You have to wonder whether Sunbury mayor, Dave Persing, really has any very good idea—or even a glimmer of moral compass—about what might be involved in the Clean Harbors construction of a Marcellus Shale Waste Processing Facility smack-dab in the middle of that small city.
Planned for the long-idled and stunning eyesore, the Knight-Celotex fiberboard thermal insulation plant shuttered its doors and declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April, 2009 (Knight-Celotex files for bankuptcy » News » The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA), but had stopped operations way back in November 2008—well over four years ago.
The 22-acre site was then purchased by John Moran of Moran Industries Warehouse and Distribution Services (Moran Industries) via a subsidiary company—JDM Acquisitions —for $525,000 in April of 2011—two years after the bankruptcy.
But as early as January, 2011, it was clear that Moran meant every word of his company slogan, “Whatever It Takes,” foregoing the inconvenience of applying for a Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) permit for the removal of materials from the Celotex site prior to demolition:
City officials continued to clash with representatives of a Watsontown company over Moran Industries’ unwillingness to disclose what it is doing and what the company intends to do at the former Celotex site in Sunbury. In what should be run-of-the-mill activities related to demolition of the former fiberboard manufacturing plant, city officials are scrambling to see what and why Moran Industries is hauling materials to the Sunbury site and loading it on rail cars to be shipped to Ohio. Moran representative, Jeff Stroehmann, attended last week’s city council meeting and informed the board nothing was going to take place at the site until demolition was complete, but as of Sunday, a parade of dump trucks have been in and out hauling materials in and sending scrap out. Stroehmann said Tuesday that workers are loading rock chips onto trains, something that would not require any special permitting from the state… [Councilman Todd Snyder]: “We have been in contact with DEP and they are just as surprised about any of this and they have told us they are launching their own investigation.”
Even Dan Spadoni of DEP—known far more for protecting the hydraulic fracturing industries than for protecting the environment (DEP Permit Hearing: Moxie Patriot Power Plant, Clinton Township, Lycoming County, PA,1.3.13 ), was forced to acknowledge that Moran Industries “does not have any permits on file with DEP.” As reported in the Daily Item, 1.20.12, “Sunbury mayor Dave Persing was growing frustrated on Wednesday because he wasn’t getting any answers” (City officials in dark over activities at former Celotex site » News » The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA).
But Persing’s frustration appears rather short-lived—one day short-lived to be precise. By 1.21.12, Persing declares “the city is safe.” On the basis of what evidence? Nothing other than the word of a representative for Moran Industries, Jeffery Stroehmann:
It’s a trial run, Persing said he was told. “A representative of the developer advised City Council in a public meeting of a trial experiment of transferring materials from the site to a destination in Ohio,” Persing said Thursday. That representative — Jeffery Stroehmann, of Moran Industries, Watsontown — said it is pure rock chips that are being removed. And, “That’s it,” Stroehmann said Tuesday. The rock chips are being dug up and sent on rail cars to Ohio, said Stroehmann, whose company earlier said it would consider using the site to process Marcellus Shale-related materials. “It is only rock chips. It is not frack water, and there is no such thing as frack mud,” Stroehmann said. “We are in compliance to everything, and we don’t need any permits to do what we are doing.” Persing was unaware the hauling experiment would begin as quickly as it did. “Clearly, this trial happened much faster than City Council anticipated, and we experienced many more trucks than we anticipated,” he said. The Marcellus Shale industry is making a huge impact in Pennsylvania and will for many years, Persing said. “The development of this new resource is moving faster than expected and has created a ‘rush to get involved’ throughout the entire state, which is moving faster than government generally works,” he said. “It is our hope that the City of Sunbury can benefit from this new resource for future years.”
There are several things to notice about these comments. First, Persing’s declaration that the city is safe is not the result of any investigation—DEP or otherwise. This is nothing but the reassurance of the company—the same company responsible for having failed to apply for a DEP permit—Moran’s. What mayor—responsible for protecting the public welfare—would accept such a flimsy explanation especially concerning a site in the middle of the city surrounded by residential neighborhoods?
