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White: DEP Denied Open Records Request for Air Quality Data

State Rep. Jesse White said, 'Either DEP did a shoddy job in conducting the testing and doesn’t want to be embarrassed, or the data shows something the DEP doesn't want the public to see.'

Editor's Note: This story was updated at 3:58 p.m. to include response from DEP.

said to consider his mind blown.

The state Department of Environmental Protection denied the Cecil lawmaker's open records request for air-quality test data from the agency's investigation of odors at Cornerstone Care—a non-profit medical clinic in Burgettstown.

Cornerstone has been closed since May 25, when it was forced to evacuate the facility for a third time. 

White said the letter, dated June 18, and signed by the DEP's open records officer, stated that the DEP's investigation concerning the odors at Cornerstone was "non-criminal" in nature and was exempted from the state’s Right to Know Law. 

White said he plans to appeal DEP's decision to withhold the information within the 15-day period the Right to Know law provides.

Although the Pennsylvania Right to Know law allows an agency to withhold such data, the DEP is not required to withhold the information, and could release it if it chose to do so, the lawmaker explained.

White pointed to Section 506(c) of the right-to-know law, which indicates an agency such as the DEP may exercise its discretion to make any otherwise exempt record accessible for inspection and copying if the disclosure is not prohibited by law or court order, not protected by a privilege, and the agency head determines that the public interest favoring access outweighs any individual, agency or public interest that may favor restriction of access.

"If this isn't a textbook example of the public interest benefiting from the release of information, I don't know what is," White said. "The data DEP is withholding from the public can help Cornerstone find and eliminate the problem once and for all, and it blows my mind to see DEP's role fundamentally shift from being part of Cornerstone’s solution to being part of the problem."

The lawmaker continued: "Playing political games with the health and well-being of Pennsylvania (residents) is no way for a state agency to act, and I will continue urging DEP to stop hiding behind the Right-to-Know law and release its findings."

The legislator and state , D-Canonsburg, received a second analysis summary of the test results, but that the analysis has "opened the door to even more unanswered questions about what the DEP knows and what other information may be unearthed through the release of the entire test results," White said in a release.

"The second analysis, which is disturbing on multiple levels, mysteriously reveals the presence of two new chemical compounds, carbon disulfide and methyl tert-butyl ether, neither of which were mentioned in the first DEP summary," he said. "There is simply no way the DEP can justify their conclusions scientifically. Among the many concerns, there is real evidence to suggest DEP did not conduct a thorough walk through prior to testing to identify potential sources; they reported results on acute exposure of one hour instead of a more realistic chronic exposure; they used standards not subject to peer scientific review; and failed to disclose levels of chemicals under the DEP's own reporting standards, which are arbitrary at best."

White argued that the raw testing data—including the quality control and quality assurance information by which the tests were conducted—is essential for independent scientists and researchers trying to find the source of the problems at Cornerstone.

"At this point, there are only two logical possibilities: Either DEP did a shoddy job in conducting the testing and doesn’t want to be embarrassed, or the data shows something the DEP doesn't want the public to see," White said. "Either way, the DEP has a moral obligation to the people of Pennsylvania to release the raw data and let sunshine be the best disinfectant for whatever is ailing Cornerstone Care."

Cornerstone Care is currently struggling to find a new temporary home by June 30, which White says reinforces the urgent need for DEP to release the data.

"Real people are struggling because the DEP decided to cower behind the law instead of doing the right thing," White said. "How can anyone with common sense not look at the situation and wonder what DEP is trying to hide from the public?"

Reached for comment Monday, Solobay said that while he, too, is frustrated on behalf of Cornerstone, and has tried to make calls on its behalf to find temporary housing, which he believes the DEP did its due diligence in the case.

The Canonsburg lawmaker said he has met with the concerned parties since the issue surfaced, and that DEP has promptly gotten back to him on issues related to the matter, adding that air quality test so far "have for the most part come up with nothing."

As for whether or not the DEP is withholding information that could be beneficial to the public good—as White has argued?

"I have the utmost faith in the world that DEP would not withhold information beneficial to the public good," Solobay said, noting that department officials have told him it is an ongoing investigation.

Reached for comment and clarification Monday afternoon, DEP's Harrisburg office referred Patch to a local DEP spokesman, who referred calls on the matter back to the Capitol office. A message left there was not immediately returned.

However, in an email sent to Canon-McMillan Patch a short time later, the local DEP spokesman, John Poister, attached a copy of the denial letter.

"We will have no other comment at this time," the email continued.

Editor's Note: To view White's original Right to Know request, as well as the DEP's denial, click on the attached PDF files.

