Cornerstone Care, a non-profit community health clinic providing a full-range of primary and preventative health, dental and mental care was forced to close their location in the Burgettstown area last week after a third incident requiring evacuation of the employees.
The evacuations came after strong odors, described as similar to the smell of nail polish remover, were reported, causing employees to become ill; there were also indications of methane in the clinic’s water supply. The majority of the clinic will remain closed indefinitely; dental services will still be provided in the downstairs portion of the facility, where the odors have not been reported.
I’m disturbed about the closure of Cornerstone Care, but I’m even more disturbed and infuriated at the way the closure could have possibly been prevented, and what this tells us about the failure of the Department of Environmental Protection to do its job.
The first evacuation came on March 28. When local fire departments and hazmat units were unable to find the source of the odors, Cornerstone officials contacted the state Department of Environmental Protection’s southwest regional office. They referred Cornerstone to the DEP Oil and Gas Unit, which is based out of Harrisburg.
Why the Oil and Gas Unit? It turns out that several Marcellus Shale wells are nearby, including an active site about half a mile away from the clinic, and there is a sizable natural gas compressor site being constructed less than a mile from the clinic.
Let’s stop right here for a minute, because I know the response forming in many peoples’ minds, and I want to address it right here and now. First, I am in no way saying that oil and gas activity caused the problems at Cornerstone Care. I am not a scientist, and although I know a lot more than I did a few years ago about the drilling process, I don’t pretend to be one.
Second, I am not trying to whip people into a frenzy to oppose the natural gas drilling. In fact, let’s remember it was the Regional DEP office that brought the Oil and Gas Unit into the discussion in the first place. In fact, one of the biggest arguments made in favor of Act 13, which took away local zoning rights (only for oil and gas operations) from municipalities was that the state, through the DEP, was by far the most competent and qualified to handle concerns.
So we have a system where the DEP Oil and Gas Unit is the only group who can investigate these types of problems, and although I cannot say with certainty the problems at Cornerstone are related to drilling, no one can say with certainty that they are not caused by drilling. You would think the Oil and Gas Unit would be quick to respond, if for no other reason to dispel any concerns right away, especially for a high-profile public health facility situated in the dead center of the Marcellus Shale boom.
So how can the DEP Oil and Gas Unit justify not returning phone calls from Cornerstone for over two weeks after the first evacuation? I was in a meeting with Cornerstone officials and DEP staff two days before the final evacuation and closure of the clinic, and it was confirmed that the Oil and Gas Unit never responded. It was also revealed that the company doing the drilling nearby was contacted and didn’t respond for over two weeks. We were told if there was one more incident, the clinic would have to close, and that’s exactly what happened two days later.
Because of the media attention surrounding the closure, the DEP announced they are finally conducting air quality tests in the facility. Ironically, the tests won’t be completed for two to three weeks, which means they could have theoretically been completed before the closure if the DEP had responded to the situation before it got out of hand.
Adding to the uncertainty is a statement made by a DEP spokesman that the DEP found no connection of the problems to the drilling activity; how could anyone possibly be able to make such a statement without doing proper investigation and testing? Similarly, a spokesman for the drilling company said the company knew about the odor before they began drilling and that no odors are coming from their drilling site.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not comfortable just blindly accepting the unsubstantiated claim of a public relations official on the gas industry payroll without any documented evidence to support their denial of involvement.
When problems like this occur, I want an independent, objective, scientific investigation. I want the openness and transparency and accountability we always hear about but rarely see. We’ve been told by the Corbett administration and the gas industry that the DEP are the only ones qualified to perform those tasks, but in this instance they completely and totally dropped the ball.
The DEP’s failure to respond to quickly and properly respond to a clear problem with far-reaching implications for the community is simply inexcusable. After the regional DEP office referred Cornerstone to the Oil and Gas Unit, not returning a phone call for over two weeks seriously damages their credibility and diminishes the public trust at a time when both are on shaky ground to begin with. And the failure of the drilling company to respond to Cornerstone’s calls doesn’t seem to jive with the “good neighbor” rhetoric we are pounded with from every angle.
This is not an attempt to "attack" natural gas drilling, as some will no doubt claim. There are plenty of people out there who are working hard every day to do it responsibly, and I'm not trying to take away the economic benefits from those people, many of whom are my constituents. You can't just “pick a side” because this is simply not an issue with two "sides;" it's complicated and nuanced.
My job is to make sure state government is doing its job, and to make sure my constituents are fairly and properly represented. And when one side of state agency shifts responsibility to another state agency which fails to respond, and the result is people getting sick, losing a needed healthcare resource and jobs leaving my district, I feel compelled to speak up and demand the accountability and transparency we have been promised but has failed to materialize.
The public deserves to know everything about what is being done, or apparently not done, to ensure their safety. The odors in the building aren’t the only thing that smells funny here.