Western Pennsylvania has become a popular destination for the heads of President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), especially visits to companies with a history of environmental violations.
Less than two months after getting sworn in as EPA chief, Scott Pruitt visited a coal mine south of Pittsburgh to announce his “back-to-basics” strategy and declare the “war on coal is done.”
On Monday, Andrew Wheeler made his first visit out of Washington as acting EPA administrator. He traveled to the Pittsburgh suburbs to visit the regional headquarters of Range Resources, the largest natural gas producer in Pennsylvania but one with a poor environmental record.
Pruitt used a photo op at the Harvey coal mine in Sycamore, Pennsylvania in April 2017 — in the early stages of his tenure as EPA administrator — to emphasize his commitment to rolling back environmental regulations on the coal industry.
The Harvey mine, owned by Consol Energy, is part of the Bailey Mine Complex. In 2016, Consol Energy was fined $3 million, as part of a settlement agreement with the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice, for violating the Clean Water Act by discharging contaminated mine wastewater from the Bailey Mine Complex into tributaries of the Ohio River.
Wheeler, however, did not use his visit to western Pennsylvania to make any grand announcements about policy changes at the EPA. On the trip, though, he did meet with a company that has a history of confrontational relations with landowners and environmental groups.
Range Resources moved into Pennsylvania in the mid-2000s. Since then, the company has seen remarkable growth in its drilling activity. But at the same time, the company has violated the state’s environmental laws — at its drilling sites and other operations — more than a hundred times.
The visits by the two EPA chiefs to western Pennsylvania — along with Trump’s regular visits to the state during the campaign and since becoming president — perhaps demonstrate how Republicans view Pennsylvania as important to Trump winning a second term. Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 with 48 percent of the vote versus 47 percent for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama easily won the state in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.
In a statement about his trip to western Pennsylvania, Wheeler emphasized it is vitally important to meet with “stakeholders in the states — industry and environmental groups alike — to solicit their input and provide them with certainty and clarity with respect to EPA’s action.”
After holding a roundtable with local business leaders, Wheeler also visited the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to learn about the group’s work to restore and preserve the region’s clean water supply, forests, and wildlife.
In its news release about Wheeler’s visit to western Pennsylvania, the EPA included laudatory statements from natural gas industry officials and local leaders.
“Acting administrator Wheeler’s agenda — focused on commonsense policies and smart regulations that encourage the responsible natural gas development — will help ensure that the United States continues to emerge as a dominant global energy leader,” said David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an influential trade group for natural gas producers in the region.
And in response to Wheeler’s visit to Range Resource’s Pennsylvania offices, Dennis Degner, senior vice president of operations for the company, said he was “proud” to show the administrator and his team around. In the statement Degner added that his company, along with many of its peers, “is implementing best-in-class emissions management technologies and practices on our natural gas well sites.”
Since entering Pennsylvania in the mid-2000s, however, Range Resources has spent considerable time dealing with environmental violations. In February 2016, for example, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection listed 44 of the company’s well sites in Washington and Allegheny in southwestern Pennsylvania as out of compliance with a law that requires operators clean up sites within nine months of drilling a well.
Range Resources had a good reputation in the early years of the fracking boom in Pennsylvania. But things changed toward the end of the 2000s; Range Resources was tagged with 163 environmental violations for the period from 2008 to 2011, according to an analysis by environmental group PennEnvironment.
In September 2014, Range Resources was hit with the largest environmental penalty in Pennsylvania history to date. State environmental regulators fined the company $4.15 million for six leaking waste ponds and ordered the company to close five of them for good.
The company also is known for using military language to describe how it deals with members of the public opposed to the company’s drilling operations. At a 2011 industry conference, Matt Pitzarella, former director of corporate communications and public affairs for Range Resources, spoke about overcoming public concerns about the fracking process.
“We have several former psy ops folks that work for us at Range because they’re very comfortable in dealing with localized issues and local governments,” Pitzarella said at the conference, according to a recording of the session made by Sharon Wilson, a senior organizer with environmental group Earthworks. “Really all they do is spend most of their time helping folks develop local ordinances and things like that. But very much having that understanding of psy ops in the Army and in the Middle East has applied very helpfully here for us in Pennsylvania.”