b-sure June 25, 2012 at 09:54 PM
And we're supposed to believe that the DEP is protecting us?
Roger June 25, 2012 at 11:47 PM
In previous Patch articles of Rep White's request, the reason for the request and the intended disposition of 400 pages of raw data went unanswered. He knows that these emotionally-charged and politically-bent cases will find no "independent scientists and researchers." The days of "independence" on scientific data for political situations are gone.
Amanda Gillooly June 26, 2012 at 12:37 AM
Roger - Let me see if I can get in touch with Rep. White to have your question answered. I believe our local legislators are in Harrisburg right now, but I will do my best to get you an answer. As always, if I can ever be of any further assistance, just give me a holler at 724-510-5659.
Jesse White June 26, 2012 at 01:16 AM
To clarify, the raw data includes the quality control/quality assurance data that would give needed insight into understanding the problem. Without it, the DEP could say almost anything and no one could refute it. Just a plain reading of the two analyses given to me, coupled with the quotes given to the media by DEP spokesmen, point to different conclusions. Cornerstone has doctors and professionals, and there are other air quality scientists from universities who have volunteered to help Cornerstone solve their problems. This is only a "political situation" because DEP won't release the data.
Amanda Gillooly June 26, 2012 at 01:55 AM
Thanks for responding so quickly, Rep. White. I appreciate it!
Loretta Weir June 26, 2012 at 04:13 AM
If everything was A-OK....doesn't common sense dictate that the 'good news' would be forthcoming from the DEP??? This is just more of the same served on a contaminated water table from the Corporatocracy that runs Pennsylvania now.
Roger June 26, 2012 at 11:06 AM
No, Loretta. In the past decade, politicians have discovered there is great "hay" to be made in scientific data. By using data that is neutral, an advancement of a political agenda can be made by finding the right people to "discover" what the data says. Twenty years ago, even ten years ago, this was not the case. But, now, these data are a ripe field to advance some viewpoint. What scientist or researcher who is given the data by a politician is going to produce a result unfavorable to the one who provided them the work? There is too much political gain to be made with this procedure. With the release of the 400 pages of raw data, the situation is not unlike a beach ball in the mosh pit. It gets bounced around, with all manner of hands on the material, few (if any) capable to making sense of the data. Whether or not somebody is capable of handling the data, their voice is given the same credibility as any other. Soon, the work of those who did proper analysis of the data is lost in the shuffle, and nothing good comes from the chaos.
Jesse White June 26, 2012 at 12:29 PM
Roger, I don't totally disagree with you, but you're operating from the false premise that the DEP did a proper analysis. They didn't. Their conclusions given at various points are contradictory, and when I asked for clarification, I was stonewalled. I didn't take this action lightly, but given the serious nature of Cornerstone's problems, which impact the entire community, I wouldn't be doing my job if I just blindly accepted DEP's word and ignored their lack of willingness to back it up with facts.
Andy Mechling June 27, 2012 at 08:18 PM
If you've got CS2 and MTBE in the airspace of that building, somewhere underneath is a plume of gasoline. If someone tries to convince you that there is some big mystery involved - as to what the substance might be - that person is not being honest. This is gasoline. If you've detected CS2 and MTBE, the next two questions become "Where are the gasoline vapors originating?" and then, "Is this an ongoing situation?" Mr. White, you are doing a great job. In a case like this though, the exact concentration measurements may not be too important; and the same is true for all that QA paperwork. There is no need to wait on that paperwork. You know what the problem is. Now you need to locate that plume. Good Luck. Please keep up the good work.
Kevin McKee June 27, 2012 at 09:30 PM
This is a disgrace. The only people afraid of the facts, (science) are the republican political appointees in the DEP.
Roger June 27, 2012 at 11:21 PM
Thanks for making my point, Mr. White. The 400 pages remain under cover, but conclusions are already drawn. Thanks also to Kevin for underscoring my comments about political perspectives. There is no need to release the 400 pages with these attitudes.
Roger June 27, 2012 at 11:26 PM
Andy, you seem to have an inside track on the details of the problem. What, in the 400 pages of raw data, would be helpful to answer the question you posed?
RONALD A. FLEEHER June 28, 2012 at 01:11 AM
Ron Fleeher I'm not one bit surprised about the actions of the DEP after what they did to my mother , they are as underhanded as it gets . And once again Tim Solobay is backing the bad guys just like he did when he voted for Act 13 ,but thats OK elections will be comming back up .
liliiput June 28, 2012 at 12:29 PM
Hey Ron, I'm no fan of how the DEP handles things, but you seriously need to clean up your own junk heaps throughout the township if you want your comments to be taken seriously.
Andy Mechling June 28, 2012 at 09:45 PM
Roger. Sorry if I gave the wrong impression. I am not the guy with the details on this one. Truth is, I don't know the first thing about the monitoring, or the structure, or the history, culture, politics, or any other nuance of this particular situation. And that was part of my point. These are gasoline components. Nothing is proved conclusively, however, because of the dangers involved, everyone involved needs to assume that you are working with a plume of gasoline at this point, given this information. This is my opinion only. Either you understand where that MTBE is coming from, or you do not. If you think the source of this contaminant will be revealed in the 400 pages, then I think those 400 pages become relevant; otherwise it is clearly time to move forward. Locating the plume and mapping its extents, Identifying potential sources of that contaminant plume, . . . these seem like obvious next steps to me. Then comes the difficult part.
Andy Mechling June 30, 2012 at 11:17 PM
I apologize. I popped onto this blog because I thought this was a case of indoor air pollution where the source of the odors was unknown. What I had not appreciated was that this clinic's neighbors include at least one landfill facility permitted to receive, "treat", and spread the very nastiest of oilfield wastes, all classified as "non-hazardous", of course. I found the NPR article from 5/15/2012, and was drawn to the comments of one Dr. Porbin, who is quoted as saying; "We have an old saying in medicine: When you hear hoof beats, you don't think zebras — you think horses," I think Dr. Porbin is right on the money here. The problem here is not in any way rare, exotic, or new. Now it's time for this doctor, and all the others, to go out and take a good look in the barn. Take a good long look at those "horses" you supposedly know the most about. Take a look at CS2, and COS as well. Are these beasts comfortably tucked away and quiet? Or are they all lathered up just now? Have they been allowed to run completely amok again? Another of the doctors at the clinic expressed concern about not wanting to "feed any type of hysteria", and I fully sympathize, however, I hope all of the doctors are aware that discussions of so-called "carbon disulphide hysteria" actually pre-date Sigmund Freud and modern psychiatry. From the photos I've seen, it appears that the clinic truly occupies the low ground in this equation. There's your trouble.

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