source: ARC

Source: ARC

Source: ARC

Of the $44.4 million POWER investment package, 33% of the investments will “develop business incubators, increase access to capital, and provide other services to advance entrepreneurship,” 30% “will support broadband development and expansion in rural and/or underserved areas,” and 19% will “focus on workforce-to-recovery and other comprehensive strategies to strengthen the recovery ecosystem.” According to ARC, “These 54 awards are projected to create or retain over 5,700 jobs, leverage more than $39 million in private investment, create and/or retain 2,940 businesses, and train thousands of workers and students within the broadband, entrepreneurship, substance abuse recovery, tourism and other industry sectors across coal-impacted communities in nine Appalachian states.” 

Locally, a $1 million grant is going to a Community Development Financial Institution in Pittsburgh, Bridgeway Capital, for the Pennsylvania Entrepreneur Diversification Fund. According to ARC, “Activities will include business development workshops, one-on-one counseling, support for a regional business incubator, and small grants to entrepreneurs for training and licensure.” This is expected to create 65 new businesses and 200 local jobs. A $50,000 grant is going to the Greene County Board of Commissioners for the Rural Broadband Coverage and Feasibility Study. The 2018 Greene County Comprehensive Plan (not yet approved) states one top issue as expanding broadband access. This study will review current broadband connection and come up with a plan to best fill service gaps. Lastly, a $20,000 grant was given to the Fay-Penn Economic Development Council  for the Fayette County Multi-Tenant Spec Building Feasibility Study in Lamont Furnace, PA. This study will determine the feasibility of constructing buildings in various locations throughout Fayette County to accommodate and attract businesses who need industrial/commercial spaces.

According to ARC Federal Co-Chairman Tim Thomas, “The downturn of the coal market has been devastating to Appalachian communities, especially those that relied on coal extraction and related supply chains for generations. POWER grants are playing a critical role in supporting these communities as they diversify economies, invest in growth-oriented infrastructure, train a next-generation workforce, and ingrain resiliency and hope into their local fabric.” These grants are an exciting opportunity to diversify our local economy from the coal industry to build resilience and prosperity in our region.

Community Health in Southwestern Pennsylvania

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This blog was written by a concerned and engaged CCJ member and retired nurse who attended Monday night’s community meeting at the Canon-McMillan High school. With her permission, we are sharing her comments with you as the 5th in our What’s on your mind? series.

“Well, to say that the October 7 community meeting at Canon-McMillan HS was disappointing would be an understatement. 

In my view, whether they meant to disclose it or not, the speakers’ slides clearly indicated their awareness of factors warranting further investigation and identified limitations in their data collection criteria. They are aware of gaps in their assessment process. However, rather than acknowledge that their data collection criteria and CDC guidelines need to be revisited for their continued relevance (given the guidelines are 31 years old), they used those weaknesses as a defense for the conclusions they had drawn. I’m not sure how both the CDC and the DOH can justify not exploring opportunities for improvement in such important processes.  

The comments and questions from the audience focused almost exclusively on Ewing’s sarcoma rather than the increase in cancer types collectively, on fracking rather than all area pollution sources, of which there are many (including the long-standing radiation storage sites), and on chastising the DOH. However, given their role and expertise, the DOH could not be expected to address the impact of the multifaceted activities of the natural gas industry on the environment, as that is not their role.

We are seeing a clear inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to control pollution from many sources. Unfortunately, there has been no investment of time or resources to go by the precautionary principle, which could have protected many of us from the harms to public health and the environment. 

There is plenty of blame to go around: the DOH, the natural gas industry, the U.S. Department of Energy, local legislators, Washington and Greene County Commissioners, and the Washington County Chamber of Commerce – all of whom are steadfast in their support of the natural gas industry (see recent Observer-Reporter article by Jeff Kotula, President of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce; Letter to the Editor in support of the oil and gas industry by Diana Irey Vaughan, Washington County Commissioner; Senator Camera Bartolotta’s endless touting of anything industry-related; the newly-approved Greene County Comprehensive Plan. Also, notice the difference between the local Washington Observer-Reporter and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper coverage – the list goes on…)

Most cancers tend to manifest over time. It appears there is enough evidence at this point to warrant a proactive approach via aggressive research rather than react when the incidence numbers meet CDC guidelines.  Like it or not, nothing of substance will be done to ban polluting sources until that elusive cause-and-effect is uncovered. I believe the panel should have included additional speakers who can support the need for a comprehensive science-based air, water, and soil assessment. 

I am hopeful that Monday evening’s event, if nothing else, brought sufficient attention to the DOH Registry’s shortcomings and will prompt a comprehensive review. I’ve found over the years that crises can serve as a catalyst for change. 