Second, Stroemann insists that all that’s being transported on this “trial run” are wood chips, that Moran doesn’t need a DEP permit. Stroemann then follows this up with an excuse premised on the rapidly developing Marcellus Shale industry that “is moving faster than government generally works.” In other words, Persing is offered two utterly inadequate excuses—either “no permit needed,” or “need to move to fast, so skipped permit,” and, stunningly, he accepts them both with nary a whimper. Persing doesn’t even appear to see the effective admission that Moran Industries deliberately skipped the permit application in order to get the jump on the frack-waste transport and processing market. Not an iota of this narrative should inspire confidence in the citizens of Sunbury that John Moran is concerned about public safety, or that his plans to sell the Celotex site to Clean Harbors for frack-waste processing has anything to recommend it other than big bucks bulging from his pockets.
In fact (third), Persing doesn’t blanche at the possibility that the site might be utilized to “process Marcellus Shale-related materials” despite the fact that the transport and processing of such materials would pose a demonstrably massive environmental and health hazard—right in the middle of his city. “[I]t’s only rock chips. It is not frack water, and there’s no such thing as frack mud,” says Stroemann—and Persing buys this, apparently without research or additional inquiry, despite the fact that rock chips are defined by the fracking industry itself as part of the solid waste regulated as toxic (process Marcellus Shale-related materials). Moreover, drilling mud is simply another name for the highly toxic fluids being proposed for storage at the Celotex site.
What Dave Persing doesn’t seem to have much of a bead on is the process which produces the highly toxic materials he’d apparently be happy to store on the authority of a company that doesn’t bother with DEP approvals because such inconveniences are an obstacle to getting the jump on the money. But the waste proposed for the Celotex site is the refuse of slickwater horizontal hydralic fracturing:
The process of hydro-fracking begins at the well pad with the drilling of a vertical well. After the well has been drilled, a larger drill rig creates the horizontal drilling bore, and drilling mud is used to cool and power the drill. Depending on the chemical content of the drilling mud, drill cuttings can be deemed hazardous waste when combined with this mud. This initial phase can take up to two months. Once the well is drilled, dried, cased and grouted, fracking begins. After the cement casing is installed, a perforating gun sends down electrical currents that fracture the rock. Fracking fluid, a mixture of water and highly toxic chemical additives, is then injected at high pressure to both maintain and induce fractures in the gas-bearing formation, thereby increasing permeability and facilitating the release of trapped gas. A pressure of up to 15,000 pounds per square inch may be employed during multi-stage fracturing events. This is a pressure range typically associated with bombs and military armaments. Each well requires between 2-7 million gallons of fracking fluid. To make this fluid, water is obtained from local surface or ground water sources. To date, most fracking operations have used on-site fresh or low salinity water. Approximately 10 to 50% of the fracking fluid returns to the surface during the drilling process as flowback water, which is estimated to contain between 9%-35% of the initial fracking chemicals injected. Flowback water contains high levels of total dissolved solids (TDS or salts), metals and naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) from the drilling process, which is stored in open lagoons. Flowback generates the largest amount of waste from the gas wells. It can be reused to fracture additional wells, injected into underground disposal wells, treated or stored in open lagoons for dilution and reuse. Open lagoons are prone to liner failure, evaporative spread of volatile chemicals and direct human and animal contact. The hydro-fracking process takes approximately 4 months to complete from preparation to waste disposal.
“The Marcellus Shale industry is making a huge impact in Pennsylvania and will for many years, Persing said.” Yes it is, Mayor Persing. “[H]ighly toxic chemical additives,” 2-7 million gallons of fracking fluids. Indeed, Mayor Persing is apparently willing to make Sunbury into an “open lagoon” for materials that contain “high levels of total dissolved solids (TDS or salts), metals and naturally occurring radioactive material.”
