One day after the in Washington County, the Office of Open Records denied a local lawmaker's appeal of DEP's refusal to release raw testing data from similar tests at Cornerstone Care health clinic in nearby Burgettstown.
Citing the DEP's "lack of transparency," state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, said the study, which will monitor for air pollutants in Chartiers and Mt. Pleasant townships relative to nearby natural gas development, cannot be fully trusted based on the DEP’s handling of Cornerstone Care. He is calling for a collaborative effort to ensure public confidence in the process.
On Tuesday, the DEP again refused to release information including raw testing data, details of quality control and assurance protocols used to study the air quality at Cornerstone Care after the state Office of Open Records denied White’s appeal for the data under the Right to Know Law. The Office of Open Records noted the DEP could have released the data had they chosen to do so, but refused to take such action.
The nonprofit medical clinic closed on May 25 when it was forced to evacuate the facility for a third time because of mysterious odors seemingly linked to
sickness among employees and patients. The cause of the odors has not been found, but the clinic reopened to the public on July 9.
White and Cornerstone officials sought the raw data to help determine the source of the odors after the DEP’s partial analyses of its tests showed varying results, including elevated levels of Methyl isobutyl ketone, Ethylbenzene, Hexane, Carbon Disulfide and Methyl tert-butyl ether.
In an affidavit defending the refusal to release the data, DEP Director of Legislative Affairs Tom Santanna said: "DEP has not elected to exercise its discretion to voluntarily provide access to the requested records, nor has the Secretary of DEP determined that the public interest favoring access outweighs any individual, agency or public interest that may favor restriction of access."
White said this statement "raises serious issues about the role and motivations of the DEP."
"The DEP just formally acknowledged they are protecting someone or something they deem more important than the health of Pennsylvanians by refusing to release the testing data," White said. "Until Secretary Krancer or Governor Corbett explains what could be more important than the health, safety and
welfare of the taxpayers of Pennsylvania, anything the DEP purports to do in the name of protecting the public should be acknowledged as the shameful farce it is."
But that wasn't all. The legislator continued:
“I have received more correspondence explaining the legal loopholes that DEP is
jumping through to withhold the Cornerstone information than actual answers about the testing and data that was collected. This is horrible on so many levels, from a public health standpoint to how the DEP is able to operate without having to be open and transparent for the benefit of Pennsylvania citizens.”
Based on his experiences in the Cornerstone Care case, White said he is calling for a collaborative approach to the DEP’s air quality study in Washington County. Citing the pattern of conflict and criticism surrounding most studies dealing with Marcellus Shale, White said the DEP should partner with additional groups of researchers chosen by both industry and environmental advocates with full access given equally to all three groups, and a combined publishing of results.
"Too many people are using the communities I represent as a political punching bag, and as their representative I have an obligation to help cut through the propaganda and misinformation so we can all learn what is really happening out here," White said. "The only way to reach factual conclusions is if we all agree on the scientific method and process. All I'm asking is for facts and science to control the debate for once.”
White said DEP's conduct in the Cornerstone Care case has "set a negative precedent (that) needs to be reversed in order to regain the public trust."
"This is the perfect opportunity for the DEP and Corbett administration to show the people of Pennsylvania they are committed to honest, fact-based debate about the impact of Marcellus Shale on our communities," White said. "Unfortunately, the DEP's track record of secrecy and protecting unidentified interests over the health of Pennsylvania residents demonstrates they simply cannot be trusted to provide the transparency this crucial issue demands. Right here in Washington County, the DEP demonstrated (it) can simply hide anything they don’t like, so how can anyone possibly trust them to tell the whole truth about what they find?"