From left to right: PA State Senator Camera Bartolotta, State Rep. Josh Kail, and State Senator Elder Vogel Jr.
Residents across four counties in southwest Pennsylvania are expressing alarm over the high rate of cancer in the region, particularly among children and young adults, and are concerned that this high cancer rate may be related to environmental impacts produced by the extensive fracking industry operations in the area. Some residents in the region are also expressing concern over the public health impact of, and the potential for pipeline explosions tied to, the Shell Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex, a massive ethane cracker plant that is being built in Beaver County.
This article highlights conflicts of interests among key elected officials who represent the districts impacted by the cancer cases and the ethane cracker plant. These representatives – Pennsylvania House Representative Josh Kail and Pennsylvania State Senators Camera Bartolotta and Elder Vogel – represent districts that are home to the ethane cracker plant being built or have seen high cancer rates. According to their most recent personal financial disclosures, all three have ownership stakes in, collect direct or indirect income from, or do business personally with oil and gas companies that operate in their districts or in the broader Marcellus Shale region, and all three are major recipients of fracking industry money.
Other elected officials from southwest Pennsylvania have been some of the top recipients of fracking industry donations in the state since 2007, according to the Marcellus Money database put together by the Conservation Voters of PA, which documents donations to Pennsylvania political candidates from fracking interests.
All this raises concerns over whether these representatives’ conflicts of interest and ties to the fracking industry could hamper their ability to adequately protect residents in their districts, and whether Governor Tom Wolf should more aggressively intervene. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette notes, “[m]ore than 100 organizations and 800 individuals have signed a public letter to Gov. Tom Wolf calling on him to direct the state Department of Health to investigate potential links between shale gas development and a proliferation of childhood cancers.”
Fear and anger over cancer cases in southwest Pennsylvania
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has published a series of articles this year that document as many as 67 cases of child and young adult cancer since 2008 in just four southwestern Pennsylvania counties that are home to intensive fracking industry operations. These include 27 cases of an extremely rare cancer, Ewing sarcoma. Ewing sarcoma occurs in about one in a million people, and its cause is unknown. That 27 cases would randomly surface between 2008 and 2018 in these four counties, which together have a population of about 750,000, appears exceedingly unlikely.
The four counties discussed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporting are Washington, Greene, Fayette and Westmoreland counties. Together they constitute an epicenter of fracking operations in Pennsylvania. According to StateImpact PA, Washington County has the most fracking wells by county in the state. Greene County is ranked fourth, Fayette eighth, and Westmoreland ninth. Pennsylvania has 67 total counties. Beyond fracking wells, other aspects of fracking operations exist in these counties that could potentially have dangerous impacts on public health, such as waste disposal, pipelines, compressor stations, and processing plants.
Anger is growing among residents in the region who believe elected officials are downplaying the extent of the public health crisis and its possible ties to fracking operations.
For example, Washington County is home to the Canon-McMillan School District, which has seen six cases of Ewing sarcoma since 2008, including two since 2018. During an October 7 community meeting that was held at the request of Governor Wolf (which he did not personally attend), attendees grew upset over the state’s refusal to acknowledge a cancer cluster within the Canon-McMillan School District and the inability of Department of Health representatives to provide answers.
“The panel could not answer most questions from residents wanting to cut to the heart of concern,” reported the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, such as “whether pollution exposure from shale gas development could be causing Ewing sarcoma or any of the other rare cancers affecting preschoolers and students in the district.” The Pitt News concluded after the meeting: “Because there is so much concern and such strong suggestion that these cases might be linked to shale gas extraction, the public meeting was insultingly uninformative for parents concerned for their children’s health. The state needs to take a closer look at fracking, and it needs to do so immediately.”
Reps. Jason Ortitay and Tim O’Neal, who represent parts of Washington County in the state legislature, announced a new study on “genetic research on patients with Ewing sarcoma and their family members throughout Western Pennsylvania.” But there is one catch – “the study won’t focus on whether pollution can cause the rare childhood bone cancer,” which is exactly the question to which residents are demanding answers.
While the Canon-McMillan School District has received substantial media attention, the cancer rates there are just one expression of high rates of cancer throughout southwest Pennsylvania. For example, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that 12 cases of Ewing sarcoma – twice the number in the Canon-McMillan School District – have occurred in southeastern Westmoreland County since 2011.
Moreover, bordering Washington County is Beaver County, the site of Royal Dutch Shell’s massive new ethane cracker plant that will feed the production of plastics. As the New York Times recently reported, some Beaver residents are worried about public health issues and potential pipeline explosions tied to the plant – a pipeline close to the plant exploded in September of 2018, causing damage to nearby homes, and incinerating one – as well as its impact on climate change. The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project has published an information sheet on “Why Living Near an Ethane Cracker Complex Puts Your Health at Risk.”
