DN Editorial: State: open for business, or for sale to highest bidder?

Posted: March 21, 2011

PENNSYLVANIA'S UNEMPLOYMENT rate of 8.2 percent (as of January) is better than many states', but it's still a troubling number.

Still, we are disheartened to hear Tom Corbett's pick to run the state's economic-development department announce that "Pennsylvania is open for business."

Maybe because to Philadelphians, the phrase "open for business" has too often meant that our government and its officials are for sale.

Or maybe it's because that pick, C. Alan Walker - who has yet to be confirmed to head the state's Department of Community and Economic Development - is an energy executive with a troublesome environmental track record . . . and a virtual blank check from Corbett.

Walker, CEO of Bradford Energy and Bradford Coal, has interests in a dozen other companies, including an oil-and-gas company. He's contributed more than $180,000 to Corbett since 2004. Bradford Coal ran into problems in 2002 when, according to a report in ProPublica, it informed the state it had run out of money and couldn't treat millions of gallons of polluted water it had produced and dumped in tributaries of the Susquehanna River. It took a court injunction to force Bradford to continue treating the water.

This is hardly the ideal track record for someone to head an office in a state that has seen a boom in natural-gas drilling, and a rise in environmental problems associated with that drilling. Worse, Corbett has granted broad powers to Walker to expedite "any permit or action pending in any agency where the creation of jobs may be impacted."

Corbett sees the Marcellus Shale industry as key to the state's growth, so we can only presume he wants to fast-track even more permits for wells and more drilling.

Here's what fast-tracking this industry has already brought us: an Associated Press report in January that millions of undertreated Marcellus Shale wastewater was being dumped into the state's rivers and streams; soon after, the New York Times reported that much of this water was radioactive, though no testing for radioactivity is being done.

For all the jobs it represents, the gas industry also has the potential to wreak potential short-term environmental havoc - to say nothing of long-term disaster. This calls for regulation and oversight, yet Corbett has made it clear he wants nothing getting in the way of a red-carpet welcome for drillers. In fact, despite the additional oversight this industry has required, Corbett is cutting the budget for the Department of Environmental Protection.

Cuts might not be a problem if the industry were being taxed, since some of the revenue could be used for oversight, but Corbett refuses to tax Marcellus gas drillers. This, despite a recent Franklin & Marshall College Poll (produced in conjunction with this newspaper) that found that 62 percent support such a tax. This mirrors results of a Susquehanna Polling & Research survey in January.

Corbett also put Walker on his 30-member Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, where he is one of 13 people with ties to the gas industry. There are four enviornmental members.

The race to blast holes in shale to extract gas without the tempering hand of proper regulation or oversight hits a particularly discordant note in light of Japan's nuclear disaster, and in light of questions on the safety of the U.S.'s plants. Nuclear energy and gas drilling are hardly equivalent when it comes to potential hazards - that we know of. But we shouldn't be sacrificing safety, especially of our water, for short-term gains. *

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