Mystery in Harrisburg: Who killed state's largest pollution fine?

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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.

“Today, we made it clear that we take seriously our responsibility to protect residents and Pennsylvania’s natural resources,” John Quigley, the then-new environmental protection secretary who had been an environmental activist, said that day. “Clean water is an important part of a strong economy and Range Resources owes it to the people of Lycoming County and surrounding areas to make the repairs necessary to immediately stop the discharge of natural gas to the waters.”

Last month, Quigley was forced out of his job amid complaints about his hard-charging style, capped by his crude exhortation in the form of an overheated email to top environmental activists. On his very first day of unemployment. Quigley picked up a Harrisburg newspaper and was shocked by a story that he read.

The letter announcing the $8.9 million fine against Range Resources, and thus the penalty itself, had been killed -- "rescinded," in bureaucratic lingo. It was, Quigley insists, the very first time he'd heard of the decision -- even though the decision was dated earlier in the month, when he was still the commissioner.

"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."

Wolf administration officials tell a different story. They insist that Quigley was  in fact briefed on a proposal to pull back on the fine as part of ongoing negotiations with Range Resources -- verbally in March and then in a written newsletter last month. They also note that the state's investigation of Range Resources is still ongoing and that the firm could yet pay a penalty for the pollution in Lycoming County.

"We're not going soft," Scott Perry, the DEP's deputy secretary for oil and gas management, told me late today.

The "he-said, they-said" between Quigley and the administration that once had enthusiastically hired him to be Pennsylvania's top pollution fighter shouldn't obscure the bigger worry here. That no matter who's in the governor's mansion -- liberal or conservative -- Big Oil and Gas still has the upper hand in the Keystone State.

Same as it ever was.

When the fracking boom came to Pennsylvania in the mid-2000s, Range Resources was the very first driller, and company officials told environmental activists that things were going to be different this time around, that there were a "green" fracking company. It hasn't quite worked out that way. Before the Lycoming County controversy, the firm was fined $4.15 million -- which was, and now still is, the state's largest environmental fine to date -- for leaking wastewater impoundments. In Washington County, the firm agreed to paid a family $750,000 after its members complained of illnesses from a fracking rig near its house.

But that wasn't all. In 2011, a lobbyist for Range Resources admitted that the company had resorted to Army-style "psy-ops" to quell community opposition to fracking in Pennsylvania. Just this year, a company executive stunned a forum when he confessed that Range Resources avoids drilling for gas near "big houses" -- i.e., families that have the financial wherewithal to fight back. In 2011, the firm called on Pennsylvania's Ed Rendell, who'd just wrapped up his stint as governor, to intervene with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during a successful bid to kill off a federal lawsuit over alleged pollution in Texas.

DEP officials insist that nothing like that happened in the Lycoming case, in which Quigley, in announcing the fine last year, said environmental agents had found methane bubbling up in a stream and blamed the pollution for killing a farmer's vegetation. Rather than agree with the DEP's findings, Range Resources insisted that it was not the source of the methane and fought both the state's remediation order as well as the letter proposing the $8.9 million fine.

DEP's Perry insisted today that a lot has changed over the last year. Threatened with the large financial penalty, Range Resources became more cooperative about the clean-up, he said. And the state has continued to probe other possible contamination sites. The agency's lawyers concluded that a state review board would not have jurisdiction over the letter seeking the fine -- so the letter and the fine was withdrawn.

Although Perry and other officials maintain that Quigley was briefed on the policy changes, he also confessed that maybe the communications weren't that clear. Said Perry: "I must not have done a good enough job of making that message stick." Still, he insists the investigation is stilol active and that a fine for Range Resources is still on the table, although he refuses to speculate on the particulars.

Quigley, for his part, remains adamant that he couldn't have been briefed on pulling back the fine, because he certainly would have said "no." "I did not approve it -- I never would have approved it," he said. "I don't understand how it happened."

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.

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