The power and influence of the natural gas and petrochemical industries in these counties is significant. A host of elected officials from these countries accept big donations from the fracking industry, and, as we discuss below, at least three stand to personally profit from fracking operations.
This raises questions over whether – as health and safety concerns tied to fracking mount in the region, and as editorials call for state representatives to do more to address peoples’ concerns – these counties’ political representatives have conflicts that might hamper them from ensuring sufficient oversight of local concerns about the public health impacts fracking operations. It also points to the need for more proactive intervention, in the face of rising pleas for help, from Governor Tom Wolf in guaranteeing adequate accountability and protection for the people of southwestern Pennsylvania. (According to Marcellus Money, Wolf is the fifth biggest recipient of industry money – $149,500 – among Pennsylvania state political candidates since 2007. Another campaign finance database, FollowTheMoney.org, has logged $842,915 in total donations to Wolf from the “Energy & Natural Resources” sector. It is also worth noting that the FBI is beginning a corruption investigation into the Wolf administration’s issuing of permits to the Mariner East pipeline project, parts of which run through Washington, Allegheny, and Westmoreland counties in southwest Pennsylvania).
State Rep. Josh Kail: a newcomer who owns a stake in a fracking services company & rakes in industry donations while sponsoring pro-fracking industry bills
Joshua D. Kail, a Republican, was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 2018 to represent the state’s 15th House District, which covers parts of Beaver and Washington counties. His district contains the Shell ethane cracker plant and sections of Washington County just several miles away from the Canon-McMillan School District. His district also contains part of the Burgettstown Area School District, which has seen two cancer cases, including a case of brain cancer in a five-year old girl diagnosed in 2015, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Kail has disclosed personal financial stakes in fracking businesses. His most recent financial disclosure covering 2018 reveals three “direct or indirect sources of income” tied to the oil and gas industry. One of these is a 7% stake in Revolution Energy Services (RES), a services provider for fracking operations.
RES, which is based in McDonald, Pennsylvania, “seeks to become a premier provider of completions energy services,” according to its website. A June 25, 2019 Instagram post from the company shows fracking equipment with text that reads: “Make Fracin’ Great Again!” A September 24, 2019 Instagram post shows RES co-sponsoring a “customer appreciation” Pittsburgh Steelers tailgate party with a host of other companies tied to the fracking industry.
According to official state business filings recovered on LexisNexis, Josh Kail is a debtor for Revolution Energy Services, along with Greg Kail, who is Josh’s brother and, according to one website that aggregates data from public records, the company’s CEO. Other debtors include Jack Bowser, Brian Linn, and Zackary Piesciuk, who have also made campaign donations to Kail.
In addition to his 7% ownership stake in Revolution Energy Services, Kail lists two other companies tied to the oil and gas industry on his financial disclosure. One is Didier Energy Consulting, LLC, a consulting firm based in Kingwood, Texas, but which appears to have a presence in Pennsylvania and other states.
The other, Silver Creek Services, Inc, is a services provider for energy companies based in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. A 2016 Pittsburgh Business Times article identified Kail as the company’s general counsel. Kail lists himself as an “employee” of Silver Creek Services on his disclosure.
It appears there has been a legal conflict between Silver Creek Services and Revolution Energy Services, and one explanation may be that Greg Kail and his business partners formed Revolution Energy Services as a competing company to Silver Creek Services. A June 2018 Pennsylvania Record article states that Silver Creek Services and Silver Line Logistics sued Revolution Energy Services and Revolution Logistics LLC for “alleged breach of fiduciary duty, trade libel and unfair competition,” alleging that they “misappropriated confidential information and trade secrets and have used the information to form their businesses, Revolutionary Energy Services Inc. and Revolution Logistics LLC.” According to the Pennsylvania Record article, the suit names Greg Kail and his business partners, but there is no mention of Josh Kail.
As state representative, Josh Kail has been a big recipient of campaign donations tied to the fracking industry. Pennsylvania campaign finance records show that since 2017 he has accepted at least $18,750 from oil, gas, and coal interests, including $5,500 from Consol Energy, $5,000 from Secure Energy for America Association, an energy PAC, $3,000 from David Barensfield, who runs Ellwood Group, which makes fracking equipment, $1,500 from Marathon Petroleum, $1,000 from EQT, $1,000 from DTE Energy, $500 from Energy Transfer, and $500 from Range Resources.