After all, the liners of such facilities are prone to failure, truck accidents along the busy (and often very narrow) routes going in and out of Sunbury along the Susquehanna River will occur, and any one of them could be just as ugly as this gem from Watson Township, September, 2012:
WATSON TOWNSHIP — A truck hauling waste water for a company in the natural gas industry wrecked in Lycoming County Wednesday afternoon. The crash sent thousands of gallons of “residual water” spilling into Pine Creek at the scene along Route 44 north of Jersey Shore. It happened around 12:30 p.m. Wednesday. The Minuteman Environmental Services driver somehow crashed into a rock wall in Watson Township on his way to a gas well site, according to state police. Fire officials said the truck was hauling a full load in excess of 4,600 gallons of the treated waste water that contains high salt levels and some chemicals used in the fracking process. Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is the process of using liquid to break up underground shale to extract natural gas. Firefighters placed booms in Pine Creek to catch any contamination. A detour was expected to be in place for hours after the crash.
Rock walls, flood walls, folk’s living room windows, the Susquehanna River—there is nowhere a crash like this doesn’t have consequences that will redound far and wide given the carcinogenic load it dumps.
And when you consider the long hours these drivers are expected to pull down, “somehow crashed” is just an ordinary day in Frackland (For Oil Workers, Deadliest Danger Is Driving – NYTimes.com).
Enter Clean Harbors Environmental Services who applied for a permit to build a “waste processing facility” (waste transfer station) in Sunbury in February, 2012:
Clean Harbors Environmental Services of Norwell, Mass. has applied for a permit to build a “waste processing facility” in Sunbury (Northumberland County), PA. The facility will accept up to 1,000 tons of Marcellus Shale drill cuttings, drilling mud and other materials per day. Although the waste is not toxic, some local officials are concerned and upset that the state DEP alone will make a decision about whether or not to approve the permit (Sunbury has no say in the matter). Sunbury mayor David Persing supports the new facility.
The notion that this waste will be non-toxic is ludicrous on its face: “The waste will include drill cuttings, drilling mud, plastics, batteries and other materials that will be hauled to the former Celotex site on North Front Street in Sunbury by Clean Harbors. Any liquid waste would go through one of two processes of consolidation and solidification.” But Mayor Persing remains undaunted, if willfully ignorant:
Everyone is talking about frack water coming in, but nowhere in the permit does it say anything about ‘frack water,’ but frack water waste,” he said. “The industry is so regulated currently if we find some wrong waste, DEP can track where it came from due to its composition. There is nothing corrupt going on here. The city won’t allow that.
It’s actually hard to know where to start with a claim like this. The notion that DEP has anything remotely like the capacity to track “wrong waste” is only made more laughable by the claim that the fracking industry’s waste disposal is regulated in Pennsylvania, or for that matter anywhere in any adequate fashion:
A class action lawsuit filed in Arkansas this week [10.7.12] has uncovered some very frightening information about the enormous amounts of potentially very toxic waste being generated by the oil and gas industry and how poorly it is regulated. According to a recent investigative report by ProPublica, oil and gas producers have injected 10 trillion gallons of liquid waste underground into more than 150,000 waste disposal wells in 33 states. According to ProPublica, this is often happening even when the operators know the waste disposal wells are out of compliance and could leak… The lawsuit and the ProPublica report add to the growing evidence that oil and gas waste in the U.S. is not sufficiently regulated. Not only are the rules too weak, thanks to Congress giving the industry a free pass to pollute years ago, but those on the books are not being enforced. Both state and federal regulators are overwhelmed. Even when violations are found, the penalties are so small that they are not an incentive for companies to clean up their act.
