Money, politics and pollution in fracking country

Posted: January 16, 2013

IT WAS JAN. 18, 2011 - just a day before Gov. Corbett took the oath of office - when, without warning, trucks started rolling one after another into a once-abandoned industrial site in the Susquehanna River town of Sunbury, Pa.

At the end of that day, stunned and angry neighbors counted 27 large dump trucks on their small residential street, filled with the debris from gas-drilling rigs in the Marcellus Shale. Some of the trucks were leaking liquids, said the neighbors, including Cora Campbell, who recalled that "it smelled like a combination of diesel fuel and dirt."

For months, Campbell and others in the history-rich town of 10,000, an hour north of Harrisburg, and environmental activists pressed the new owner of the site, the logistics firm Moran Industries, and regulators from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), to find out what was happening at the property and how it could handle so much fracking waste without environmental permits.

But there was something else that Sunbury residents didn't find out until long after DEP sided with Moran Industries: Its subsidiary's contract with an interstate railroad, signed three months after the waste-transfer station opened, now meant that it was exempt from Pennsylvania permitting laws.

It turned out that the company's owner, John Moran Jr., wasn't just a major political donor who'd given more than $100,000 to Corbett's gubernatorial campaign, but he also had gifted more than $2,400 for Corbett's personal travel, including hosting the governor and his wife on a yacht off Rhode Island in July 2011. The trips weren't revealed until last fall, in an amendment to an earlier Corbett ethics-disclosure form.

Corbett and his aides have strongly denied that his friendship and his personal gifts from the head of Moran Industries had any impact on his policies, or on any actions by regulators in the Corbett administration. Indeed, the GOP governor has made reducing regulations on business a cornerstone of his policies, and he famously urged lawmakers in March 2011: "Let's make Pennsylvania the Texas of the natural-gas boom."

Still, Sunbury residents and environmental activists are troubled by the appearances in a tangle of money, politics, friendship and environmental risk in a central Pennsylvania region that Hollywood now might call a "promised land" - pitting fracking jobs and profits against the faded dignity of a small, scenic Rust Belt town.

"The broader issue is that during the period when Moran was traveling with the governor, his company had much to gain from favorable interpretation from the DEP of this facility," said Mark Szybist, a Wilkes-Barre-based lawyer for the environmental group PennFuture who has been following the saga from the start.

'A gift from God'

John Moran Jr., the head of logistics, warehousing and trucking company Moran Industries, is something of an evangelist for fracking, calling gas drilling in Pennsylvania "a gift from God" and traveling on a state-sponsored trade mission to Germany and France touting the Marcellus Shale.

On Sept. 30, 2010, a vice president for Moran Industries, Jeffrey Stroehmann, wrote to John Hanger, outgoing DEP commissioner in the Democratic administration of then-Gov. Ed Rendell, that the accumulation of drill cuttings - solid waste created by fracking deep into the Marcellus Shale - was becoming a crisis for large gas companies. He urged that their proposed waste site - loading trucked-in waste onto trains in Sunbury for shipment to an Ohio dump - be allowed to operate without a state permit under a loophole exemption that Congress granted to railroads in 2008.

Stroehmann estimated that a state permit for a waste-transfer-station site would take six to nine months to obtain, and he wrote: "A business opportunity has presented itself and we can solve environmental problems, traffic problems, create jobs and provide a long term all weather solution, but we cannot wait."

But Hanger wrote back the next month to tell Moran Industries exactly that: Wait. He said that the firm needed to get a permit or submit much-more-detailed proof that it qualified for the rail exemption. In mid-January 2010, at a Sunbury City Council meeting, according to a local news account, Stroehmann assured residents that there was no plan to start trucking in waste.

Then, suddenly, the trucks started coming on Jan. 18, 2011 - a state holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the day before the inauguration of Corbett and the arrival of his new team. Stroehmann, contacted by phone, declined to comment.

"We weren't sure what was in the material they were dumping," said Campbell, who lives in a row of homes separated by a narrow alley from where Moran was loading the fracking waste onto rail cars. She recalled one instance in which she watched a crew vacuuming liquid that had spilled from a waste-laden truck, part of a pattern of complaints about spills and foul odors.

Coincidentally, neighbors said that their complaints about the site peaked around July 2011, about the time that Moran - it was much later reported - spent $1,422 to fly Corbett and his wife to Rhode Island for what the governor said was an outing on Moran's boat. The governor has denied giving the wealthy donor special access, telling reporters last month: "A lot of people have access to me. They are friends."

DEP inspectors visited the site several times in early 2011 and said that there were no violations, although while they were present several trucks were turned away for containing liquids. But it wasn't until March 16 of last year - nearly 14 months after the site began receiving waste - that DEP approved Moran's operating without a permit. And that was based on an agreement between a Moran subsidiary and the Norfolk Southern rail company dated April 8, 2011 - again, after the site opened.

Kevin Sunday, DEP spokesman, said that the governor's office never contacted either the company or the agency about the issues at Sunbury. He added that even with the ruling that Moran didn't need a permit, the company must still obey all Pennsylvania pollution laws - and DEP is enforcing those and will continue to do so.

But PennFuture's Szybist is still troubled that a busy waste facility operated for more than a year without state approval. DEP, he noted, "had both legal authority and good cause to shut the facility down."


On Twitter: @Will_Bunch

Blog: Attytood.com

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