House Bill Would Make DEP Secretary Elected Position
Rep. Jesse White (D-Washington) announced the introduction of two bills-- House Bill 2606 and House Bill 2607-- which would amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to change the Department of Environmental Protection’s appointed secretary position to a commissioner post elected by Pennsylvanians.
Rep. White said the legislation would end the governor’s appointment of the position and put the role of a DEP commissioner closer in line with that of the state treasurer, attorney general or auditor general, and would create more transparency for a department that has been continually scrutinized for its clear political agenda under Gov. Tom Corbett and DEP Secretary Michael Krancer’s lead.
“Recent events have forced me to question whether DEP has allowed political considerations to overtake pursuing policies that strike a fair and reasonable balance between protecting and developing our natural resources, and the answer is a resounding ‘yes’,” Rep. White said. “I believe an election by the people is the only means of promoting transparency within the DEP and returning the department to fully carry out its core mission, instead of playing political games that have real consequences to the health and safety of Pennsylvanians.”
House Bill 2607 states the provisions of the elective process, noted among them that the commissioner would hold office for a four-year term and would not be eligible to serve continuously for more than two successive terms. An amendment to the state constitution would be necessary to make the change, which would take at least five years and require statewide approval through a referendum vote.
House Bill 2606 would change the title of the office to commissioner.
Rep. White said it’s dangerous when complex decisions about environmental safety and health are made by a politically appointed boss, presumably for political purposes. The current system only lends to political maneuvering, he said, and offers Pennsylvanians no tools to hold the DEP head accountable for poor decisions.
“I personally have been denied access to air-quality test results conducted by DEP in my own district, even after I filed a Right to Know request,” Rep. White said of recent efforts to gain access to data from a DEP study at Cornerstone Care health facility in Washington County. “The DEP stated there was a greater interest in keeping the test results confidential instead of releasing them to the public, which is a truly astounding statement. The DEP came right out and admitted they are working for someone other than the citizens of Pennsylvania, which is reprehensible and unacceptable.
“This implies an unacceptable lack of transparency and political motivation to protect the interests of people or entities deemed more important to Secretary Krancer and the Corbett administration than the residents of Pennsylvania,” he added. “Campaign donations and political motivations should never drown out scientific facts.”
Cornerstone Care, a nonprofit medical clinic in Burgettstown, closed on May 25 when officials were forced to evacuate the facility for a third time because of mysterious odors seemingly linked to sickness among employees and patients. The cause of the odors has not been found, but the clinic reopened to the public.
Rep. White was denied access to the complete testing data, which indicated elevated levels of ethane, Ethylbenzene, Hexane, propane, Methyl isobutyl ketone, carbon disulfide and methyl tert-butyl ether. The DEP refused to acknowledge a Marcellus Shale drilling site approximately half a mile from the clinic when conducting the tests and officials then publicly stated that there was no indication the source of the problems at Cornerstone was anywhere outside.
“Either by incompetence or by design, the DEP failed to do its job at Cornerstone Care and then refused to take any accountability, hiding behind a loophole in the Open Records Act to conceal whatever they found,” Rep. White said. “Any Pennsylvanian who truly believes the DEP in its current role is committed to its stated mission of environmental protection needs to realize this is simply not reality, or else the air-quality data from Cornerstone Care would have been made public.
“This isn’t a game – it’s a big deal. If there are hazardous chemicals in the air near your home or work, you deserve to know every single piece of information there is to protect yourself and your family,” Rep. White said. “When there is clear evidence of a public health hazard, politically motivated ignorance is tantamount to aiding and abetting criminally negligent behavior, which is unacceptable at every possible level.”
Rep. White stressed the goal of his legislation is not to favor any political affiliation, but to ensure Pennsylvanians have an honest and independent watchdog to protect the environment.
“The health and safety of Pennsylvanians should not be subject to political concerns,” Rep. White continued. “Policies should come from scientific facts; instead, we now have ‘facts’ being determined to fit specific policies, which is a violation of our constitutional protections to clean air and water. By making the head of DEP an independently elected position, the people of Pennsylvania will have the opportunity to choose a truly independent watchdog and hold him or her accountable at the ballot box.”
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