If you compare Kail’s haul of $18,750 to other politicians on the website Marcellus Money, Kail is one of the top recipients of fracking industry money since 2017. (Marcellus Money tracked donations of high-profile top fracking companies and did not track donors like David Barnsfield and Ellwood Group, for example. But even withstanding this, Kail was a top recipient of fracking industry donations by Marcellus Money’s methodology).
Additionally, Kail also accepted a total of $6,062.36 from his fellow business partners for Revolution Energy Services – Jack Bowser, Mike and Hope Didier, Zachary Piesciuk, Brian Linn, and Greg Kail (Piesciuk and Linn were also named in the suit by Silver Creek Services and Silver Line Logistics mentioned above).
In the short time he’s been in office, Kail has backed significant pro-fracking legislation. For example, he’s been the prime sponsor of House Bill 1102, which, according to Kail’s memorandum, is part of his “Keystone Energy Enhancement Act” that would create a new “Keystone Energy Authority” aimed at expanding fracking industry production in the state. It would do this by authorizing “up to 20 Keystone Energy Enhancement Zones across all regions and corridors of the Commonwealth” in which “natural gas, manufacturing, petrochemical, and other downstream businesses operating within a zone” would be “eligible for state and local tax exemptions, deductions, abatements, and credits for a 10-year period.” The legislation is part of the Pennsylvania GOP’s “Energize PA” proposal to expand fracking operations in the state, though it’s currently being held up in the face of environmental concerns of some lawmakers.
That Kail has a significant personal stake in a fracking company with aspirations to “become a premier provider of completions energy services,” and that he accepts significant donations from the fracking industry while backing major pro-fracking legislation, raises questions about whether it is appropriate for him to regulate the industry as the residents of his and nearby counties face public health crises that are or may be tied to the fracking industry.
It is also unclear if the companies that Kail has a financial interest in stand to profit in any way from fracking activities in his district, including those tied to the Shell ethane cracker plant, or from the legislation he is sponsoring.
State Sen. Camera Bartolotta: a top overseer of the fracking industry who personally does business with EQT & is a big recipient of industry donations
Camera Bartolotta is a GOP State Senator who represents Pennsylvania’s Senate District 46, which includes all of Greene County and parts of parts of Beaver County and Washington County. The district that Bartolotta represents includes the Canon-McMillan School District. Numerous other cancer cases have also been documented from other school districts that exist in Bartolotta’s district. (You can see the full list of cancer cases documented by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette which includes categorization by school district here and the map of school districts in Bartolotta’s district here).
Bartolotta took office in January 2015. She currently co-chairs the Senate Gas and Oil Caucus, which she describes as “a bipartisan legislative body that focuses on issues impacting the gas and oil industry with the goal of promoting policies resulting in a positive future for constituents, the business community and state economy.”
Bartolotta is a top recipient of campaign donations from the fracking industry. From 2017 to September 2018, she was the 10th largest recipient of donations from fracking interests – she took in $16,250 – among all state politicians, accordinging to data compiled by Conservation Voters of PA. She is the 14th largest recipient of fracking industry donations among all Pennsylvania state senators since 2007 – and she has only been in office since 2015.
Bartolotta is friendly with the state’s top fracking companies. For example, EQT, which operates the 3rd most drilling wells in the state, is Bartolotta’s second largest fracking industry donor, right behind Range Resources. In August, EQT sponsored a parade celebrating the 250th anniversary of the city of Monongahela where Bartolotta served as the grand marshal.
Even more, Bartolotta personally does business with EQT, according to her financial disclosures. While her disclosure doesn’t state the nature of that financial interest, she was quoted in 2017 saying she has an “agreement for the minerals rights” on her property, which likely means she is leasing her land to EQT to drill on, and possibly profiting from that arrangement.
Beyond that, Bartolotta regularly makes public appearances with fracking industry lobbyists and advocates. For example, she recently spoke glowingly of pipelines on a pro-pipeline panel outside Pittsburgh entitled “Growing the Marcellus Shale: How Safe Pipeline Infrastructure Delivers Energy to Consumers in Pennsylvania and Allies Abroad.” She presented alongside three ex-government officials who now work for Grow America’s Infrastructure Now, a pro-pipeline organization (one of GAIN’s strategic advisors is Spider Marks, who chaired the advisory board of TigerSwan, the private security firm that worked with law enforcement to surveil and target anti-Dakota Access Pipeline protesters. One of TigerSwan’s clients is Energy Transfer, the company building the Mariner East 2 pipeline through southwest Pennsylvania. The Intercept has reported that TigerSwan is targeting protesters against Mariner East 2).