I do want to add how appreciative many of us are that you [CCJ] are advocating for the residents of Washington and Greene Counties, especially the families who are suffering the consequences of these polluting industries - especially when all around us, accommodations are being made to court and support these companies and to defend their activities, though they threaten public health and welfare.”


How many more of my friends have to die before the state takes action?

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As many of you have been following, the Department of Health of the great State of Pennsylvania held a public meeting at Canon-McMillan High School last night, October 7th, to discuss the methodology used to draw up their report, which concluded that there is no cancer cluster within the district. 

Residents across the community have been working tirelessly to try to persuade our elected officials to serve us and get answers as we continue to lose people - children - to a variety of cancers including one of the rarest, Ewing’s Sarcoma. 

As many of our followers know, I am a 2015 graduate of Canon-McMillan High School. This issue is so close to my heart that I changed my career path and sought work in environmental justice because I feel so wholeheartedly that what is happening in our backyards is the issue of our time here in southwestern Pennsylvania. 

For centuries, we have systematically been swallowed up and spit back out by companies doing fossil fuel extraction. The industry takes from us until there is nothing left to take. When we are no longer deemed "profitable,” we are burdened with the responsibility of cleaning up the mess created by industry and suffering the severe economic bust. All the while, our elected officials serve industry in the name of “economic prosperity,” aiding hedge fund companies that don’t have our interests in mind.

In an effort to answer residents, State Representatives O’Neal and Ortitay asked the DOH to conduct a study on our school district in the spring of this year. Conveniently, the DOH announced that we did not constitute a “cancer cluster” 24 hours before our representatives were holding a “private” cancer cluster meeting with UPMC doctors and affected families who were only invited after we organized and demanded they let impartial residents into the room. Our discomfort with the manner in which they were handling the meeting was due to the fact that both Ortitay and O’Neal are friends of industry, as evidenced through their voting records and through their campaign financing.  

After the DOH announcement of no cancer cluster in April, through organizing and community building, residents uncovered that three cases of Ewing’s Sarcoma in the community were not included in the study. 

The DOH gave a presentation yesterday at Canon McMillan High School that showed complex tables of statistical significance. While their report certainly showed an increase in Ewing’s cases, and a 125% increase in bone cancer prevalence in the region since 2005, they insisted there was no reason to be alarmed. Their presentation had not been updated to include the cases that were left out of the report, and they told us that there are higher numbers of childhood cancers in Allegheny County so we shouldn’t be concerned. Allegheny County is 5.7 times larger than Washington County. 

We wanted the Department of Health to conduct another study that included all of the cases and expanded beyond Canon McMillan School District. Concerned parents and those who have experienced loss lined up with a series of questions for the DOH in an effort to show that we are not only angry and disheartened by the wall we seem to be running up against, but that we are afraid. The DOH told us they wouldn't answer any questions that were not specific to the research they conducted. I suppose this was their way of saying there are “no fracking concerns.” 

Kurt and Janice Blanock at Canon McMillan High School 10-7-19; “It should seem obvious with an ounce of common sense, sincere heartfelt concern, and true courage that we need to be looking at environmental triggers.”- Janice Blanock

Kurt and Janice Blanock at Canon McMillan High School 10-7-19; “It should seem obvious with an ounce of common sense, sincere heartfelt concern, and true courage that we need to be looking at environmental triggers.”- Janice Blanock

By the time the DOH cut off questions and ended the meeting, I was feeling very overwhelmed. As I stood in my alma mater, the rush of memories of the loss we felt when Luke was diagnosed overcame me. I was sitting in the cafeteria when we found out that Luke had a tumor in his back the size of a baseball, and we all wondered in fear why we never saw it or felt it as we huddled for the alma mater during basketball games. I can’t stop the replay in my head. When Mitch was diagnosed, the idea that this was all so rare that we shouldn’t be afraid was completely gone. Our generation lives in fear, afraid of every bump and ache in our bodies. 

I don’t want to have to beg government bureaucrats to care about us. I am sick of pleading for our existence. 

I want to ask the Governor himself, how many more of my friends have to die before he stops trading political deals to protect the natural gas industry at the expense of my community? 

 Yesterday’s meeting proved that they don’t plan to pay much regard to our concerns. They only took a few questions from the audience, they didn't take responsibility for the mistakes in their report, and they refused to acknowledge any of the environmental concerns in our community or across the state. 

Since calling on the DOH to study the Canon McMillan School District, the representatives have secured a $100,000 grant to fund UPMC for genetic research of Ewings Sarcoma. They have offered radon testing kits to residents of Canon-McMillan to help “ease our concerns,” and they’ve called on the National Institute of Health to conduct research on Ewing’s. 

