EXCLUSIVE: State Lawmaker Uses State-Specific Endangered Species to Gut State Endangered Species List: Doesn’t Want Commonwealth at “Competitive Disadvantage”

Editor’s Note: State Senator John Gordner was contacted for this story.  He did not return our emails or phone calls.  The Raging Chicken Press has filed Right to Know Requests against the House and Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committees on this subject.  We will be following this story as it develops. 

In a letter obtained by Raging Chicken Press, State Senator John Gordner tries to divide the environmental community as a cynical tactic to gain support for Senate Bill 1047, which is the Pennsylvanian Senate’s version of the Endangered Species Coordination Act.   In a letter to a constituent, Mr. Gordner cites an incident that occurred in October 2009 when, as he puts is, the spadefoot toad impeded the construction of a solar panel farm in Milton, Pennsylvania.  The project that Senator Gordner discussed in the letter was never started, but the spadefoot toad wasn’t the main cause for the project’s failure.

In the letter, which is provided at the end of the article, Senator Gordner writes:

Senate Bill 1047 also ensures that consistent and accepted data be utilized by state agencies when making such determinations, and provides for more public oversight by subjecting proposed designations through the existing Independent Regulatory Review Process.

Such a process would have allowed for construction of a proposed solar energy farm near Milton in my Senate District, which was halted because of an adverse species designation by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.  During the planning for the property development, the Commission classified the Spade Foot Toad as a Pennsylvania-specific species.  The toad which exists in abundant numbers throughout the east coast, was present on this property and the designation halted the development of the solar farm.  

Because the Commission has unique rulemaking powers outside of the public regulatory review process, the designation of the toad as endangered was approved despite questions over the Commissions’ methodology and considerable disagreement by independent biologists over the necessity of the designation.  Now six years later, the Commission is revising it’s designation and proposing to de-list the Spade Foot Toad from the endangered list (PA Bulletin June 15).

Senate Bill 1047 would avoid situations like this and others that have halted many worthwhile projects.  It strikes an appropriate balance between the need to protect critical habitat and species while not putting the Commonwealth at a competitive disadvantage (emphasis added).

In our first story on House Bill 1576, the companion legislation to Senate Bill 1047, Raging Chicken Press highlighted inconsistencies with Representative Pyle’s motivations for writing the legislation.  When speaking to Raging Chicken Press, Representative Pyle’s motivation for the legislation dates back to November 2012 when the Armstrong School District was conducting a renovation project for Kittanning High School and was, according to Pyle, “shaken down” for  $61,800 when “hunting for imaginary bats.”  The Armstrong School Board approved the $61,800 donation to a local bat fund by a 5-1 vote.  At the same time of the renovation project at the Kittanning High School, Amerikohl Mining, whose CEO is one of Representative Pyle’s largest campaign contributors, sued the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service for a series of donations, over $317,000, to the Indiana Bat Fund – the exact same program to which the Armstrong School District was required to contribute.

In his letter to his constituent, State Senator John Gordner’s main argument contradicts local media accounts of the project’s failure, but that didn’t stop Senator Gordner for squarely blaming the spadefoot toad to bolster his support for Senate Bill 1047.  On October 14, 2009, the Daily Item stated that the “Milton Borough Council approved a $32 million plan to build the largest solar farm east of the Mississippi.”  The solar farm project, which was spearheaded by Maria Culp from the Central Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce, would have been  20 acres and house 26,000 solar panels.  However, the location of the solar farm was inhabited by the eastern spadefoot toad, and the project manager Robert M. Irwin stated:

“Knowing that, we did some environmental studies and learned that we will not be impacting the breeding site for the toad”… “In fact, we now know that the posting of the solar panels on the land will have less of an impact on the environment, and the toads, than the current use of the land, which is being used for farming.”

Then on January 15, 2010, the Environmental Leader acknowledged that  the eastern spadefoot toad was the only viable option for the land because:

the industrial park in Milton, Pa., for years had wanted to expand by adding more buildings on a 42-acre plot that is a primary breeding ground for the endangered eastern spadefoot toad.

The expansion of the industrial park would have decimated the toad population, which is endangered in Pennsylvania.  It would have  brought a 6 megawatt, $32 million solar farm, and powered 80% of the 1,800 homes in that area.  When asking why the project was halted, I was able to speak to Milton Township officials.  The township claimed that this was a project put together by the local Chamber of Commerce, and that there were many problems with the project; funding for the project being the main issue.