In other words, with respect to waste disposal wells, there’s practically no regulation, and even where there’s the pretense, the fines are so minor, they function effectively as a “get out of jail free” card to the industry. Think this gets any better with waste disposal processing plants—like the one proposed for Sunbury? Think again. A body no less highly esteemed that the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) is so certain that cities and towns are not prepared for the construction of such sites that they strongly recommend to New Yorkers that the state maintain its moratorium on fracking until far greater regulatory oversight is firmly in place: “States such as New York that are considering fracking should not move forward until the available wastewater disposal options are fully evaluated and safeguards are in place to address the risks and impacts identified in this report” (http://www.nrdc.org/energy/files/Fracking-Wastewater-FullReport.pdf). How then are companies like Moran Industries allowed to get away with the claim that what they’re transporting is non-toxic? From the NRDC report:
State regulations govern the handling, storage, and transport of shale gas wastewater prior to its ultimate disposal. Oil and gas wastes are currently exempt from the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which generally regulates the handling and disposal of waste. A 1980 amendment to the statute exempted oil and gas wastes from coverage under RCRA for two years. In the meantime, it directed the EPA to determine whether regulation of those wastes under RCRA was warranted. In 1988, the EPA made a determination that such regulation was not warranted. Consequently, oil and gas wastes remain exempt from the hazardous waste provisions of RCRA. This means that natural gas operators transporting shale gas wastewater, along with the POTWs, CWTs, and any other facilities receiving it, are not transporting or receiving “hazardous” wastes and thus do not need to meet the cradle-to-grave safeguards established by RCRA regulations. In the absence of federal regulations, states regulate the handling, storage, and transport of shale gas wastewater. In Pennsylvania, wastewater from industrial operations is classified as nonhazardous, and it must be managed and disposed of in accordance with the state’s Solid Waste Management Act.
In other words, that waste isn’t non-toxic; it’s “non-toxic”: exempted from any regulation that would identify it as such—no matter how hazardous, explosive, carcinogenic, bio-cidal, neurologically perilous, or otherwise dangerous it is. How handy for John Moran, Clean Harbors—and the mayor who would be king of “his” city, Dave Persing. Ready to move to Sunbury? Think the property you already own anywhere near the Celotex site is likely to retain its value once Clean Harbors has set up shop? Apparently Mayor Persing thinks so. In fact, he’s so comfortable with Clean Harbors he apparently doesn’t want to bother them with the inconvenience of a visit to the Sunbury Zoning Board. As reported by the Daily Item, 4.9.12:
Two Sunbury councilmen asked why Mayor David Persing wants to clean up the city, then allow 1,000 tons of residual waste to be brought into the community. In a heated debate about a proposed waste transfer station that Clean Harbors Environmental Services, of Norwell, Mass., wants on the former Celetox site, now owned by Moran Industries, Councilmen Todd Snyder and Joe Bartello said they wanted to protect city residents. The debate began after Bartello informed the council he was going to send a letter to Clean Harbors informing company officials they must appear before the Sunbury Zoning Board. Bartello told council he wanted to inform the company it would be violating city zoning ordinances because of dust, refuse matter, smoke, odor, gas, fumes and noise. “They haven’t even begun anything yet,” Councilman Jim Eister said. “How can we tell them what they are doing?” Snyder exploded. “They have made it clear what they want to do at the site,” he said. “I have real concerns with why we are not worrying about the residents of Sunbury on any of this. We say we are going to clean up blighted properties and yet we are going to allow 1,000 tons of trash from Clean Harbors in our city. Why is that?” Clean Harbors may accept 1,000 tons of Marcellus Shale industry-generated residual waste per day. Waste will be in liquid and solid form.
And here’s the really skanky part: the very next day, the Daily Item reports that our intrepid Mayor Persing had in fact met with John Moran and together they undertook a 20 minute walk through the Celotex site. Persing insisted that 20 minutes wasn’t enough time to talk about anything else other than what was on the site. Yet, in the same article, Persing also insists that he knows that “a hundred trucks a day go down Front Street with much worse materials on them.”
