Mystery in Harrisburg: Who killed state's largest pollution fine?
One day after Pennsylvania's top environmental official was ousted, he was stunned to learn that his agency had withdrawn an $8.9 million fine for fracking pollution. Was that really a coincidence?
When it was announced nearly one year ago, it was the largest fine against a polluter in Pennsylvania history: $8.9 million -- but it was also something much more important than that.
The sizable penalty against Texas-based energy giant Range Resources, for allegedly failing to fix a methane leak at a fracking rig that had polluted homeowners' wells and a stream in Lycoming County, near Williamsport, was also a symbol that with the Wolf administration, there was a new environmental sheriff in town. Frackers, who'd been coddled in Pennsylvania pollution cases for years, were put on notice.
"The last I knew, the investigation was ongoing," Quigley told me by telephone last week. "The only person at DEP who can approve walking away from a fine was me -- and I didn't." He added that he found the timing of the multi-million-dollar reversal of fortune, to the benefit of the politically connected energy giant, "curious," coming at the same time "there was a movement afoot to get rid of me."
The best interpretation of the Range Resources affair is that it reveals muddled lines of communication and authority among the state's environmental regulators -- but for the general public there remains much bigger concerns.
So far, the Wolf administration has struggled to keep its promises on the environment. The proposed severance tax on frackers that was a centerpiece of Wolf's 2014 campaign became a fantasy once it met the best legislature that Big Oil's money could buy. Tougher fracking regs are under assault from those same lawmakers. The initial pit-bull environmental regulator, Quigley, was quickly shown the exits. And now the biggest environmental fine in Pennsylvania history...isn't.
Attytood will keep watching the Range Resources case. So should anyone who cares about the state's ecology.