Then in September 2010, almost a year after the original proposal, project leader and Chamber of Commerce CEO Maria Culp claimed that the project was only months away from breaking ground.  An article by the Standard Journal, pointed out that project might have “fallen through” because the Chamber had not purchased property near the proposed location, which goes against the Public Utility Commission’s regulations.  The article stated:

According to Culp, the solar farm project is based on the concept of net metering, where the owner of a property has something done on their property to generate power. Under PUC regulations, Culp said net metering projects require the owner of the property to receive at least some power from the project.

When asked if the project would have fallen through had the chamber not purchased the property for its offices in close vicinity to the proposed location for the solar farm, Culp said that “remains to be seen.”

Once the solar farm is up and running, Culp said the chamber will save five cents per kilowatt hour in its electricity bill. That rate will increase over the 20-year term of the lease. However, she said the increases have been predetermined.

Senator Gordner’s case weakens even further.  The National Wind Watcher points out that those associated with the project – Justin Dunkerlberger and Maria Culp – have had other projects fall through because of financing complications.   The article points out that Northumberland County agreed to a 75 acre Sunbury wind farm, and states:

More than a year ago, the county learned that Penn Wind in Sunbury was looking to sell its interest in the project. However, on Thursday, county board Chairman Frank Sawicki said he spoke with a Penn Wind representative about a month ago and was told the plans are moving along.

“I have no idea what that means,” he said. “We’re waiting on Penn Wind.”

A call to Penn Wind owner Justin Dunkelberger was not returned Thursday.

A call was put out to the Central Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce to speak with Maria Culp on this topic, but the Chamber stated that she was no longer with the organization….

Like the Penn Wind project, the status of another major alternative energy proposal in Northumberland County, a $32 million, 20-acre solar farm in Milton, is uncertain.

Maria Culp, president of the Central Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce and chairwoman of the Milton Area Industrial Development Association, which is funding the construction, did not return a call Thursday.

Stacy Richards, director of SEDA-Council of Governments’ Energy Resource Center, said she’s not privy to the details of the two area projects, but said financing these type of plans is complicated. 

These inconsistencies suggest that Senator Gordner is using one relative small issue out of many from a failed project to push “business friendly” changes in how Pennsylvania protects state-specific threatened and  endangered species.   In his letter, Mr. Gordner’s position on changing how the endangered species act is quite clear.  They have little to do with making the system more efficient and everything to do with making Pennsylvania “business friendly,” so the Commonwealth is not “at a competitive disadvantage.”  In the letter, Mr. Gordner proclaims that Senate Bill 1047, and House Bill 1576, will make Pennsylvania consistent with the Federal Endangered Species Act for the first time will legalize the habitat destruction of state-specific endangered species, like the spadefoot toad, “which exists in abundant numbers throughout the east coast.”

The importance of a state-specific endangered species list is extremely important. What do you think would be the fate of the spadefoot toad would be if all the other states in the country allowed for their habitat destruction?  A question like this is a no-brainer; but, Mr. Gordner’s assumptions flies in the face of scientific logic.  According to the State Environmental Resource Center, states “have repeatedly been the nation’s principal laboratories for policy change.”  In a memo on this issue, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Committee states that:

These bills appear to provide protection only to federally listed threatened and endangered species that are rare within Pennsylvania,but not globally rare will be protected.  Effectively conserving species at the state level prevents regional and range-wide declines that require federal listings…

Sixty-two species are currently listed by the PFBC as threatened and endangered in Pennsylvania.  Re-evaluating listing status within two years will be virtually impossible, which means that many species will go unprotected.

For those who know the history of Pennsylvania, one thing is certain about Senate Bill 1047 and House Bill 1576.  These pieces of legislation will set the environmental and conservation movements back to the days before Gifford Pinchot.  Passing regulation that effectively casts over 60 state-specific threatened and endangered species to the curb will send the environmental movement back to the late 1880’s when the Commonwealth lost over 60% of its forests to coal, oil and lumber.

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About Sean Kitchen 681 Articles
Contributor and Assistant Editor for the Raging Chicken Press. Stationed in Harrisburg covering politics in the capitol. You can send tips to sean@rcpress.org or reach me on twitter at @RCPress_Sean!
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  1. Former DEP Chief Weighs in on Endangered Species Legislation; Cites Pennsylvania Chamber in Support of Legislation | Raging Chicken Press


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