How does Mayor Persing know that? Answer: he doesn’t. Dave Persing hasn’t spent a half second researching frack waste, the relevant failure of governing regulation, or Clean Harbors’ record of environmental disaster. If he had, he might have found himself a bit less sanguine about whether to trust the corporation’s claims. From a 2007 report:
A Norwell company has agreed to spend over $1.7 million to settle allegations of violations at its hazardous-waste facility in Braintree. The US Environmental Protection Agency said the Braintree facility of Clean Harbors Inc., a hazardous-materials management and disposal services company, was in violation of nearly 30 regulations from both the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act. The violations included inadequate waste characterization, failure to properly maintain hazardous waste tanks, inadequate secondary contaminant for waste containers, and improper storage of incompatible waste, the EPA said. Additionally, inspections found that many of the company’s hazardous-waste tanks were deteriorating. Resulting EPA monitoring showed releases of emissions that contribute to smog coming from some of the tanks. The EPA issued an administrative order in July 2007 ordering Clean Harbors to address many of the issues that “could have posed a danger to human health or the environment,” a release said… In addition to infrastructure upgrades, Clean Harbors will pay $650,000 in civil penalties for the 2007 violations. Additionally, the company will spend $1,062,500 on 1,400 trees in low-income and historically disadvantaged environmental justice areas in Boston to settle a complaint filed by the US Department of Justice on behalf of the EPA, regarding the numerous hazardous waste management and emergency planning violations at the company’s Braintree facility.
Let’s highlight and translate: “inadequate waste characterization”: Clean Harbors lied about what it was “processing”; “failure to properly maintain hazardous waste tanks, inadequate secondary contaminant for waste containers, and improper storage of incompatible waste”: Clean Harbors doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about safety. “Clean Harbors will pay $650,000 in civil penalties for the 2007 violations. Additionally, the company will spend $1,062,500 on 1,400 trees in low-income and historically disadvantaged environmental justice areas in Boston”: Clean Harbors picks on poor folks in poor and/or blighted neighborhoods for its operations knowing that the people who live there won’t likely put up much of a stink about the pollution to which they’re being exposed—in this case for decades before the EPA acted. Unconvinced? Think the Massachusetts case is an anomaly? Hardly. Clean Harbors means nothing but environmental hazard and labor abuses from Massachusetts to California (http://www.randomlengthsnews.com/blogs/Notebook/2012/07/scalers-union-tells-clean-harbors-to-clean-up-its-act/).
And whether Mayor Persing gets that last point or not, that’s why Clean Harbors picked Sunbury, a Pennsylvania city with one of the highest unemployment rates in the Commonwealth—11% in 2010, a dwindling tax base, a school district—Shikellamy—that has the highest number of students who live in families in poverty, a poverty rate of 18.1% (http://www.cityofsunbury.com/Documents/2012%2004%2009.pdf), and an all but abandoned site that a guy like John Moran just can’t wait to sell them so he can make a little more moola to take his buddy—the eminently corrupt Governor Tom Corbett—on vacation (Natural-gas exec paid for Corbett 2011 vacation). Hell’s bells, if Moran can work the “fast-moving” Marcellus Shale industry to his advantage fast enough, he’ll be able to beat the $79, 750 campaign donation he made to Corbett’s 2008 bid for the governorship, and buy himself the kind of guarantee we’ve come to expect from extraction industry appointments like DEP head Michael—I never met a fracker I didn’t like— Krancer, namely, that the only thing regulated with respect to Clean Harbors will be the Sunbury citizens’ right to live their lives protected from toxic exposures.
Turns out, moreover, that John Moran is a very special guy.
