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Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and executive director of Bay Journal Media. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

PA environment secretary resigns amid email flap

  • May 21, 2016

Pennsylvania Environment Secretary John Quigley abruptly resigned late Friday in the wake of a controversy over private emails sent to environmental activists said to be critical of the state legislature.

The emails reportedly sparked the office of Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, to announce an inquiry into the emails earlier in the day. Quigley’s resignation came a few hours later.

Wolf named Patrick McDonnell, most recently the Department of Environmental Protection director of policy, as acting secretary of the DEP.

“I thank John Quigley for his service to the commonwealth, and I look forward to working with Patrick McDonnell,” Wolf said in a brief statement.

Quigley, who had also served as secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources during the administration of former Gov. Ed Rendell, was popular with environmental groups. But he had difficulty steering legislation through the Republican-controlled General Assembly, where he reportedly had clashed with some Democrats as well.

Recently he had been working to fend off legislation that would undermine stricter natural gas drilling regulations that the department had recently enacted, as well as a bill that would allow the General Assembly to block DEP’s plans to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which requires reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

According to published reports, Quigley sent a fiery email to environmental groups after several Democrats broke from the administration on the greenhouse gas bill. Some of the lawmakers were subsequently targeted for ads by the groups, including one for which he had recently worked. But the exact content of the emails has not been publicly released.

John Yudichak, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, said Quigley had shown “poor judgement” in sending the emails and lacked the ability to work with legislators.

David Masur, president of the environmental advocacy group PennEnvironment, told the Associated Press that Quigley had been a strong advocate for the environment and public health in Harrisburg, "where they often don't have one.”

"It's unfortunate that this firestorm of innuendo and what feels like a witch hunt played a role in his departure," Masur said.

Quigley led a department which had suffered a steady series of budget cuts over the past decade, and faced increasing responsibilities, including grappling with impacts from the rapid expansion of natural gas drilling in the state, as well as pressure from the EPA to accelerate its Chesapeake Bay cleanup activities.

“There are many holes we’re trying to climb out of,’’ he told the Bay Journal in a recent interview. “The Chesapeake Bay is only one of them.”

Pennsylvania has lagged so far in its Bay commitments that the EPA last year withheld $3 million in state grants until it developed a plan to “reboot” its Chesapeake related activities, which was released in January.

The EPA had called for the department to ramp up state inspections, but Quigley said doing so was difficult because his agency’s enforcement program had been hollowed out by budget cuts and the overall workforce had declined 14 percent over the past decade.

“The turn-over of the DEP Secretary comes at an extremely bad time," said Lee Ann Murray, assistant executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in the state. "Pennsylvania was just starting to address the fact it remains significantly off-track toward reaching its clean water goals. Now it is incumbent upon the Wolf Administration to ensure the work to reduce pollution in local rivers and streams remains a top priority and DEP and other agencies accelerate efforts and get back on track with this important task."

David Hess, who served as DEP secretary in the administrations of former Republican Governors Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker, said “there is no doubt Secretary Quigley was a tireless advocate for the environment and for the survival of DEP as an effective agency, something it is on the edge of losing these days.

“He raised uncomfortable questions many people did not want to face about the kinds of environmental protection programs we want going forward as a Commonwealth. That job is tough, especially in this day and age,” added Hess, who now produces the Pennsylvania Environment Digest. “Could he have made different decisions here or there or approached some issues or legislators from a different direction? Sure, but the key — as Theodore Roosevelt said — he was the man in the arena.”

Prior to serving as DEP secretary, Quigley had a diverse career in the nonprofit, public, and private sectors, including eight years as the mayor of the City of Hazleton, government relations manager with Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, and management positions with industry-leading companies.

McDonnell most recently oversaw the DEP’s regulation and policy development processes. In addition, he also ran the State Energy Office and was charged with coordination of renewable energy and energy efficiency issues.

Prior to returning to DEP, he worked at the state Public Utility Commission, focusing on electric, natural gas and water issues as well as cybersecurity and the impact of environmental regulation on energy markets. Before that, he spent 13 years with DEP in a variety of roles, including serving as deputy secretary for administration, where he managed the budget, human resources, information technology and oversaw the facilities management functions of the agency.

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About Karl Blankenship

Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and executive director of Bay Journal Media. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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Briget Shields on May 24, 2016:

I think it's finally becoming a reality the damage the gas industry is having on PA. From the beginning our government has failed to educate the tax paying public on the benefits and risks involved with UNG. It's been a green light for the industry and the DEP is a revolving door for the industry. Look where former DEP officials go to work after they leave. Not to mention that "understaffed" is used as an excuse for neglecting the people who have been harmed. Our government hasn't acknowledged the negative impacts nor have they come to the aid of the people by making the industry fix the problems they created. They just continue to allow the DEP to permit an industry that has a record of violations without considering the health and safety of the people they were elected to protect. What other industry can do that? Until our legislators understand and get educated on the solutions renewable energy could have we will continue to be the sacrifice zone for the gas industry. No amount of regulations will make it safe. New studies come out daily proving the health impacts. Water contamination is NOW proven to be a factor and air quality, well, we all know where PA is in the line of poor air quality. It's time for the big boys to do their homework and stop listening to the one side by wealthy gas lobbyists and realize we can create jobs, manufacture and produce renewable energy right here, right now. They just can' say no to the money. We all know it'a all about the money!

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