None of these actions address the fact that the natural gas industry is expanding and developing, with fewer regulations, right in our backyards. Genetic research nor broad national research is going to look at the chemicals and radium that are being spewed into our drinking water sources and into our air. It doesn't take a PhD to realize that when something is occurring in a given space, it’s imperative to take a look at what is happening in said space. We do not have time for 20 more years of research before we acknowledge that something is wrong. How many more kids have to die or families have to suffer before we take this impact seriously? 

Instead of taking precautions, our representatives are aiding the natural gas industry in developing and expanding, with fewer regulations and more state support. EQT and Range are bragging across our communities about expanding and building “super well pads”. Industry is experimenting here to get to the Utica formations of shale gas. Our legislators are supporting pipeline infrastructure from our backyards to the cracker plant in Beaver county, where they’ll be producing petrochemicals - plastic - with our natural gas that we have supposedly been drilling to support energy independence and patriotism. Just two weeks ago, a plethora of our elected officials, among both parties, stood behind the Marcellus Shale Coalition as they discussed how “great” the shale industry has been for our community. 

We will not allow our elected officials to ignore our right to a healthy environment. They will not mislead us into believing they are respecting our concerns and serving us by dancing around the issue. Shale gas development has proven to be a risk and it is not an alarmist stance to demand that something has got to change here.  

We couldn't trust the green flags of industry or the State when our grandparents were playing baseball on the Strabane uranium site, and we can’t trust them now. We certainly shouldn't be dumping, and developing, more in the name of economic prosperity whenever we can't keep track or pinpoint triggers from the "economic prosperity" legacy costs of the past. We need to come together and demand better, healthier, and more sustainable investments in our region. We have the technology to be better, and I am not going to rest and accept these empty protections from our elected officials.  I hope you will join me in fighting for our communities and our future. 

For more information regarding this issue, a listening ear,or to talk through all of this,  you can contact me at heaven@coalfieldjustice.org or 724-229-3550 Ext. 103. 

Below is news coverage of the event: 

https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2019/10/07/public-hearing-held-in-canonsburg-to-ask-officials-about-spike-of-cancer-cases/

https://www.post-gazette.com/news/health/2019/10/04/Pennsylvania-Health-meeting-Monday-Ewing-sarcoma-Canon-McMillan-deaths/stories/201910040038

https://observer-reporter.com/news/localnews/department-of-health-explains-cancer-cluster-results-parents-concerned-groups/article_f8aea092-e932-11e9-ace0-1f7ba421c309.html

https://www.wpxi.com/news/top-stories/parents-call-for-action-doh-holds-public-meeting-over-cancer-cases-in-washington-co/994490866?utm_source=homestream&utm_medium=site_navigation&utm_campaign=homestream_click

https://observer-reporter.com/news/localnews/health-department-to-explain-report-on-childhood-cancers/article_8b381c94-e56f-11e9-95f9-5f1d7f95690e.html

https://www.bizjournals.com/pittsburgh/news/2019/10/07/canon-mac-parents-want-deeper-investigation-cancer.html


Greene County Celebrates Solar Energy Opportunities

This Saturday, the Center for Coalfield Justice and Solar United Neighbors kicked off the first Greene County Solar Energy Festival. The goal of the festival was to show how solar power can save families money, grow our economy, and provide secure, reliable electricity without relying on large utilities. Despite a morning thunderstorm, the day ended up being sunny and busy with over 200 people attending the festival!

There were opportunities to connect and chat with solar installers and local non-profits. There were also various vendors selling local art, jewelry, eco-goods, and wine.

There were four presentations including: Paths to Deep Reductions in Home Energy Use, Go Solar and Fight for Your Energy Rights, Ask a Solar Homeowner Anything, and Launching Your Solar Career. Panelists included Linda Wigington of ROCIS and 1000 Home Challenge and Henry McKay of Solar United Neighbors. Check out their website to learn about solar co-ops!

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Teslas were on display to showcase electric vehicles and the test rides with the owners did not disappoint! In building 8, the South Park Children’s Theater provided a wonderful Christmas routine. Beautiful local music was provided throughout the day by Dan Baker, Kittens Ain’t Biscuits (Randy and Daria Jones), and David & Mary Beth Craig.

According to Henry McKay from Solar United Neighbors, "We had a blast at the festival talking with Greene County residents about their vision for a solar-powered future and signing them up to go solar through the Mon/Yough Solar Co-op. For anyone still interested in powering their own home or business with solar energy, there's still time to join the solar co-op at www.solarunitedneighbors.org/Mon-Yough!"

Thank you to everyone who showed up willing to learn, engage, and celebrate a bright future for southwestern Pennsylvania!