The state Department of Environmental Protection should not throw hissy fits.
But that's what it did last week, turning up its nose at a House Democratic Policy Committee hearing in Washington County.
The hearing was convened to discuss local residents' concerns over Marcellus Shale drilling in the area. DEP was invited to send representatives. Not only did it decline, its response seethed with disdain:
"DEP's attention is focused on our core mission of protecting the environment, not wasting time on political theater. When our staff and the Secretary are invited to legislative hearings and other meetings that are productive and professional, and are arranged to further the discussion on critical issues, we are willing to attend."
Well! How could any citizen of Pennsylvania not feel warm and fuzzy about our environmental watchdog after reading that?
No doubt the agency believed it was being set up to look bad by state Rep. Jesse White, who convened the hearing.
The DEP's relationship with White is testy, to say the least. White has accused the DEP of "misconduct and fraud" in environmental testing related to natural gas and is sponsoring a bill that would compel the agency to release full results of any testing it conducts. Hearing witnesses included representatives of Clean Water Action, PennEnvironment and Earthworks, as well as local residents.
The department believes it has been more than patient with what it views as White's unfair attacks. As DEP Director of Communications Katherine Gresh told the Business Journal: "We have communicated extensively with Rep. White on this issue. We have addressed (local residents') cases and have a history of the investigative work we have done."
So, DEP is fed up with the matter. But wouldn't its case have been better served by keeping cool? Participating in political theater may be a drag, but it comes with being in politics.
In my view, the agency should have shown up, taken its lumps and presented its case. If the facts were on its side — and if they aren't, then we have big problems indeed — White and crew would look shrill, and DEP would look responsible and professional by contrast.
Instead, DEP chose to sound petulant, or as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put it, "snotty." An Allentown Morning Call columnist compared the agency to the Mississippi officials who stonewalled the federal government on civil rights in the 1960s.
I couldn't help but recall what Dr. Winston Porter, the former EPA administrator I blogged about last week, said about a regulator's role:
"As a regulator, I always found the important thing was not to leave anybody out. People at the local level don't want to be lectured, 'Here it is, take it or leave it.' You've got to have a lot of good public hearings, and a lot of good input. Because (local people) are out there in the real world. Right down the street, people are fracking."
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