No wonder Persing felt lucky to get that 20 minutes stroll through scenic Celotex. Not only did Moran’s wife, Ann, get appointed by Governor Corbett in 2011 to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in exchange for that chunk of donation-change (denials by Corbett representatives notwithstanding) (Businessman’s wife appointed to commission » The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA), Moran’s got his own version of the Halliburton Loophole in the special exemption of the Clean Railroads Act (2008) that exempts oil and gas waste transport near rail stations. What a lucky break for the guy who stands to make raft-loads of cash transporting frack-waste to Clean Harbors Sunbury facility:
This oil and gas loophole is now having real impacts. According to a recent article from Pennsylvania from Below, the residents of Sunbury, Pennsylvania are discovering what a dirty and risky problem the CRA loophole can be. Without warning to nearby residents or local officials, a company called Moran Industries opened an oil and gas waste transfer facility in January, 2011 at a site with an old rail connection in their neighborhood. Residents report that trucks filled with natural gas production waste now rumble through their neighborhood, where the waste is loaded onto railcars at the site before being transported to Ohio. The material looks like a combination of soil and rock, and has a strong chemical odor. The residents want answers about what is contained in the waste, but have no way of knowing if it contains hazardous chemicals. Given the presence of highly toxic substances in natural gas waste, including the naturally-occurring radioactive materials in Pennsylvania’s natural gas fields, their concern is legitimate…Moran claims the site is being operated by or on behalf of Norfolk Southern Railroad. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been investigating the site for almost a year, but has yet to determine on whose behalf it is being operated. If the DEP finds that Moran Industries is not operating on behalf of a railroad, then the site would be subject to state regulation. But the DEP has not made any indication when its decision will be made. Meanwhile, trucks full of oil and gas waste continue to unload at the site without oversight.
Advice to Moran: Probably better make that check out to the Corbett 2014 Campaign a tad bit bigger—it’s blood money, of course, but he’s earned it.
In the grand scheme of things what’s pretty clear about Mayor Persing is that he’s just out of his league. I have no reason to think he’s got the backs of his fellow Sunbury citizens. But even as the political mercenary he apparently fancies himself, Persing isn’t very good. He just doesn’t get it that he’s being used as a cheer-leading pawn to smooth out the way for a vulture industry that preys on cities just like his, and that prey on the aspiration-to-look-important he obviously harbors (no pun intended). But he’s not alone. Were I a Clean Harbors board of investors member reading the minutes of, for example, the 4.9.12 Sunbury City Council meeting I’d be peeing myself with glee at the stunning lack of even rudimentary knowledge of the fracking process, the waste disposal process, the carcinogens, the radioactive materials, the biocides, the Halliburton loopholes—and the money I’m about to make on the back of that ignorance (http://www.cityofsunbury.com/Documents/2012%2004%2009.pdf).
Thing is, the Sunbury City Council has no excuse for ignorance about a project that is going to expose its citizens rich and poor near and farther away along the Susquehanna River to the massive hazard posed by the woefully misnamed Clean Harbors.
With that environmental violation history how is it that any of these council members can sleep at night? But then again, this is the same city council who, at their 2.11.13 meeting defended Louie Gohmert, Republican House Representative of Texas for his willingness to deny basic Habeas Corpus rights (not to mention climate change)—and it was painfully clear that Mayor Persing had no more comprehension of these issues than he does of the frack waste disaster coming to Sunbury.
Indeed, I don’t know that I have ever been to a city council meeting where the effort to conceal the mutual-hand-washing corruption was done so poorly as it was between fellow councilman James Eister and Mayor Persing over what a head-nodding audience clearly recognized as a hazardous eye-sore of a property owned by Eister.
If the smug, patronizing treatment of audience members who had the temerity to challenge a council rife with “old boy” style internal collusion is par for the course in Sunbury, I can’t imagine what the scurrying to hide from responsibility will look like when something really bad happens—like a spill, a leak-an accident at Clean Harbors.
Conceal, denial, extort, dismiss seem to be the name of the game on this city council—tragically peopled by players who want to treat the construction of a frack waste processing site as if it were the building of a daycare center. Note carefully—I’m not claiming that this necessarily includes all of the council members. But it absolutely does so if the one or two who appear to have some inkling of the frack-tastrophe that could be coming don’t “grow a set” and actually do something to stop this train-wreck—literally.
Woe be to the citizens of Sunbury if they allow this to happen—and shame on anyone who votes for Dave Persing for anything ever again.