On Wednesday, February 22 in the Borough of Brockway, Pennsylvania – the home town of Pennsylvania State Senator Joseph Scarnati, leader of the Senate Republican majority in Harrisburg – there was a public meeting on the question of whether the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) should allow a new Marcellus Shale gas well to be drilled in the Borough’s high quality watershed that provides clean water to its 2,000-plus residents and businesses.
The issue was quite contentious because the gas driller in question, Flatirons Development LLC of Denver, Colorado, had previously drilled a well that caused a temporary disruption in the flow of water from an artesian well that supplies one of the reservoirs for the Borough. According to what the Flatirons geologist said at the meeting, the problem had occurred because the company had not properly recognized the type of aquifer through which they were drilling. They failed to anticipate that their drilling would cause a cessation of flow from an artesian well that provides water to the Borough. They said they would do better this time.
The company also had problems complying with erosion and sediment controls on their well site – according to Bob Ging, attorney for the Brockway Borough Municipal Authority (“the Authority”) which is responsible for the town’s water system. Those problems only came to DEP’s attention as a result of the Authority complaining about it, again according to Mr. Ging. In addition, the company’s No. 6 well had developed a methane leak that the Authority had brought to DEP’s attention. “Despite promises by DEP to require the well to be plugged if the leak was not fixed, DEP allowed the well to be fracked while gas was still migrating from lower strata,” Ging has written.
Some townspeople were thus quite concerned that any new well could cause similar problems and perhaps destroy a portion of the water that some townspeople and one of its glass industries rely upon. So in that context Senator Scarnati and Pennsylvania House Speaker Sam Smith, both of whom represent the citizens of Brockway in Harrisburg, called for a “public hearing” to discuss the proposed permit for a new well. They were joined by Representative Matt Gabler of the 75th House District who serves on the House’s Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.
Senator Scarnati is well known as being among the most vocal state-level leaders cheering the drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale; he is the Senator who was treated to a free Super Bowl trip by the gas lobby when the Pittsburgh Steelers were there in 2011. He was the legislative kingpin behind the recently enacted Act 13 that provides for an “impact fee” (not a severance tax) on drilling to be paid to counties and municipalities so long as they give up all rights of local zoning over the placement of gas facilities. He can fairly be described as a true believer that shale gas is the salvation of Pennsylvania’s economy.
But the question being raised in the wake of that February 22 meeting is this: Did Senator Joseph Scarnati, in his zeal for gas drilling, snooker his own community? To “snooker,” it should be mentioned, means “to lead another into a situation in which all possible choices are undesirable; to trap, to fool or to dupe.”
According to sources in Brockway, and based on what the Authority’s lawyer wrote in an Op-Ed that appeared in the local Courier-Express paper, the meeting had all appearances of being set up by Scarnati to create the impression that the “concerns” of Brockway residents would get a full “hearing” by the public officials, DEP and Flatirons. Yet as the meeting proceeded it became evident that DEP was going to approve the permit no matter what Brockway residents had to say about it. Scott Perry of DEP was indicating that it was a “legal” activity so long as all the permitting procedures were properly completed. The Flatirons representatives for their part were forthright in saying – when asked why they had to drill in the Borough’s watershed – that they had leased rights to the gas in the shale below the watershed and they were drilling there because that is where their property is.
At the head of the room that night there were two tables, one around which Scott Perry and his DEP colleagues sat, and one around which a team of Flatirons Development people sat. Also at the head of the room were Scarnati, Smith and Gabler. Each of them was afforded an opportunity to make a statement. Conspicuously missing was a table up front for the Authority officials. At the podium the DEP public relations specialist was in firm, highly professional control of who got to have the microphone.
“With respect to the ‘public hearing,’ the Authority did not receive the agenda for the hearing until the day before the hearing,” wrote Ging. “The agenda was arranged by Senator Scarnati’s office and the DEP. The Authority was not given an appropriate opportunity to make a presentation expressing its concerns and the DEP public relations specialist who was running the hearing only allowed members of the Authority to ask three questions.”
The impression that the meeting was designed by Scarnati and DEP to limit and control input from Brockway officials and residents is reinforced by what happened before the meeting.
DEP and Senator Scarnati did not set the date for the meeting until nine days before it occurred. (That is public record, from a DEP release.) Moreover, DEP had told the Authority that they would advertise the meeting, but other than a release on the Internet that advertisement was not forthcoming as the meeting approached. So some alert Brockway citizens took it upon themselves to run Public Service Ads on the local community channel advertising the meeting,
The weekend before the meeting Senator Scarnati was encouraging people to attend the meeting on his website. The problem was that the start time for the meeting coming from Scarnati’s office was listed as 8:00 PM instead of the 6:00 PM time that the Authority had received from DEP. A Brockway resident emailed Scarnati’s office to ask that the time be corrected. Two days before the meeting the Courier-Express received a press release from Scarnati’s office telling people about the meeting and again stating that it would start at 8:00 PM. When told by Brockway residents that the time was incorrect, the paper corrected it on the front page with the large headline that the meeting was starting at 6 PM. The news article also reported that the information had been incorrectly sent from Scarnati’s office.
As it happened the meeting had a pretty good turnout of about 150 people in a town of about 2,000 people, despite DEP’s lackluster effort to advertise it, and despite Sen. Scarnati posting the wrong start-time information on his website.
As the meeting approached its end, many questions turned to the issue of what would happen if Flatirons contaminated the Borough’s pristine water supply. The Flatirons representative said they had made arrangements to truck in 750,000 gallons of water daily from nearby St. Mary’s, and that DEP had approved this plan. Other questions drew out the fact that the water would be “raw” and might need some treatment, but nonetheless the Borough and the glass making business in town would have the water they needed.
The people of the Borough of Brockway, who have long relied upon a centuries old nature-given resource of a high quality watershed, were being told that they were to rely on daily deliveries of water, in perpetuity, from a Delaware limited liability company with its headquarters in Colorado that was formed in December of 2007. Take it or leave it. That was the plan approved by DEP, and on that basis Flatirons would be drilling in their watershed. The only choice for assuring a clean water supply for Brockway was a highly undesirable one. It had been undesirable before the meeting was held, and it would remain undesirable at the end of the meeting. Brockway residents just had to adjust to the fact that the property rights of Flatirons were turning out to be more important than their right to a guaranteed and viable source of clean water for their future.
Whether Senator Scarnati heard this “concern” of his fellow townspeople depends on whether one concludes from the way he set up the meeting that he was in a real listening frame of mind. Or was he from the outset, in how we announced the meeting and the how he set it up, just managing the undesirable “choice” that he knew had to be delivered to his neighbors?