Bartolotta’s appearances at industry events does not end there. Last year she spoke at a Consumer Energy Alliance event in Harrisburg. The CEA is a fossil fuel industry-funded campaign run by a Houston-based consulting firm called HBW Resources; it was recently uncovered that the CEA ghostwrites pro-industry letters for elected officials to send to regulators. CEA also held a summit in Pittsburgh last year that featured the now-disgraced former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, as well as a host of fossil fuel industry executives.
State Sen. Elder A. Vogel Jr.: owner of stake in pipeline companies that do business in Pennsylvania & big recipient of fracking industry money
Elder A. Vogel Jr., who entered office in 2009, represents Pennsylvania Senate District 47, which includes parts of Beaver and Butler Counties as well as Lawrence County. Butler County has the 7th highest number of fracking wells among all counties in Pennsylvania. Vogel sits on Pennsylvania’s Environmental Resources & Energy Committee.
In his most recent financial disclosure, Vogel lists Penn Energy, an oil and gas acquisition and development company based in Pittsburgh, and ETC Northeast Pipeline LLC, based in Dallas, Texas, under “direct or indirect sources of income.”
ETC Northeast Pipeline, an affiliate of the oil and gas powerhouse company Energy Transfer, “owns and operates numerous pipelines in Pennsylvania used to transport petroleum and natural gas products,” according to a May 2019 court order that ordered ETC Northeast to fix damage to streams and wetlands caused by its Revolution pipeline. The Pennsylvania DEP describes the pipeline as “an approximately 40.5 mile, 24-inch diameter pipeline carrying natural gas between two processing facilities and traversing Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, and Washington Counties.” As mentioned, Vogel represents parts of Beaver and Butler Counties.
Last September, the Revolution Pipeline exploded barely a week after it began operating. “The fire shot up 150 feet in the air, damaged power lines, and sent neighbors scrambling out of their homes,” StateImpact PA reported.
Energy Transfer is also the parent company of Sunoco, the company behind the Mariner East pipeline system, whose pipelines have been a source of major concern and controversy in the Pennsylvania for years
Vogel has raked in $40,250 from the natural gas industry, including $7,000 from Chesapeake, his top industry donor, since 2007 – the 26th most of any state politician during that time and the 9th most of any state senator.
Other Southwest PA representatives have taken big fracking industry money
Aside from Kail, Bartolotta, and Vogel, other elected representatives of Washington, Greene, Fayette, Westmoreland, and Beaver Counties have been some of the top recipients of fracking industry money among all state politicians since 2007. Data from Marcellus Money reveals that:
- Tim Solobay, who represented Camera Bartolotta’s State Senate District 46 before her, from January 2011 to January 2015, accepted at least $142,442 from fracking interests – the 6th most of any Pennsylvania state politician since 2007. Solobay was also a member of the Pennsylvania State House from 1999 to 2010. Gov. Wolf named Solobay the State Fire Commissioner in 2015, but Solobay resigned in December 2017 over a sexual harassment allegation against him by his former aide from when he was State Senator.
- Rep. Pam Snyder, who represents State House District 50, which includes parts of Fayette and Washington Counties and all of Greene County, has accepted $68,850 from fracking interests – the 14th most of any Pennsylvania state politician since 2007.
- Rep. John A. Maher, who represented State House District 40, which includes parts of Allegheny and Washington Counties, from September 1997 to January 2019, took in $70,250 in fracking industry money since 2007 – the 12th most of any Pennsylvania state politician since 2007.
- Rep. Jim Christiana, who represented State House District 15, which includes parts of Beaver County, from January 2009 to January 2019, took in $46,900 in fracking industry money since 2007 – the 21st most of any Pennsylvania state politician since 2007. Josh Kail now holds the same house seat that Christiana held for a decade.
- Rep. Rich Kasunic, who represented State Senate District 32 from 1995 to 2015, which includes all of Fayette and Somerset Counties and part of Westmoreland County, accepted $31,650 in fracking industry money since 2007 – the 30th most of any Pennsylvania state politician since 2007.
- Rep. Mike Reese, who represents State House District 59, which includes part of Westmoreland and Somerset Counties, has accepted $25,075 in fracking industry money since 2007 – the 35th most of any Pennsylvania state politician since 2007.
- Rep. Jason Ortitay, who represents State House District 46, which includes parts of Allegheny and Washington counties, has accepted $22,800 in fracking industry money since 2015 – the 37th most of any Pennsylvania state politician since 2007.
When considering where the elected officials rank among all state elected officials in fracking industry donations since 2007, it’s worth noting that this is among all state officials (Executive positions, House, Senate) and that Pennsylvania currently has 203 House Seats and 50 Senate seats. It should also be noted that Marcellus Money’s calculations are more conservative than other campaign finance search engines, such as FollowTheMoney.org, which reports higher industry donations to some officials.